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Teachout, At Capitol, Says She'd Be A More Engaged AG

Mark Lennihan
Zephyr Teachout announces her Democratic Party candidacy for the New York State Attorney General while standing across from Trump Tower in June in New York.

There’s a four-way Democratic primary for Attorney General of New York, to replace Eric Schneiderman, who resigned over allegations he physically abused women that he dated. One of the candidates, Zephyr Teachout, was at the Capitol for several events, including an endorsement by Assemblyman Phil Steck. Steck is one of the only state legislators who was a Bernie Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2016.

They stood in a park outside the building, in a summer downpour. Teachout, a 46-year-old Fordham law professor who is in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, says she joined the race because she believes the country is in a “democratic and constitutional crisis” under the Trump administration, and the state needs a “truly independent” attorney general.  

“I believe and I know, and I feel it this year, that New York State is really on the verge of major change,” Teachout said.

The other three candidates in the Democratic primary for Attorney General are New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, Hudson Valley Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, and Buffalo attorney Leecia Eve.

Teachout won 30 percent of Democratic primary vote for governor in 2014, when she ran as a virtual unknown against Governor Andrew Cuomo. She’s also been endorsed by Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, who in June won a primary against Queens incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley.

In an interview with public radio and television, Teachout says she believes the New York Attorney General’s post is the “most important legal office in the country right now.”

“The Trump Organization and the Trump Foundation are based here,” she said. “That means that where there’s illegality, the illegality is happening here in New York.”

Teachout has for weeks called for a criminal probe of the Trump Foundation. The current acting Attorney General, Barbara Underwood, filed a civil lawsuit. In recent days, Underwood and Governor Cuomo, took steps to open two separate criminal investigations. Teachout is taking credit for that.  

Teachout says she’s also like to combat corruption in state government. In recent months several former associates of Governor Cuomo have been convicted of bribery and bid rigging, and the two former legislative leaders face significant jail time. She would restart the Moreland Act commission on corruption, which was begun by Cuomo in 2013, but shut down a year later. She says there was never an executive order formally rescinding the commission, so it could be revived.

Later, Teachout appeared at a news conference with women who are survivors of sexual harassment in the state legislature. The Sexual Harassment Working Group is calling for public hearings, saying the laws passed earlier this year by Cuomo and the legislature are not adequate in protecting victims and giving them tools to fight back against their abusers.   

Teachout was at the State Capitol Monday with Erica Vladimer, who has accused Senator Jeff Klein of forcibly kissing her. Klein denies the accusation. The state's ethics panel, JCOPE, is investigating, but Vladimer says she's heard nothing back from JCOPE.

Teachout says if she becomes Attorney General, she wants more powers to pursue sexual harassment cases in state government.  

“Right now we need a permanent referral to look into both civil and criminal violations of sexual misconduct,” she said. “We’re in emergency status.”

The three other Attorney General candidates, including the Democratic Party’s nominee for the post, New York City Public Advocate Tish James, were also invited to appear with the women. But members of the Sexual Harassment Working Group say they did not hear back from them.

A spokeswoman for Leecia Eve, Maggie McKeon, said in a statement that "Leecia is committed to ensuring that New York State has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment in any type of environment.” McKeon says Eve would “use the powers of the Attorney General's office not only to prosecute any instances of sexual harassment, but to work towards building greater awareness of this far too frequent issue."

And Congressman Maloney said, in a statement “it doesn't matter if you're the town dog catcher or the President of the United States – if you sexually harass your colleagues or employees, you have to be held accountable.” Maloney says a public hearing though is not enough, and he says “a full-scale investigation into sexual harassment in the New York State government” should be conducted. Maloney says the state needs to “create meaningful, systemic changes in the reporting structure to empower survivors rather than abusers.”

Tish James did not attend the press conference because she had already made plans to visit Puerto Rico with Governor Cuomo to help storm rebuilding efforts, said campaign spokeswoman Delaney Kempner.

“It is painfully obvious that New York State laws have not protected women in the workforce from abuse. As Attorney General, I will pursue any individual who seeks to abuse or harass any woman in New York,” James, said, in a statement.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found James is in the lead, but she has the support of just 26 percent of registered Democrats. Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney has 15 percent, Teachout is at 12 percent, and Leecia Eve is at 3 percent. 42 percent are undecided.

Back at the park, Assemblyman Steck is optimistic about Teachout’s chances. He says the Democratic Party is changing and progressives are steering the party back to its roots.

“The establishment of the Democratic Party, sadly, departed from the policies of Franklin Roosevelt,” Steck said. “Which is really what most Democrats believe in.”

Teachout, and candidate Leecia Eve, are calling for a series of debates in the Attorney General primary. But so, far none have been scheduled.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.