James, Maloney, Eve, Teachout (l-r)
The four Democrats vying for the party’s nomination for attorney general faced each other in their second televised debate of the race on Tuesday at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
The debate became a 90-minute brawl as the four candidates -- New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, Congressional Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, former Verizon executive Leecia Eve, and Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout -- sought to set themselves apart from each other. But few differences emerged in their ideologies or campaign platforms as all four were largely in agreement in answering the questions posed to them by debate moderators Errol Louis, host of NY1’s Inside City Hall, and Liz Benjamin, host of Capital Tonight on Spectrum News.
What did emerge more clearly, though, was the sense that Teachout’s competitors see her as the frontrunner in the race, despite the fact that Maloney is a sitting member of Congress and James a citywide elected official who has the backing of Governor Andrew Cuomo -- whom Teachout challenged four years ago -- and the state Democratic Party.
In opening statements, all the candidates emphasized their willingness and ability to take on legal and political challenges faced by the state under the presidency of Donald Trump. James said Trump’s abuses are “fueling this campaign, fueling my soul,” as she said the country’s democracy is at risk. “I’ve been tested,” said Maloney as he said he’s thrice won a congressional district that Trump won in 2016. Eve said she is the “most qualified, most prepared” candidate, without mentioning the president. And Teachout, a scholar who wrote a book on political corruption, said she is “uniquely qualified” to tackle Trump’s alleged misdeeds.
Early on, the candidates stressed the importance of an attorney general’s office independent of the governor. James repeatedly said, “I don’t believe people can question my independence,” though she did not fully explain her ties to Cuomo and the state party he controls, which have led to recent criticism of her candidacy. Over the course of the debate, she also insisted that the next attorney general needs to pursue her or his agenda by having and developing relationships with the state Legislature and the governor.
James’ opponents seemed to disagree, though each said they would in a professional capacity work with the Legislature to achieve necessary ethics and campaign finance reforms.
“It is unprecedented for a governor of New York to try to handpick the attorney general or to fundraise for the attorney general’s campaign...You gotta tell the governor to butt out,” Maloney said in his typical candor, in a broadside directed at James, though he did not mention her by name.
Eve, a former economic development aide to Cuomo, was similarly forthright. “The governor needs to focus on doing his job and let me as the next attorney general do mine,” she said. Teachout is claiming the most independence from the political establishment of the four, having challenged Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary. “I really see independence as essential to the job description,” she said.
There were, throughout, quite a few moments of broad agreement. All the candidates except Eve called for the resignation of Seth Agata, a former Cuomo aide who is now executive director of the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), and pushed for greater jurisdiction in the attorney general’s office to investigate corruption. Eve did not explicitly say Agata should resign but insisted that JCOPE should be scrapped and "We need to start from scratch."
However, James refused to paint all state legislators with the broad brush of corruption, saying she would work with them to create stronger anti-corruption laws. But Maloney, Eve, and Teachout called for either a complete overhaul of JCOPE or the creation of an entirely new independent watchdog entity under the attorney general’s purview, while also acknowledging they would need state legislative action to do so.
“We need to erase JCOPE like a blackboard and start over...I don’t wanna change deckchairs around on the Titanic. I wanna start over and rebuild it correctly,” said Maloney.
In that vein of independence, the moderators pressed the candidates on whether someone seeking the attorney general position should accept corporate contributions, particularly from Wall Street donors, given the position’s oversight of the financial services industry. All of them said they support public financing of elections but Teachout repeatedly pointed out that she is the only one who has refused all corporate and LLC donations (made through the much-reviled LLC loophole, which allows donors to circumvent contribution limits). “This is poisoning our politics...The idea that the next AG...would be going to get LLC, corporate money from Wall Street, puts a question mark next to the entire job,” she said.
