What Kind of Resistance? The Battle for New York Attorney General Opens Up a Rift

Will big money swamp the New York attorney general race, or are Democrats looking to shake things up?

Congressional nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands with Zephyr Teachout after endorsing her for New York City Public Advocate on July 12, 2018 in New York City, N.Y.. The two liberal candidates held the news conference in front of the Wall Street bull in a show of standing up to corporate moneyPhoto: Spencer Platt/Getty
Congressional nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands with Teachout after endorsing her for New York City Public Advocate on July 12, 2018 in New York City, N.Y. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On the morning of September 5, José-Antonio Apolinar left his apartment in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood headed for his court hearing. When Apolinar, accompanied by his mother, exited the Kings County Criminal Court a few hours later, at just after 1:30 p.m., a number of plainclothes ICE agents jumped out of an unmarked gray minivan onto the sidewalk and apprehended him.

“The men were not wearing badges, so I actually thought it was a kidnapping,” said his mother, who requested that The Intercept not publish her name. Apolinar was taken to an ICE facility in New Jersey.

Apolinar has lived in New York for 28 years and his four children are all U.S. citizens. His sudden detainment in broad daylight was only the latest in a series of ICE operations carried out across New York City this year, despite the fact that the city is ostensibly a “sanctuary city” where cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities is severely limited.

An ICE spokesperson refused to comment on the details of the operation but did confirm that Apolinar had been detained. “Apolinar has a criminal history in the U.S., including DUI convictions in September 2013 and May 2018,” the spokesperson told The Intercept. “ICE officers arrested Apolinar Sept. 5 in Brooklyn, New York, and he is currently in ICE custody pending removal proceedings.”

President Donald Trump’s unleashing of ICE and its sister organization, Customs and Border Protection, has been the most visceral expression of his politics. In New York, resistance has been fierce, and helped fuel the insurgent victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in June.

Hundreds of immigrants and allies protested outside JPMorgan Chase offices on August 2, 2017, calling on its complicity in Trump's anti-immigrant agenda in New York City, N.Y. Photo: Erik McGregor/Sipa/AP

Hundreds of immigrants and allies protested outside JPMorgan Chase offices on Aug. 2, 2017, calling on its complicity in Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda in New York City.

Photo: Erik McGregor/Sipa/AP

“We want ICE out of our communities,” said Nieves Padilla, Brooklyn coordinator for Make the Road, a political organizing group that advocates for immigrant rights. “No one is safe. No one is off limits. Everyone is afraid of Donald Trump.”

Just how afraid, and just what they want done, is the question shaping New York’s attorney general race. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, running on a generic campaign of broad opposition to Trump but cooperation with the state’s GOP and its financial interest, is polling just ahead of two progressives, Zephyr Teachout and Letitia James. Teachout has been precise in how she intends to target Trump and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, while James has been hampered by her links to the governor. “I am guilty by association,” a frustrated James recently told New York Magazine regarding her endorsements from Cuomo and at least 20 major figures in the party’s establishment from state legislators in Albany to district leaders to city council members in her home base of New York City.

James has pulled back from the “sheriff of Wall Street” moniker, even though as public advocate she has taken on corporate misdeeds in New York City — in addition to fighting to protect tenants from abusive landlords and foster care children from state neglect. Teachout has vowed to use Executive Order 106, which created the now-defunct Moreland Commission, but was never formally rescinded, to investigate corruption in Albany. James and Maloney have not made the same promise.

When it comes to abolishing ICE, moderates Leecia Eve, a Verizon executive who is running a distant fourth, and Maloney have cautioned against the idea. Progressives James and Teachout have made the issue a central plank of their platforms. The issue, in particular, has polarized the electorate.

While candidates debated the merits of abolishing ICE on the campaign trail, Padilla said, the agency was carrying out weekly raids across the state. The recent operation in Brooklyn, she noted, was particularly brazen, but of a piece with the agency’s reign under Trump.

Padilla was one of a number of community organizers and activists who pressed two of the four candidates — Maloney and Eve did not appear — on the issue at Make the Road’s Brooklyn office last month. “I want an AG who doesn’t just talk about defending our immigrant communities, but actually defends us so we can live in dignity. So we can feel safe in our streets,” said Padilla.

