ALBANY — The only statewide seat without an incumbent this election year has drawn four Democrats into a primary for attorney general where the candidates’ liberal Democratic backgrounds show few significant differences in goals, a shared target in the Trump administration and a need to show independence from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Party-endorsed candidate and New York City Public Advocate Letitia James faces Fordham Law School professor Zephyr Teachout, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of Cold Spring in Putnam County, and corporate attorney and civil rights lawyer Leecia Eve for the party's nomination. The seat became vacant in May, when two-term Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman resigned after four women he dated accused him of abuse.
All four Democratic candidates promise to increase the office's investigation of corruption and sexual harassment as well as to pick up where Schneiderman left off — investigating and criticizing President Donald Trump.
But they also face a new task of showing they will be independent of Cuomo. Although James, a former aide to Cuomo, has benefited in raising funds from Cuomo’s endorsement of her, her tie to the governor has also become a campaign issue for the candidates seeking to make the attorney general’s office a strong enforcer against government corruption.
In the past two years, the former top leaders of the Senate and Assembly, and two of Cuomo's former top aides were convicted on federal corruption charges.
“It’s obviously a top priority of the next attorney general,” Maloney said before a community meeting in Albany. He said he would coordinate more with local district attorneys who have greater criminal jurisdiction than the attorney general, as well as with federal prosecutors to expand the reach of the office.
“The attorney general can do a lot, but you never really are going to fix the problem until you change law,” said Maloney, a congressman from the Hudson Valley and a former top aide to President Bill Clinton and Govs. Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson.
Maloney referred to a state law that has frustrated past attorneys general, including Cuomo: An attorney general needs a referral from the governor to start most corruption probes, including those into the executive and legislative branches.
Cuomo had sought to end that requirement when he was attorney general, but as governor, has refused to provide a blanket referral, citing concerns about the constitutionality of the move.
“What we need now, more than anything, is an independent fighter in the office of attorney general,” James said at a recent debate. She said it is “absolutely, critically important” to have a blanket referral to probe corruption. She also has focused on protecting civil rights and worker protections.
She hasn’t directly criticized Cuomo, but described him as having a “strong personality” and being “very peculiar,” without elaborating.
“The next attorney general of New York has to be very clear that she is independent from the governor and that she is willing to call him out and investigate his administration,” said Teachout, who challenged and lost to Cuomo in the 2014 governor's race. She wrote a book on public corruption and also specializes in corporate malfeasance.
“We need a strong, fearless advocate, now more than ever,” said Eve, who has worked for Cuomo and former Sens. Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden. “I am that woman.”
Eve, a Manhattan lawyer who grew up in Buffalo, said she would replace the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which was created by Cuomo and has been criticized by good-government advocates and some of its members as being too close to Cuomo.
Maloney would reconfigure JCOPE to be independent from the governor and legislative leaders who appointment the panel's members.
Teachout referred to the panel as “J-Joke” and called for “a truly independent” body that doesn’t operate in the secrecy granted JCOPE.
James wants to throw out JCOPE and replace it with a body “with teeth.”
But the race has raised the most attention among liberal Democrats, who traditionally dominate primaries, when the candidates talk about taking on Trump.
All four candidates said they would use state laws to force the release of Trump's personal tax returns, which he has refused to provide, despite a tradition among presidential candidates of making those documents public during a campaign.
Attorney General Barbara Underwood, who was appointed after Schneiderman's departure and who isn’t seeking a full term, has begun a suit against the Trump Foundation over alleged self-dealing that could violate state charity laws.
Schneiderman had sued Trump, his administration and his foundation based in New York repeatedly to try to block measures aimed at deporting immigrants who are in the country without documents, eroding abortion and voting rights, threatening gay and transgender rights, and other measures.
The Democratic candidates said they would continue those fights with Trump.
“It’s outrageous what this president has done and for me, as attorney general, it will be priority one,” Eve said.
“We are in a wartime for our democracy right now and the next attorney general from the State of New York is arguably the most important legal officer in the country to protect our core rights,” said Teachout, who has been part of a continuing lawsuit against Trump and his businesses while he has been president.
“We are at a pivotal point,” said James, “because all our rights are at stake and the White House is an affront to our democracy.”
“What we are confronted with is an extraordinary effort to bring us backward,” said Maloney, who was elected six years ago as the first openly gay congressman from New York. “I’ve been on the front lines with the knuckleheads from the tea party and now Donald Trump.”
The July 31 poll by the Siena Research Institute found 42 percent of those most likely to vote in the Democratic primary were undecided in the race. James had 25 percent of the vote, Maloney had 16 percent, Teachout had 13 percent and Eve, 4 percent.
However, the four candidates have stepped up their campaigns since then and held a debate in Manhattan on Aug. 28.
James, in part with help from Cuomo, had $1.2 million in her campaign account in the August filing. That compares with $795,071 for Maloney, $473,334 for Teachout, and $159,552 for Eve. Maloney, however, showed a bit more momentum by collecting $696,248 in July, compared with James’ $434,294.
The winner goes on to face GOP nominee Keith Wofford, a Manhattan-based bankruptcy lawyer, in November.