On Thursday, the most important election until the November midterms will take place in New York ― a contest with national implications for the future of the Democratic Party, the strength of the American left and the viability of the Trump resistance. Nobody has any idea how it will turn out.
I am writing, of course, of the New York state attorney general’s race, which pits the best and the worst the Democratic Party has to offer against each other, for one of the most powerful offices in the country.
New York Democrats have long occupied a special place in the national party. Its leaders have a habit of vaulting to the presidency. But though the state is home to what may be the country’s most liberal constituency, New York’s own government is a perpetual mockery of progressive values. Its elected Democrats have offered Democratic voters nothing but disappointment and outrage for decades.
The state government is in bed with corrupt real estate mini-moguls and corrupt Wall Street mega-moguls. Its affordable housing programs are a sick, chronic joke. New York has the worst income inequality of any state in the nation and imposes nakedly racist restrictions on voting. Its police kill unarmed black men with impunity. It imprisoned a child in a state penitentiary without trial for years. The trains do not even run on time.
The president of the United States himself is a product of New York’s rancid political waters, a real estate hustler who bragged in the 2016 election about buying off politicians before deciding to become one himself.
But incumbency is a difficult force to beat in New York (or anywhere else in America), and the litany of failures listed above would count as policy achievements in today’s Republican Party. So even though two top aides to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) were convicted on corruption charges earlier this year, it remains very likely that he will be re-elected in November.
That leaves the New York attorney general as the best hope for cleaning up politics in New York and, perhaps, Washington. The resistance will have a choice on Thursday, Sept. 13: In the Democratic primary, it can elect the best-known candidate with a “D” after his name, or it can take on the corrupt interests that propelled the president himself to the White House.
When disgraced state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigned in May, media attention quickly focused on Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University law professor, and Letitia James, New York City’s public advocate, as potential successors. James has cultivated a progressive record working within the New York political establishment, but her ties to toxic members of that establishment, including the governor, have hampered her throughout the campaign.
The national left has rallied behind Teachout, a staunch anti-corruption advocate whose academic book on the subject is a minor classic. Teachout has vowed to use the attorney general’s office to break the stranglehold that big finance and big real estate exercise over public spending priorities and has talked about functioning as a “regulator of last resort” for the country at large.
Since so many major corporations are chartered in New York, Teachout has proposed opening investigations against them as a way to fight the Trump administration on everything from climate change to predatory lending. Like every other candidate in the race, she has vowed to relentlessly pursue any corrupt dealings within the Trump organization itself.
Bolstered by endorsements from The New York Times and the New York Daily News, Teachout has taken on the status of a front-runner. Several New York political figures, noting the way the wind is blowing, have defected to her camp. And in recent debates, James and other candidates have trained their fire on Teachout, all but ignoring one another.
The contest between Teachout and James is firmly within the established debate over how to go about reforming the Democratic Party ― not so much a question of values as one of tactics, a choice between a pragmatist who has notched small victories within a corrupt system and an idealistic outsider who promises to overhaul that very system.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who entered the race on June 6, does not fit within this paradigm. In 2013, he was one of just nine Democrats in the House who voted with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in his gambit to suspend implementation of Obamacare ― a clash that resulted in a government shutdown. Two years later, he was one of only four House Democrats who voted with Republicans to bar undocumented immigrants from receiving federal housing aid. He voted with Republicans on two major laws unwinding key parts of the post-financial crisis Wall Street reforms. One Maloney-backed repeal will enable banks to hide racial discrimination in mortgage lending, while another, authored by Citigroup lobbyists, provided federal subsidies to big banks trading in the risky derivatives at the heart of the 2008 crash. He has voted to increase Donald Trump’s military budget and expand his warrantless surveillance powers.
A Maloney campaign spokesperson declined to address the lawmaker’s voting record with HuffPost.
Maloney is even operating his campaign for attorney general as a test case on state campaign finance regulation. Teachout, a campaign finance expert, recently filed suit against him for moving $1.4 million raised for his congressional race into his state contest ― a move that, if upheld in court, would create a loophole to help politicians avoid state disclosure requirements and contribution limits.
Front-runners with comfortable leads do not file lawsuits against their political opponents in the closing days of a campaign. The case is a risky strategic move indicating that Teachout views Maloney as a serious threat to the nomination. What little polling exists for the race suggests her fears are justified. Two polls released over the summer ― before Teachout began receiving high-profile endorsements ― gave James the lead, followed by Maloney in second and Teachout a close third. More than 40 percent of the electorate were still undecided, and majorities indicated they had either never heard of or had no opinion about James or Teachout.
In a contest like that, name recognition matters more than any policy position. The congressman, who has represented a swing district in the Hudson Valley since 2013, benefits most in that regard. The two ways to boost name recognition are through good press ― of which Teachout has secured plenty ― and ample television advertising. Maloney’s $3 million war chest ― more than five times what Teachout had raised as of Aug. 6 ― has helped put his smiling face on TV screens across New York state, which may be enough to put him over the top. His biggest funders include Wall Street banks, real estate developers and corporate law firms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
A James or a Teachout victory on Thursday night would delight different factions of the Democratic Party. A Maloney win would be a triumph for big money, further entrenching the same interests that have rendered New York government so ineffective for so many communities.