MANHATTAN (CN) – Exactly one week before New York’s state primary elections, the four Democratic candidates running for state attorney general jabbed and bickered in what was likely their final debate Thursday evening at New York City’s historic Cooper Union Great Hall.
New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, current U.S. Rep. Sean Maloney, activist and Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, and former Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden aide Leecia Eve don’t differ vastly in their positions on many issues.
“You’re not going to find a lot of daylight between us on this,” Maloney said at one point, in response to a question about voting rights.
The candidates also addressed what they said were threats to New York by the Trump administration’s policies and politics.
“I’m running for attorney general because Donald Trump is a clear and present danger,” Maloney said in his opening statement.
The country is “in the midst of a constitutional crisis,” said James in hers. Teachout echoed that “we are at a true crisis moment in our democracy.”
But there were still plenty of heated moments. Maloney, Eve and James all took digs at Teachout, an “outsider” candidate who has picked up endorsements from The New York Times, the Buffalo News, the New York Daily News and The Nation. James has the backing of the state Democratic Party machine. While there is no clear favorite in the race, James and Teachout seem to have a slight upper hand.
Maloney and Teachout also engaged in biting back-and-forth over a lawsuit Teachout filed earlier Thursday against Maloney, his treasurer, and his federal and state committees. The suit alleges Maloney violated campaign finance laws by transferring $1.4 million from his congressional campaign to his attorney general campaign. Maloney is running for both positions simultaneously.
The candidates all spoke at length about money, especially campaign funds and tax returns. In response to a question about big real estate donors to her campaign, James said she was “unbought and unbossed, in the spirit of Shirley Chisholm.”
“I will not be disadvantaged and I do not want to unilaterally disarm,” she said, a talking point she has used before – that it’s harder for minority candidates to earn funds. She assured the room she’s not afraid to sue even her supporters and endorsers, however.
Before the debate, members of the audience flocked to photograph the candidates onstage as if they were rock stars. During the 90-minute event, the engaged crowd booed, laughed and shouted. Moderator Brian Lehrer, a radio host at WNYC, praised attendees for their civic engagement. But he also asked the candidates to explain why the office mattered – voter turnout tends to be lower in midterm and primary elections.
“Why should voters care about this job?” Lehrer asked.
Teachout pointed to what she called a “crisis of corruption in Albany” and to a changing judiciary, as the Trump administration selects federal judges and its Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh faces confirmation hearings in Washington.
“The New York attorney general will have to be the regulator of last resort,” Teachout said. “We are going to be facing new and complex legal challenges that we have not faced before.”
James also pointed to the need to stamp out corruption, as well as addressing infrastructure issues, environmental racism and the New York City housing crisis.
“No one is above the law,” she said.
Unsurprisingly, as a debate between Democrats, some of Thursday’s conversation revolved around opposing President Trump and his administration, policies and businesses.
James and Teachout both spoke of investigating Trump. Teachout, in fact, has made it a key tenet of her campaign. When moderator Preet Bharara, a former prosecutor himself, posed a question about judiciousness in opening investigations and filing lawsuits, she stayed on her message.
“I take your question to be in part about how we deal as candidates and as the next attorney general with, in particular, Donald Trump and the threats we see from his administration,” she said.
“We already know from reading the newspaper that there’s enough smoke there to be investigating his businesses here in New York.”
“With respect to Donald Trump, we need to follow his money,” she said.
“It’s really critically important that we not just talk about association, that we talk about his transactions,” she added later.
Unlike James and Teachout, Maloney did not enthusiastically commit to sinking heavy resources into investigating Trump, saying those resources are “limited.” He did say the attorney general’s office should have a senior official dedicated to handling federal, Trump-related issues, and later called Trump University a “cesspool” to laughter from the audience.
“What isn’t right is to allow a political motive into this,” he said. “I think it’d be great if we give New Yorkers four years without an ego.”
Throughout the debate Teachout touted her “deep legal expertise;” Maloney, his congressional win in a Republican-leaning district. Eve brought up the importance of good public education, while James, the public advocate, said it was important to be “on the ground” in issues of racial and economic justice.
The candidates also discussed fighting for New Yorkers’ voting rights, protecting students saddled by loans and other financially vulnerable groups.
Maloney noted he has held 150 town halls as a congressman, some of the “best ones we do relate to simple scams [and] spreading information,” particularly to seniors.
“It’s not glamorous work, but it makes a real difference in people’s lives,” he said.
James said she wants to expand the civil rights bureau and consumer fraud bureaus of the office and invest in legal services.
In the lightning round, Lehrer also asked each candidate to name one existing law – other than a drug law – they would like to see changed “to make New York a better place.” All four responses drew applause and sometimes cheers from the crowd.
Eve said she wants greater transparency on disciplinary records of law enforcement officers. Maloney, the only man in the race, said he wants protection for women’s reproductive freedom in New York. James called for rent protections, while Teachout said the next attorney general needs the “criminal and civil authority to investigate and prosecute corruption in Albany.”
If a Democrat is elected, he or she will make history – any of the party’s women would be the first female. Eve or James would be the first black woman, and Maloney would be the first openly gay man to hold the office.
“The next attorney general will be someone who will be wearing high heels,” James quipped during one of her answers Thursday.
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination next week will face Republican Keith Wofford in the November general election. The current attorney general is Barbara Underwood, who took over after Eric Schneiderman suddenly resigned in May after allegations broke he had physically abused four women.
Though Thursday afternoon all four candidates had agreed to speak to the press afterward, Teachout, Maloney and James all left without making appearances.