Establishment Candidates Teamed Up Against Zephyr Teachout in New York Attorney General Debate

Zephyr Teachout, the insurgent in the race, was treated more like the frontrunner.

Letitia James, from left, Sean Patrick Maloney, Leecia Eve and Zephyr Teachout debate for New York State Attorney General during a Democratic Primary at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the Manhattan borough of New York on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. (Holly Pickett/The New York Times via AP, Pool)
From left, Letitia James, Sean Patrick Maloney, Leecia Eve and Zephyr Teachout debate for New York State Attorney General at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York on Aug. 28, 2018. Photo: Holly Pickett/The New York Times via AP, Pool

Why is Sean Patrick Maloney — a sitting House member in a newly competitive New York congressional district that Donald Trump won in 2016 — running to be New York’s next attorney general?

After last night’s debate in New York City, between Democratic primary contenders Maloney, Letitia “Tish” James, Leecia Eve, and Zephyr Teachout, the answer doesn’t seem any clearer — or perhaps it does.

Anybody who presumed that Maloney was in the race as a Teachout spoiler came away from Tuesday’s attorney general debate with that impression only solidified. Teachout challenged Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a primary in 2014 and performed especially well in the Hudson Valley, where Maloney is also an elected official. She also ran for Congress two years later in a neighboring district, NY-19, losing to Republican Jon Faso. Cuomo, meanwhile, is backing James, the New York City public advocate who is popular in the city but largely unknown in the rest of the state.

Maloney invested his time in attacking Teachout and agreeing with James at almost every available opportunity, though by the end of the debate, it was no more clear what potential path to victory he saw for his own candidacy.

Maloney drew on his experience working on congressional investigations since his 2012 election, and made reference to his federal security clearance and up-to-date knowledge of the Mueller investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election. Like every candidate except Eve, he referenced Trump and his opposition to the current administration in his opening statement. His biggest selling point, though, was that he knows how to beat Republicans and win in competitive races (“I won three times in a district that voted for Donald Trump”), and later said, “I’m sick of losing to Donald Trump.”

Yet as the national party pours resources into the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program — to flip vulnerable House seats — Maloney vacating his post could do precisely the opposite, leaving open a seat that City & State New York had already called one of New York state’s most competitive before Maloney announced his AG run. He’s running his AG and congressional race simultaneously in a move that has drawn legal challenges from his Republican opponents, and the ire of fellow Democrats at the state and national level. While there is one Republican running for the New York AG seat, Keith Wofford, a Democrat is heavily favored to win that race.

The GOP welcomed the announcement of Maloney’s AG candidacy, as it could open up an until-now unlikely path to victory for Maloney’s Republican opponent, Orange County legislator James O’Donnell. One GOP pollster told Politico that “Republicans in Orange County are more likely to turn out in midterm elections, so it should be very competitive.” In any case, running for two offices simultaneously doesn’t make for a strong case that Maloney is excited to serve NY-18. Dutchess County Democratic Chair Elisa Sumner, who supports Teachout, called the dual race “an insult to the people in his congressional district. He’s basically saying to them, ‘If I can’t be AG then I’ll still be your representative, but if I can, I’m leaving.’” In the event that Maloney were to win the nomination, Democratic Party officials would have to scramble to find someone to run a less-than-two-month campaign for the seat.

While speaking occasionally on his own policy priorities, most of Maloney’s purpose on stage seemed to be helping Tish James pile onto and rebut Teachout — the only candidate in the race not taking corporate PAC or LLC donations — in a move that made it seem as if both of them saw her as the frontrunner; she recently racked up endorsements from the New York Times and New York Daily News.

On several accounts James and Maloney used the same language in reference to their opponent, remarking on what a luxury it is for Teachout to be “holier than thou” and swear off donations from corporate PACs or LLCs, with Maloney claiming that such a stance was equally as poisonous to American democracy as corporate money, because, well, he didn’t offer a reason. He laughed as James called their opponent “Professor Teachout” (she’s a professor at Fordham Law) in an attempt to paint her as a head-in-the-clouds academic, a jab notably deployed against Elizabeth Warren in her 2012 Massachusetts Senate race. It’s also what Teachout’s 2016 Republican congressional opponent, Faso, called Teachout when they faced off to represent for NY-19 in 2016. When James referenced that Teachout once referring to herself as a “Rockefeller Republican” during her 2016 campaign, Maloney jumped in a few minutes later with the same line.

Each also kept referring back to a dig Maloney made early in the night that — despite Teachout’s pledge about corporate PAC donations in this election — she accepted $20,000 in in-kind donations during her 2016 congressional run.

James and Maloney even looked friendly on stage, patting one another on the shoulder several times through the course of the night and laughing at one another’s jokes, particularly those at Teachout’s expense.

In a “cross-examination” section, in which candidates could ask one of their opponents a question, James asked Teachout about her past opposition to a gun control bill in 2013. In Maloney’s follow-up, he said, “Yeah, I have a question. Why didn’t you answer Tish James’s question?”

Maloney did take one swipe at James early on, saying it was “unprecedented for a governor to handpick an attorney general.” Maloney has taken other potshots at James before, but if he were really hoping to peel off votes from Teachout, that strategy would basically check out.

James also attacked Teachout during the debate for being disciplined by a North Carolina bar, a charge reiterated by her spokesperson later that evening.

In reality, in 2005, Teachout was fined $50 and issued a letter of reprimand for not informing a court that she had moved, and not providing a forwarding address. She was second chair serving an indigent client, and the reprimand makes clear that no harm was done to the client, and the client did not file a complaint. Cuomo leveled the same charge at Teachout in 2014 that James is using now.

James, meanwhile, tried to stake out her independence from her running-mate Andrew Cuomo and made frequent reference to her record, as a well-liked public advocate — an idiosyncratic New York City seat regarded as a stepping stone to the Mayor’s Office. James has the endorsement not just of Cuomo, but of EMILY’s List, which backs pro-choice women, along with much of the state Democratic establishment. She reiterated a statement she’d made a few weeks prior in stating that, “I don’t want to be known as the sheriff on Wall Street,” in response to a question on the subject, stating that “I want to pave my own way.” (The title is most associated with former New York AG Eliot Spitzer.) James emphasized her willingness to work with legislators in the state capitol, repeating that “not everyone in Albany is corrupt and there are some fine elected officials.”

The Cuomo campaign has been mired in scandal in recent months by a slew of corruption charges brought against state officials with close ties to his administration. As the debate was starting, news broke that Cuomo had ordered the acting New York state attorney general, Barbara Underwood, to suspend an investigation into Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance’s botched investigation into Hollywood producer and serial rapist Harvey Weinstein.

Top photo: From left, Letitia James, Sean Patrick Maloney, Leecia Eve, and Zephyr Teachout debate for New York state attorney general at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York on Aug. 28, 2018.

Join The Conversation