NEW YORK — History is likely to be made in the race for New York Attorney General next Tuesday. Either of the major party candidates would be the state’s first black attorney general. One, Democrat Letitia James, would be the first black woman elected to statewide office in New York.
The race between James, a Brooklyn native in her second term as New York City’s public advocate, and Republican Keith Wofford, a New York City lawyer, was set up by the unexpected resignation last May of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in a #MeToo reckoning.
His downfall was lightning fast. A New Yorker expose revealed that four women had accused Schneiderman — a longtime enemy of President Donald Trump — of physical abuse. Hours after its publication, the Democrat quit office.
At the time, James, 60, said she was plotting a possible future campaign for New York City mayor. She said she was initially hesitant to enter the race, even as fellow Democrats were floating her name as a candidate, but decided to jump in after a neighbor asked for help navigating President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
“I’m not here to make history. I’m here to get things done,” James said in a recent interview with The Associated Press, though she said personal experiences with discrimination, including people hurling racial epithets or questioning her credentials, give her a different perspective than others who have held the office.
Wofford, a political newcomer originally from Buffalo, said he saw Schneiderman’s downfall as an “inflection point” and entered the race with hopes of using the office to fight political corruption and give working class families, like the ones he and James were raised in, a fairer shake.
There has been an approach that has allowed politicians to repeatedly steal or make public decisions based on their private political and personal political interest,” Wofford said. “It’s happened basically with impunity.”
James emerged from a hotly contested, four-way Democratic primary in September for the right to face Wofford in the general election.
The race has turned partly on the role of the state attorney general’s office in fighting the Trump administration.
James said she would continue the state’s pending lawsuits challenging several Trump policies on immigration, the environment and other topics, and accusing the president’s charitable foundation of breaking the law.
Wofford said he’ll only pursue Trump-related cases that benefit the state or residents and wouldn’t necessarily sign on to multi-state campaigns or lawsuits that are predominantly political or designed to “express political dissatisfaction or resistance for resistance’s sake.”
Both candidates have working class roots.
James grew up in Brooklyn with seven siblings. Her parents were maintenance workers. Wofford’s father worked in an automobile factory near Buffalo for three decades and they’d spend fall and winter Sundays listening to Bills games on the radio.
Wofford, 49, said becoming the state’s first black attorney general would send a signal to “kids like me that there’s a trajectory for you in life and a fairness at the heart of our law enforcement system.”
James said she wants to use her office’s regulatory powers to prevent foreclosures and home abandonment by having legal services lawyers work with homeowners embedded in the attorney general’s office.
She said she would also expand on the “worst landlords” list she introduced as public advocate by taking action against slumlords statewide.
“Conditions that threaten the life and safety of tenants — low-income tenants and tenants of color in particular — will not be tolerated,” James said.
Both candidates say they’ll be tough on political corruption.
More than 30 state lawmakers alone have left office facing allegations of misconduct since 2000, including a former Democratic assembly speaker and a former Republican senate majority leader.
Nancy Sliwa, of the Reform Party and Michael Sussman, of the Green Party, are also on the ballot. Patent attorney Christopher Garvey, 68, of Amityville, is the Libertarian Party candidate.
The attorney general appointed to replace Schneiderman, Barbara Underwood, declined to run for the office but said she would take up an offer to stay on some capacity if James wins. She was previously the state’s solicitor general.