On the campus of SUNY-New Paltz, against the backdrop of the lush, green hills of the Hudson Valley, students gathered at the school’s student union last Friday to hear from one political candidate who has upended the Democratic Party and from another who hopes to do so in Thursday’s primary.

As Ocasio-Cortez walked up to the stage, students took out their phones and flashed photos. Selfies were taken.

The party’s new progressive star was there to introduce Zephyr Teachout, the insurgent candidate for New York attorney general who has vowed to use the vast legal tools at the disposal of the office to investigate Wall Street firms, the Trump Organization, and fossil fuel polluters operating in the state, to name just a few. “It’s going to take an incredible amount of creative lawyering,” Teachout told The Intercept in an interview after the rally.

This was the second time in three days that Ocasio-Cortez had appeared alongside Teachout. Where Teachout, a wonky Fordham Law professor and corruption expert, often goes into long tangents on the stump talking about the tangled networks of corruption that permeate the state, Ocasio-Cortez speaks in short, direct sentences. She knows how to stir up a crowd. Though nearly two decades her junior, Ocasio-Cortez has struck a rapport with Teachout on the campaign trail.

“I think that when it comes to the role of money in politics, this attorney general’s race, in particular, is one of the most impactful decisions we can make for the state and for the country,” Ocasio-Cortez told The Intercept. “And Zephyr, as the only candidate that does not take corporate money … is by far the strongest candidate on progressive issues.”

Senior Ellie Condelles stood near the stage after the event, hoping to speak to Teachout. As head of the school’s chapter of Democracy Matters, a nationwide nonpartisan student group intent on keeping big money out of politics, she had helped organize the rally. Teachout “doesn’t have conflicting interests,” Condelles told The Intercept.

In her view, Albany — where since 2013 the Senate majority leader, assembly speaker, and a close aide to Cuomo have all fallen to corruption scandals — will never reform itself. It has to be toppled and Teachout is, she said, the one to turn it on its head.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., talks with Service Academy nominees during a luncheon at the U.S. Military Academy on June 11, 2016 in West Point, N.Y.Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., talks with Service Academy nominees during a luncheon at the U.S. Military Academy on June 11, 2016 in West Point, N.Y.

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP

This is the contest that wasn’t supposed to be happening. Former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was among the more popular public officials for Democrats across the country, with millions holding out hope that he would form part of a two-man Trump wrecking crew along with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Instead, Schneiderman’s past alleged abuse of women close to him was exposed by the New Yorker in May, and he swiftly resigned, producing the truncated primary that ends Thursday. The early frontrunner Tish James, the New York City Public Advocate, has lost support among progressives as she more closely aligned herself with Cuomo and his big-money donors. The opening on the left provided the oxygen Teachout needed.

Emerging from a series of debates, she found herself being treated unlike she ever had before as a candidate — as frontrunner. Yet the contest is not just between James and Teachout. On the right, the well-funded Maloney, a Democratic congressman representing a district that Trump won in 2016, has been surging in the final month of the campaign, pumping his congressional war chest into his state race — an arguably illegal move that Teachout has sued to stop.

On the eve of the primary, polls show Maloney ahead, with both James and Teachout in striking distance.

After repeated requests for an interview, the Maloney campaign did not make the candidate available for this story.

The fight between Maloney and Teachout to be the state’s top lawyer pits the most conservative candidate in the race against the most progressive. Teachout has refused all corporate donations while Maloney is Wall Street’s favored candidate, raising an estimated $1.8 million in this race. Teachout filed a lawsuit last week accusing Maloney — who says he will run to keep his seat in Congress should he not win the AG nomination — of violating state campaign finance law by misusing over $1.4 million raised by his congressional campaign.

A judge denied her request for an injunction just minutes after filing. Maloney spokesperson Caitlin Girouard called the lawsuit “fake” and “meritless.”

“Maloney has run this campaign by the book, in a transparent manner, with full and complete disclosure,” said Girouard in her statement. “This stands in stark contrast to the Teachout campaign, which the Albany Times-Union recently discovered has been using a federal PAC to prop up her state campaign through a campaign finance shell game.”

