New York Could Elects Its First Female Attorney General

Public advocate and endorsed Democrat Letitia "Tish" James won the Democratic primary for New York State attorney general, making her the favorite to win the seat in the general election in November.

By Sandra Tan

Public advocate and endorsed Democrat Letitia "Tish" James won the Democratic primary for New York State attorney general, making her the favorite to win the seat in the general election in November.

Thursday's outcome marked the end of a competitive, four-way race for the seat, with James capitalizing on high name recognition and party support in New York City, where she garnered half of all votes cast by city residents.

Her early lead was eroded by Fordham law professor and 2014 gubernatorial candidate Zephyr R. Teachout, but not enough to overcome a near 10-point gap.

The attorney general's race is always viewed with interest since it's often a stepping stone for higher office, particularly for governor. But this primary was noteworthy for how it came to be -- the resignation of previous officeholder Eric Schneiderman -- and for its diversity. The candidates included three women, including two women of color, and an openly gay man.

"Tonight, we rewrite the history of generations of New Yorkers who have been treated differently simply because of their gender, the color of their skin, the language they speak, the God they pray to, the people they love, or the ZIP code they come from," James said on Twitter.

She now faces off in the November general election against the Republican candidate, Buffalo native Keith Wofford, a Harvard Law School graduate, Manhattan lawyer and the first African-American nominee to the seat.

If James defeats Wofford in November's general election, she will become the first elected woman to occupy the state's top legal post.

The four-way race came down to a competition between James and Teachout. Trailing on the ballot were:

--Sean Patrick Maloney, a three-term congressman from the lower Hudson Valley who held top positions with former President Bill Clinton as well as former governors Eliot L. Spitzer and David A. Paterson. He had 24 percent of the vote statewide, though he ranked first in Erie County.

--Leecia R. Eve, a former top staffer for Sens. Joe Biden Jr. and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was also economic development adviser to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Eve, the daughter of longtime Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve, carried only 4 percent of the vote statewide and ranked third among Erie County voters despite her Buffalo roots.

"I knew this was going to be a tough battle, not being the party's nominee," Eve said Thursday night, "but I'm proud of the effort we had reaching out to voters across the state."

This hotly contested race came to be following a New Yorker magazine article that reported the accounts of several women who said that then-attorney general Schneiderman physically abused them in their intimate relationships. His resignation created an opportunity for four candidates to vie for the post.

Jacob Neiheisel, associate professor of political science at the University at Buffalo, said the attorney general's race is another indicator of how favorable the political climate is for female and minority candidates, especially in light of the #MeToo and anti-Trump movements.

"I think it's really tapping into what's going on nationally," he said.

Similar to her three fellow candidates, James said she would continue efforts launched by Schneiderman and his interim successor, Barbara R. Underwood, to take on Trump and his "threatening" policies.

"I will never be afraid to challenge this illegitimate president when our fundamental rights are at stake," she said.

James' campaign asserted that it had conducted the broadest statewide campaign of any of the candidates with more than a dozen visits to Upstate New York, though she came in last among Erie County voters.

Cuomo endorsed her, and the Democratic Party he controls supplied its backing at its May state convention. That included strong support from Mayor Byron W. Brown, the state Democratic chairman. She enjoyed huge name recognition in New York City, where as public advocate she occupies one of three citywide positions.

Teachout ranked second despite key newspaper endorsements and her book on "Corruption in America." She emphasized her independence from other politicians and political parties.

Maloney was the first attorney general candidate to buy broadcast television time in Buffalo. The congressman touted his experience as a lawyer, as a White House senior staffer, and his six years in Congress.

Eve, a graduate of Harvard Law School, had the backing of the Erie County Democratic Party, thwarting the will of Cuomo, Brown and the rest of the state establishment.

New staff reporter Harold McNeil contributed to this story.

(c)2018 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.