Democratic candidates for state attorney general debate Tuesday night at...

Democratic candidates for state attorney general debate Tuesday night at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. From left, they are Letitia James, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, Leecia Eve and Zephyr Teachout. Credit: Pool/The New York Times via AP/Holly Pickett

The four Democratic candidates seeking the party’s nomination for state attorney general swung hard at each other Tuesday night in a televised debate, trying to stand out and show their independence in a tight field of progressives as the Sept. 13 primary drew near.

The candidates agreed in the debate on NY1 that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s ethics board, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, must be scrapped and the powers of the attorney general increased, if corruption is to be stopped in Albany.

Cuomo created the board with the state Legislature’s bipartisan support. JCOPE’s commissioners are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, and its staff consists largely of former Cuomo aides. The Cuomo administration had no immediate comment about the candidates' comments.

Letitia James, 59, New York City public advocate and the party's designee in the race, said JCOPE Chairman Seth Agata must resign, "but we need more than a change of faces.”

Leecia Eve, 54, a Manhattan corporate attorney who worked as a top aide to Cuomo and former Sen. Hillary Clinton, said she "will do whatever I have to do to root out corruption ... We need to get rid of JCOPE and form an independent, nonpartisan body that reports directly to the attorney general."

The campaigns have had to ramp up quickly for a close race that was never supposed to be.

In May, two-term state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, a Democrat, was accused of abuse by four women and resigned hours later, ending a re-election bid for which he had no serious rival.

James, Eve, Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, of upstate Cold Spring, all have strong support among liberal voters who traditionally determine Democratic primaries.

Cuomo, the state party leader, backs James — prompting her opponents to say she is too close to the governor to be an independent attorney general.

Teachout, 46, stressed that she is the only attorney general candidate who hasn’t taken corporate campaign contributions.

“I think it’s essential that every candidate reject corporate money,” she said, noting that Wall Street enforcement is an important part of the job.

Maloney, 52, jumped in with a shot at Teachout.

“Money is poisoning our democracy. So is being holier than thou,” said Maloney, the first openly gay member of Congress from New York. Maloney, who is in his third term in Congress, said Teachout accepted corporate donations in her 2016 campaign for Congress, which she lost to Republican Rep. John Faso.

Teachout, an expert in antitrust issues and author of a book that explored government corruption, acknowledged she took about $20,000 in in-kind services from a corporation, but said she never again took corporate contributions.

Eve also took a slap at Teachout, who also has run unsuccessfully for governor.

“Are you really an outsider or just an insider who hasn’t won a race?” Eve said.

Teachout replied that she runs because she cares about voters and public issues, “and, yes, I’m persistent.”

The candidates also promised to take on Republican President Donald Trump by using state laws to investigate his business dealings.

James said Trump's actions are “fueling my soul right now."

“I have taken on Republicans three times in a row, and if you are looking at someone who can take on Donald Trump, you are looking at him,” Maloney said.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican nominee Keith Wofford, a Manhattan attorney.

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