That Albany Times-Union report, published last month, found that the Teachout campaign had struggled to keep up with finance reporting requirements, specifically whether a federal PAC tied to her 2016 congressional campaign was used to pay expenses for the attorney general campaign.

Her opponents hit her on the report and on the issue of corporate donations in last Thursday’s debate, held at the Cooper Union in Manhattan. That morning, the Daily News had published an investigation that found that while the Teachout campaign had not taken Wall Street donations as she pledged, it had taken $174,210, or more than 11.5 percent of what the campaign had raised to that point, from individuals with ties to the financial sector. The findings, Maloney said, exposed Teachout’s “hypocrisy” on the issue.

“I have never taken corporate PAC money,” Teachout told The Intercept. “I want to be very clear about that.”

At the heart of Maloney’s argument essentially was that there’s no difference between corporations and people, Teachout added. “That’s an incredibly dangerous argument for Democrats to be making.”

For his part, Maloney has had to defend himself from his opponents for controversial votes he has taken in Congress. In 2015, he voted for the Securing Against Foreign Enemies Act, which the American Civil Liberties Union credits as opening the legislative door to Trump’s travel ban. This past May, he was one of only 33 Democrats in the House to vote to roll back certain Dodd-Frank regulations. And, in the same month, he voted for the Protect and Serve Act, a bill that would make it a crime to assault a police officer but would not necessarily protect victims of police brutality. “I’m proud of my record,” Maloney told the crowd at the debate.

When Teachout called Maloney out on that record, he responded by calling her unhinged.

After two unsuccessful attempts at elected office — in 2014 for governor and in 2016 for Congress — Teachout’s message has united a sort of rainbow coalition across the state: environmentalists in the Hudson Valley, rural voters in western New York, suburbanites in Long Island, criminal justice reform advocates in the cities, and young voters.

New York Democratic attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout joins local politicians, activists and others participating in a protest in Union Square in support of Row v. Wade and to denounce President Donald Trump's selection of Brett Kavanaugh as his nomination to the Supreme Court on July 10, 2018 in New York City, N.Y. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty

Teachout joins local politicians, activists, and others participating in a protest in Union Square on July 10, 2018 in support of Row v. Wade and to denounce President Donald Trump’s selection of Brett Kavanaugh as his nomination to the Supreme Court in New York City.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“Many people [support me] because they really care about having the very best and most skilled lawyer to go after Donald Trump,” said Teachout.

Whether she can ride that anti-Trump energy to office will depend on if these disparate groups in her coalition, specifically young people, turn out to vote in larger numbers than they have in recent election cycles, said James Coleman Battista, a political science professor at the University of Buffalo and an expert on New York politics.

But, in this race, keeping together this potentially fragile coalition of voters requires a huge get-out-the-vote effort. That was evident on one day in the final week of the campaign, which took Teachout — who is eight months pregnant — all over the state.

In Peekskill, a small city on the Hudson River that sits near the site of the controversial Algonquin pipeline, she unveiled her environmental agenda. In the Bronx, she addressed progressive activists in a sweltering church. Then it was off to Harlem, where Teachout spoke to a largely African-American crowd at the headquarters of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, almost exclusively on criminal justice reforms she hoped to carry out in Albany.

While in Peekskill, Teachout was speaking directly to her base, in Harlem there were skeptics in the crowd. When she finished her 15-minute stump speech, several attendees were visibly more animated but certainly not all of them. Some must have thought: How could a wonky law professor from rural Vermont really upend decades of policies in Albany that have been largely created by Democrats?

That’s a question that will surely weigh on the minds of New York’s Democrats as they head to the polls Thursday. What this primary season in Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts, and elsewhere has shown, though, is that progressives have regained a foothold in the Democratic Party and are knocking on the doors of power. In that church in the Bronx, Teachout told the crowd, “it’s our time to seize it.”

Top photo: Congressional nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorses with Zephyr Teachout for New York attorney general on July 12, 2018 in New York City.

Join The Conversation