But James and Maloney seemed to pounce on Teachout’s pledge, pointing out that she had in the past accepted corporate and LLC contributions (about $21,000 worth, she said, of 2014 campaign in-kind donations) and outside independent expenditure spending on her behalf in her 2016 congressional race, for a district next to Maloney’s that he tried to help her win. “Money is poison in our politics, so is being holier-than-thou and hypocrisy,” Maloney said, going on to use the same line of attack against Teachout repeatedly even while praising her personally.
James also took to calling Teachout “professor” as she over and over stressed that running to be the top legal officer in the state is not an “academic” exercise.
All the candidates called for the state Legislature to hold hearings on sexual harassment, an issue advocated by the Sexual Harassment Working Group, several women who have been subject to harassment while working in the state Legislature. Maloney said he would push for criminal prosecutions and give local district attorneys the resources to pursue them. Teachout and Eve insisted the attorney general already has the authority to pursue such cases as ethics violations under Cuomo’s executive order establishing a Moreland Commission in 2013, which they say was never officially rescinded even though the commission was disbanded.
James, again, spoke of her relationships with state legislators, and her record as a “proven leader” (which happens to be Cuomo’s own reelection slogan) as she said she would push for stronger anti-harassment measures. She said the executive order is “for all intents and purposes” defunct and that the next attorney general would need original jurisdiction to carry out criminal prosecutions -- something that in most cases must come through a referral from another entity, such as the governor, the comptroller, or a district attorney.
James’ comments prompted a polite rebuttal from Teachout. “I think we genuinely have different visions for the office here...My belief is that Albany fixing itself hasn’t worked,” she said.
In a cross-examination round, James, Maloney and Eve all directed their questions to Teachout, putting her on the defensive and indicating that she may be seen as the candidate with the most momentum after she was recently endorsed by both the New York Times and Daily News editorial boards, among other new supporters.
Maloney and James pushed Teachout to explain her apparently shifting stances on the NY SAFE Act, the state’s signature gun control legislation passed in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting. Teachout said she merely opposed the process by which it was passed, with little debate and time for public input. Eve then asked how Teachout could continue to call herself an outside after having unsuccessfully run for office multiple times and trying again. James also went after Teachout for having been reprimanded by the North Carolina Bar, over what appears to have been a minor infraction related to not filing a notice of address change while she was still listed as an attorney on a case in the state where she practiced law for a number of years. Teachout just joined the New York Bar last week after going through the requesite process.
On a range of issues, there was relative conformity among the four Democrats, and much of it showed during a lightning round of questions. Each of them said they would fight for criminal justice reform, particularly ending cash bail; each supported stronger tenant protections and investigations of illegality in the real estate sector (though all but Teachout have received donations from the industry); all agreed that pharmaceutical companies should be held criminally responsible for the opioid epidemic; they all said the attorney general’s office should play a role in investigating the crisis at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA); and all of them said the Rikers Island prison complex should be closed in less than ten years and that the state should pass Kalief’s Law, a speedy trial reform bill named for Bronx teenager Kalief Browder, who spent three years on Rikers on charges of stealing a backpack that were eventually dropped. Browder later died by suicide months after being released.
On two questions, their answers did vary. Teachout and James both called for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency that has come to epitomize the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies. Eve did not support doing away with it, but rather said she would prosecute its officers for wrongdoing. Maloney said calling for abolition of the agency was “glib,” and rather pushed for ending Trump’s biased policies and stopping the use of ICE as a “mass deportation force.” He said anti-terrorism work is essential and spoke in support of members of law enforcement generally.
The four also diverged when asked if they would drink the water in Hoosick Falls, the upstate village where the drinking water supply was contaminated by toxic chemicals more than two years ago. The candidates seemed not to know the current state of affairs (state officials have insisted the problem is solved). Maloney, Eve, and James said they would drink the water and fight to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to clean drinking water. Teachout, who struggled to respond, said, “I don’t want anybody to ever have to answer that question.”
The primary is on September 13, a Thursday.
Note - This article has been updated to clarify Leecia Eve's comments on JCOPE.