ALBANY — The race for attorney general pits an inner-city Buffalo kid who was the son of a Chevrolet factory worker and turned a scholarship to Harvard into a Manhattan law practice against a lifelong Democratic activist from Brooklyn who promises to fight for immigrants and the poor and to wield state laws against President Donald Trump's policies and businesses.
“My top priority . . . is going to go after public corruption, wherever it leads,” said Keith Wofford, the Republican nominee who grew up in Buffalo before moving to New York City, where he practices law. He said Democrats have turned the state into “the most corrupt and most anti-business state in the nation,” and he would use the attorney general’s office to address each criticism.
“The attorney general needs to be truly independent,” Wofford said.
That’s the basis of Wofford’s opposition to Letitia “Tish” James, the New York City public advocate who has the endorsement of Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), and powerful Democratic leaders statewide. But James bristles at the idea she wouldn’t be independent enough to root out corruption, even in the governor’s office or the Assembly’s Democratic majority.
“He has a very strong personality,” James said of Cuomo, whose endorsement helped make her a front-runner in a crowded field of Democrats and helped her raise more in campaign funds than her opponents. But James said her independence has never been questioned, and that her Brooklyn personality is strong enough to overcome his Queens personality and operate independently.
“What we need now more than anything is an independent fighter in the office of attorney general,” James said.
“I am un-bossed and unbought in the proud tradition of Shirley Chisholm,” she added, referring to the late civil rights leader and first African-American woman elected to Congress.
As an example, she said she opposed Cuomo’s decision in 2014 to disband the Moreland Commission on Public Corruption he impaneled. Cuomo closed the panel that was mostly looking at the behavior of legislators after eight months, when he struck a deal for some ethics reforms.
“I wouldn’t have closed down the Moreland Commission,” James said at a debate this summer. “I think that was a mistake. I think it was a big mistake.”
At the end of an intense four-way fight in the Democratic primary, James had $275,131 left in her campaign account, after spending more than $789,000 in the final weeks. With Cuomo’s support and financial contacts, she is expected to raise much more for the Nov. 6 general election.
Wofford, 49, hasn’t had to report his campaign’s finances to the state Board of Elections since June, when he had $1.02 million.
The race is the tightest for a statewide seat, with James holding a 50-36 percent lead in an Oct. 1 poll, the latest available, by the Siena College Research Institute. In the state’s first statewide race between two African-Americans, James’ lead is bolstered by the support of 85 percent of black voters and 77 percent of New York City voters, according to the poll. She has a 55-30 percent edge among women during an election cycle where sexual harassment has been an issue in most contests.
Neither candidate, however, has devoted much time to sexual abuse issues that prompted the race for an open seat. In May, two-term Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned from office hours after The New Yorker reported four women he had dated accused him of abuse.
The attorney general’s office, however, handles such cases. In January, Newsday reported that New Yorkers paid more than $10 million over the last nine years to settle 88 cases of sexual harassment, discrimination, and related cases in state government.
James, 60, has fought against sexual harassment and abuse for years, including pushing the City Council in 2014 to create safeguards against harassment and abuse on college campuses.
For Wofford, backed by the state Republican and conservative parties, the issue has become a flashpoint within the GOP as the U.S. Senate investigated sexual harassment claims against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
“This whole area of sexual abuse and sexual harassment claims needs to be taken very seriously,” Wofford told reporters. He said the Senate Committee needs to push the issue. He has said he will continue to investigate sexual harassment, including sexual abuse allegations within the Catholic Church.
Wofford, like other Republicans, has to walk a fine line when it comes to Trump, who remains popular with the GOP base but is highly unpopular with Democrats and many independents the Republicans need to win statewide seats.
Wofford said Schneiderman initiated lawsuits over “one progressive crusade after another,” mostly aimed at Trump, and not all of which should be continued.
“Some of them were clearly political,” he told reporters. “We’re going to have to review them on the merits, and the ones that are not meritorious we’re going to stop spending taxpayers’ money on.”
James, on the other hand, said of her plans as attorney general for Trump: “It’s really all about sweet justice and bringing him down . . .
“We are at a pivotal point . . . because all of our rights are at stake and the White House is an affront to our democracy,” said James, a former public defender and New York City Council member.
Also running for attorney general are several minor party candidates who haven’t campaigned extensively statewide.
They are Reform Party candidate Nancy Sliwa, a member of the Guardian Angels, the group whose members in safety patrols wear red jackets and berets while patrolling crime-ridden streets; liberal Green Party candidate Michael Sussman.
Correction: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect age for Letitia James.
New York City Public Advocate, New York City Council
Lehman College, Howard University School of Law
Co-managing partner of the Ropes & Gray law firm
Harvard University, Harvard Law School
Married, two daughters and a son