One happy reality of the 2018 campaign for New Yorkers is that they are guaranteed to make history on Tuesday: They will elect the state’s first black attorney general, either Letitia James, a Democrat, or Keith Wofford, a Republican.
New York has reason to be proud of this choice.
Wofford grew up in Buffalo, the son of a father who worked as an autoworker and a mother who worked in retail. He got his law degree at Harvard University, and he is now a managing partner at the corporate law firm Ropes & Gray, where he focuses on bankruptcy.
James’ parents fled a life of sharecropping in the South. She was raised in Brooklyn, attending public schools and, later, Howard University. She is a former prosecutor, City Council member and, for the last five years, the city’s public advocate.
Each candidate is appealing — and also disconcerting.
For someone who has been in politics for years, James can be surprisingly ill at ease and defensive, didactic rather than persuasive, prone to plumping her record. She has tilted at windmills as public advocate, filing suits to address problems at the public housing authority that had already been fixed, for example.
Wofford has promised to prosecute the corruption that has plagued Albany, including within the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But he seems unenthusiastic about challenging financial impropriety on Wall Street, an important focus for the office in recent years, and he appears less willing than James to challenge the policy excesses of President Donald Trump, whom he supports. The Trump administration has abandoned the federal government’s regulatory role, enacting policies on the environment, immigration and reproductive rights that hurt New Yorkers, and the president himself has scorned the rule of law. The state needs an attorney general who embraces the full responsibilities of the office.
James has frequently said that she has worked for the powerless while Wofford has worked for the powerful. It’s an easy political slogan. It’s also true. And since James has pledged to use the office’s powers vigorously, we endorse her for attorney general.
She has a lengthy record of defending New Yorkers from special interests, beginning with her earliest work as an attorney for the Legal Aid Society. From 1999 to 2003, she led the state attorney general’s Brooklyn office under Eliot Spitzer, enforcing environmental laws and investigating predatory lenders. In 2003, James was elected to the City Council, where she waged a vocal campaign against Bloomberg administration development policies she said were pricing out low and moderate-income New Yorkers. She also challenged the Bloomberg administration on the policing policy known as stop and frisk.
As public advocate since 2014, she has sometimes been overzealous in her use of lawsuits to address what she sees as inequities in government. Still, her efforts have aimed at using the true power of her office — the bully pulpit — for good, especially when it comes to tenants’ rights and the needs of vulnerable children.
In the Democratic primary, we picked Zephyr Teachout over James. Teachout is an evangelist for ethics, and rooting out corruption is a central challenge for the next state attorney general. In her primary campaign, James presented herself as part of Cuomo’s team and accepted his fundraising, acts that raised doubts about her independence.
But James has promised to push for a law that would allow her to pursue prosecutions without first getting approval from the governor and the Legislature. This would be important if the office is to be truly independent in fighting corruption. She has also wisely said she would ask the highly experienced and capable Barbara Underwood to stay with the office. Underwood has been acting attorney general since Eric Schneiderman resigned after he was accused of abusing women he dated.
James has said that as state attorney general she would aggressively enforce environmental laws to protect the state’s waterways, and would be equally vigorous in prosecuting wage theft and abuses by landlords.
Some questioned her commitment to fighting financial crimes after she said she would not wear the label “Sheriff of Wall Street” that had been applied to Spitzer. But she has vowed to continue the office’s use of the state’s Martin Act, a nearly 100-year-old law that gives the attorney general broad powers to investigate and prosecute financial fraud.
Wofford thinks Democratic attorneys general have used this law to generate headlines by obtaining attention-grabbing monetary settlements, rather than prosecuting serious crimes. But with Washington rolling back enforcement on many fronts, the Martin Act remains a crucial tool for the attorney general.
Then there’s Trump. Wofford promises that his support for Trump would not keep him from aggressively pursuing legal action against the president if need be. He has pledged to continue the attorney general’s lawsuit to block the administration from asking people who fill out the census whether they are citizens. He said it was worth looking into accusations raised by a New York Times investigation that Trump evaded millions of dollars in taxes before he became president.
But Wofford said the attorney general’s lawsuit against the president and his family over alleged misuse of their foundation was not worth the office’s time. Yes, there are many demands on the office, but the questions about whether the Trump Foundation abused its nonprofit status to enrich the Trump family and help Trump’s campaign are not frivolous.
The office of attorney general has the authority to serve as a backstop if, as Trump has suggested, he fires special counsel Robert Mueller or pardons aides who might testify against him in the criminal investigation. If Trump took either step, we’re confident that James would pursue the proper state action.
Voters in New York City will want to turn over their ballots on Tuesday. When they do, they’ll find three proposed changes to the City Charter. All three ballot measures are the result of a charter commission put together by Mayor Bill de Blasio to strengthen the city’s well-regarded campaign finance system and increase the city’s dismal voter participation rates.
Though these are good goals, some of the proposals are flawed.
The first proposal would lower limits for contributions to candidates who participate in the campaign finance system, while increasing the funding match given for candidates in the program. Its goal is to boost the effect of smaller donations, to pave the way for more competition in the city’s elections. The contribution limit for citywide candidates would be lowered to $2,000 from $5,100. Matching funds would increase under the proposal, to an 8-1 match from a 6-1 match now.
Combined, these changes would be likely to help blunt the effect of large donations, and encourage more candidates to run for office.
The new rules wouldn’t become binding until 2022. Some critics of the proposal have said making the new rules optional for candidates running in the city’s 2021 elections — in which voters will choose a new mayor and a plethora of new City Council members — is a reason to vote against the initiative. This conclusion seems shortsighted, given the potential long-term benefits for the city.
This asks voters to create a Civic Engagement Commission to increase voter participation and implement participatory budgeting, a system some council members use now, in which New Yorkers can vote on how to use a portion of the discretionary funds allotted to the district.
The measure would create a commission, largely controlled by the mayor, whose exact powers would be unclear. It would add yet another layer of bureaucracy without good cause. And in taking up participatory budgeting, such a commission could tread on the authority of the City Council, which now oversees that process. In a city with ample mayoral influence already, it is best that the powers afforded to the council — most notably land-use and budget oversight — be carefully guarded.
Some of the initiatives the commission would be tasked with overseeing are worthy, such as expanding translation services at poll sites. But it would be wiser to implement them through legislation in the City Council or existing city agencies instead. That would preserve the powers of the council and prevent the addition of unnecessary bureaucracy, better serving New Yorkers.
This would prohibit community board members from serving more than four consecutive two-year terms. This could weaken community boards by stripping them of their most seasoned members, replacing them with novices more susceptible to appeals from high-powered developers.
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