Voters are likely not very familiar with New York’s five candidates for attorney general. The easy part about the choice is that they differ so greatly in what they would confront that your priorities might determine your pick.
The three qualified candidates, in our mind, are Letitia James (Democratic, Working Families, Independence), Keith Wofford (Republican, Conservative) and Michael Sussman (Green). Also running are Christopher Garvey (Libertarian), a patent lawyer who has lost seven races in the past (three for Suffolk County district attorney and one each for judge and governor), and Nancy Sliwa (Reform), an animal rights activist who recently married the leader of the beret-clad anti-crime activist Guardian Angels.
Qualifications aren’t really a deciding factor among the leading three, who all have strong resumes. James is New York City public advocate and a former city council member. Wofford rose from a working-class Buffalo home to graduate from Harvard and Harvard Law and become a millionaire partner in a huge New York City law firm. Sussman, also a Harvard Law grad, has had a major impact over 40 years as a crusading lawyer for racial justice and the environment — most famously in winning a case that forced Yonkers to desegregate its public housing and zoning, and thus its school districts.
It comes down to what you want investigated and prosecuted, because these candidates are vastly different in their priorities.
James has promised above all to go after President Donald Trump’s administration, monitoring and investigating anything questionable he does or has done related to his home state of New York.
Wofford has pledged to go after corruption in state government, such as we have seen with allies of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the former leaders of the state Assembly and Senate, as well as many lawmakers.
Sussman, a former Democrat, wants to vigorously prosecute corruption in Albany, too, but also push harder to uphold environmental, health and other public-interest laws.
It is pretty much guaranteed that James will not go after Albany much because she has a huge conflict of interest. She is Cuomo’s hand-picked choice for AG, a job he once held. He is a hard-core partisan and is unlikely to give patronage without getting something in return.
For years, we saw AG Eric Schneiderman do nothing in the face of blatant Albany corruption. It was shameful to see him turn a blind eye to the crimes of his fellow Democrats while viciously going after Republicans in Washington. His willful negligence of the AG’s important role as a check and balance did great long-term damage to both New York’s national reputation and the faith of New York residents in their government. And he didn’t even have the obvious obligation to Cuomo that James does.
Would Wofford give his fellow Republican president a free pass the way James might to Cuomo? It’s not going to be his top priority, but he says he will investigate and sue whenever it is called for. He’d better, because we already know it is called for in many cases. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency has willfully ignored clean air regulations that protect Adirondack waters and forests as well as people’s health. The New York AG’s office has long been an important protector for us, suing the federal government when it lets polluters bypass the law.
Also, a deep New York Times investigation recently revealed that the Trump family spent decades working to avoid paying taxes in New York City, thus keeping millions that legally should have gone for public use. This is a newspaper investigation, not a legal one, but the evidence it dug up is so abundant that it clearly needs to be taken up by New York’s next AG. James is eager to do so; Wofford is uncertain.
Also, the AG plays an important role in policing the world’s financial hub on Wall Street. Would Wofford, who has been engaged with that world as a lawyer, have the guts to vigorously uphold fairness and keep consumers and taxpayers from getting ripped off?
He has allegiances as well. His firm has represented Purdue Pharma, a maker of opioid drugs, and he represented Knighthead Capital Management, a hedge fund criticized for how it managed Puerto Rico’s debt after Hurricane Maria. He says that if elected he will cut ties to his firm and put any winnings from opioid drug suits toward addiction treatment.
Sussman points to his extensive court experience in the kind of public-interest cases he says the AG ought to be pursuing, in contrast with Wofford’s career path in corporate law and James’ steps up the political ladder.
“If I get the position, against all odds, then I would use the office and the lawyers in that office, 672 of them, to the fullest extent I could do enforce the laws I see in New York that deal with discrimination and environmental degradation, health threats,” he told the Gotham Gazette.
He does have a black mark on his record: In 2002 his law license was suspended for a year in New York and Massachusetts for “multiple instances (of) commingling personal and client funds,” the New York Post reported in 2014.
These are things to consider before you vote. We have not met any of the candidates, but we lean toward Sussman as a check and balance on both the state and federal government, and as an experienced protector of the environment and the vulnerable.
But the victory will probably go to one of the major-party candidates. If Wofford wins, we urge him to realize that he will leave a poor legacy if he does not prosecute federal and big business misdeeds as well as those in Albany. And if James wins, we urge her to serve the people, not the governor, open her eyes to corruption in the capital and act to fight it.