New York State voters find themselves within the throes of an election season, as a number of national and statewide races populate the political fabric on all fronts.
While there are many important races to keep an eye on, one in particular should not get overlooked: the race for state attorney general.
New York's attorney general is seen as one of the top legal positions in the country, especially given the office's numerous legal challenges to the Trump Foundation and administration. This year's campaign was supposed to be a home run for Eric Schneiderman, the 63-year-old Democrat who made headlines for going after Wall Street head honchos, big banks and Donald Trump. But, he abruptly resigned in May after multiple women accused him of physical assault. Since then, a swell of candidates have emerged for the position.
Here's what you need to know about the race.
What does the attorney general do?
Simply put, the attorney general is the official lawyer for the citizens of New York state, also fondly referred to as the ‘People’s Lawyer.’
A de facto definition on the office’s website says the attorney general “serves as the guardian of the legal rights of the citizens of New York, its organizations and its natural resources.”
As defender and protector of the rights and interests of the state, the attorney general is similarly no stranger to taking on the federal government. The attorney general also serves as a counsel to the governor, and may be tasked with investigations, and or asked to take on cases at the executive branch’s bequest.
Certain office holders have elevated the role’s profile in years past, and in doing so, simultaneously bolstered their political careers. Eliot Spitzer took on Wall Street corruption, fighting against fraudulent financial schemes, significantly expanding the expectations of what can be expected of the office. Gov. Andrew Cuomo was also the state’s top legal officer, a role that would eventually propel him into the Executive Mansion.
Schneiderman used his position to take on the Trump administration, taking action against policies like the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, arguing that the state and local tax cap would deliver a devastating blow to New Yorkers.
Who's in office now?
Schneiderman's resignation led to a rush of political maneuvering. The New York state legislature had to appoint an acting attorney general to immediately take over the position. Then, it interviewed more than a dozen candidates to serve out for the rest of the year. State lawmakers decided Barbara Underwood, who had been serving as acting attorney general, would stay in the position until the end of 2018.
But since the post is up for reelection this year, New Yorkers have to select their permanent attorney general. And it will be a new face, as Underwood is not running to keep her position beyond 2018, indicating that she is not inclined to push for public office.
On the Democratic side, the four contenders include: New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, Hudson Valley Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout and ex-Cuomo economic development aide Leecia Eve.
James has been endorsed by Cuomo and much of the state’s Democratic Party establishment. During May’s State Democratic Convention, her candidacy was embraced with open arms. She’s since raked in a number of notable endorsements from unions and progressive groups. Results from a July Siena poll showed her leading the other candidates, but a caveat remains: she’s virtually unknown to upstate voters and has little campaign cash.
Teachout — the Fordham Law School professor who ran against Cuomo in the Democratic primary for governor in 2014 — is touting her commitment to being independent from the governor, her refusal to take corporate donations and her intention to hold the Trump administration accountable. Teachout garnered an endorsement from the New York Times editorial board, and has been embraced by members several newer members of the progressive left, such as Democratic congressional candidate in New York’s 14th District, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
"In different ways, all of the other candidates — the three candidates for attorney general — have close ties to the establishment. And I am, as I was four years ago, committed to bringing a new kind of politics to New York," Teachout said.
Eve, a former vice president for government affairs at Verizon, is no stranger to the political realm. The Buffalo native worked with the Senators Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden, and formerly worked under Cuomo. But Eve has been strangely absent from the campaign trail, making few public appearances and saying little to reporters.
"This is not something that you talk about in a classroom. You need someone who is experienced, who's qualified, who has a proven track record of fighting in the trenches for social justice," Eve said.
Eve also has some experience with political campaigns, mostly notably running for lieutenant governor in 2006 before bowing out once Spitzer chose David Paterson to be his running mate.
Sean Patrick Maloney
Maloney represents New York’s 18th District. He’s a former Clinton staffer and the first openly gay member of Congress to represent New York. This is his second bid for attorney general; he ran unsuccessfully in 2006, losing the nomination to Cuomo. Maloney boasts an impressive campaign finance arsenal, reportedly raising $500,000 within the first week of officially announcing his candidacy. Maloney simultaneously finds himself running for re-election for his current job in the 18th Congressional District.
He's sitting on $4 million in contributions, most of it raised for his congressional reelection campaign.
While James has shored up much of the institutional support, a poll in July showed that the race is unsettled. A plurality of registered Democrats, 42 percent, is undecided, while James polled at 26 percent, Maloney at 15 percent, Teachout close behind with 12 percent, and Eve in the low single digits.
One aspect dogging the candidates is that of independence from the governor, a challenge built in to the nature of the office considering the aforementioned ties to the executive branch. Nonetheless, all four of Democrats have insisted their commitment to acting independently.
Democratic voters will head to the polls on Thursday, September 13 to cast their ballots.
What about Trump?
A recent development in the role of the attorney general's office has been its clashes with President Trump. In the form of more than 100 lawsuits, Schneiderman often used the office to clash with him, going after the native-New Yorker on the travel ban, the administration's approach to the environment, and immigration, and he sued Trump University before the president won the White House.
Some of the Democratic candidates to replace the former attorney general are looking maintain the legal opposition, speaking about positioning the office as a check on Trump because of his ties to New York.
Whoever is elected to the position in November may end up having to address larger legal questions over potential Trump pardons. Schneiderman had argued earlier this year that New York should close a legal loophole that could bar the state from prosecuting anyone pardoned by Trump. But New York's top lawyer may end up playing a waiting game regardless.
Underwood said the office will not "interfere" with the special counsel's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. Her successor, a Democrat or Republican, is not expected to change direction.
What happens after the primary?
The primary winner will face Republican Keith Wofford, a partner at the law firm Ropes & Gray in the city and the first African-American Republican nominee for attorney general, in the general election November 6. The contest is his first bid for elected office. While the candidates' legal resumes are expected to be a major factor when New Yorkers decide who to vote for, Republicans haven't won a statewide race since 2002.