The New York attorney general runs an enormous public law firm, which routinely defends the actions of state government while initiating legal actions to protect state residents and resources. In setting an ambitious agenda as a guardian of the people, it’s Democrat Letitia A. James who would continue the best traditions of the office.
That means rooting out wasteful and fraudulent spending of tax dollars, and protecting consumers from predators and nursing home residents from abuse. It means directing more money from bank settlement funds to local land banks to rehabilitate zombie homes. And seizing hazardous lots and decrepit housing from banks or slumlords who aren’t keeping them up, and giving them to municipalities to develop. And it means continuing bold lawsuits like the one Attorney General Barbara Underwood filed last week against Exxon Mobil, which claims stockholders were defrauded because the corporation refuses to credibly acknowledge the risk of climate change to its bottom line.
James, 60, of Brooklyn, is better known as Tish and is the New York City Public Advocate. In a fierce primary fight against a talented field of Democrats, she won her party’s nomination. After the election, she should maintain her drive and effort to determine the concerns in every corner of the state.
Her opponent is Keith Wofford, a Buffalo native who now lives in Manhattan and is one of the managing partners in the international law firm Ropes & Gray. In his first run for office, he faces the daunting task of introducing himself to voters and then winning them over. A supporter of Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama, he is one of the very first Republican nominees for statewide office who is black.
Wofford, 49, who also has a home in East Hampton, differs from James primarily on how they define the office. He sees the job as a much more limited one and would be reluctant, unlike his Democratic predecessors, to use the office to root out financial fraud on Wall Street. He’s critical of the lawsuit against Exxon. And he was dubious about the merits of the office’s litigation against Trump’s charitable foundation which claims Trump used donations for campaign purposes. One of the attorney general’s main roles is oversight of charities. It is that same minimalist view that leads Wofford to conclude there is not much the office can do about zombie homes.
Both James and Wofford do agree on one important direction for the office, ensuring that racial disparities are eliminated from the criminal justice system. Both would advocate for laws to guarantee speedy trials and require prosecutors to turn over exculpatory evidence to defendants much earlier in the process.
James’ muscular vision of the office as a stalwart protector of consumers and the environment, and as a national leader when the federal government fails to step up, is what New Yorkers expect. From her first day, she must prove herself independent of the governor and legislature. And she has to work with the state comptroller to reinvigorate the Public Integrity Task Force and go after those who abuse ethics laws.
Newsday endorses James. — The editorial board