On Thursday night, exactly one week out from a still very much wide open primary race, the four democratic candidates for New York attorney general shared a Cooper Union stage for what will likely be their final debate—a lively slugfest that began with an ABBA-soundtracked entrance and concluded with co-moderator Preet Bharara asking each candidate to guess who wrote that op-ed.
In between, the progressive candidates mostly traded barbs about their ties to corporate donors and outlined their plans for stymying President Trump’s agenda, with very occasional allusions to how the state office might be of use to New York state.
Despite trailing in the polls, Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout appeared the clear frontrunner on Thursday, in large part because the other three candidates—New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, U.S. Rep Sean Patrick Maloney, and Verizon lobbyist and former Cuomo aide Leecia Eve—directed most of their attacks toward her.
That was the case when the four debated last month too; but this particular round came just hours after Teachout filed a lawsuit against Maloney, accusing the Hudson Valley representative of violating campaign finance laws by using cash raised in his congressional campaign for his attorney general bid. (Confusingly, he is running for both offices at once).
Referring to the lawsuit as a "pile of nonsense," Maloney grew increasingly flustered by Teachout's mention of his support for the so-called Bank Lobbyist Act, which would weaken Dodd-Frank protections. "Her rhetoric on this is completely unhinged," he fired back at one point. The crowd, notably supportive throughout the night, audibly booed in response.
Soon after, Public Advocate James—who has the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and once seemed a shoo-in for the job—offered her own emotionally-charged defense against the accusation that she is too cozy with corporate donors. "If you know anything about Letitia James you know that I am unbought," she said. "The reality is in order for me to compete, as an African American, I have consistently had a difficult time raising funds."
James added that, as public advocate, she'd "turbocharged" the Worst Landlords List, and would continue to protect tenants from predatory real estate interests, despite the industry accounting for 19 percent of her latest $1.6 million fundraising haul.
After starting out on the defensive, Maloney, James, and Eve quickly directed a string of attacks at Teachout—knocking her for only recently joining the New York State Bar, for treating the position as a "classroom exercise," and for her opposition to the SAFE Act gun control law. In more than one instance, the fact that she grew up on a farm in Vermont was floated as an insult.
Teachout, meanwhile, repeatedly emphasized that she is not taking corporate PAC or LLC money—a stance that helped earn her the endorsements of several community groups, as well the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Daily News.
"To be the next Sheriff of Wall Street, you need to be able to stand up to corporate lobbyists, not take money from big banks," said Teachout, referencing James's statement to the Times last month that she didn't want to be known as the "Sheriff of Wall Street."
But perhaps the most illuminating moment of the night came when moderator Brian Lehrer handed the mic to Common Cause Executive Director Susan Lerner, who asked how the future attorney general should use the powers of the office to protect voting rights in the state. None of the candidates seemed ready with a coherent response (Teachout, who referenced the state's lawsuit over the voter purge in Brooklyn last year, got closest.)
"I'm afraid not all the candidates answered the question that was asked," lamented Lerner.
On the question of Trump, of course, the candidates were better prepared. All four offered well-rehearsed answers for how they would take on the president, and each routinely circled back to the part of their resumes—legal, legislative, academic or otherwise—that made them uniquely qualified for the task.
Asked early on what had pushed him to consider leaving congress, Maloney echoed a sentiment that would be repeated throughout the night: "This is the front lines of the resistance."
The winner of next Thursday's primary will face Republican Keith Wofford.