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Breaking barriers, Letitia James is elected New York attorney general

Breaking barriers, Letitia James is elected New York attorney general

She becomes the first woman in New York to be elected to the position
Breaking barriers, Letitia James is elected New York attorney general
Letitia James votes in a polling pace set up in Public School 11 in Brooklyn on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.
Photographer: Michelle Agins/The New York Times

NEW YORK — Letitia James was overwhelmingly elected as the attorney general of New York on Tuesday, shattering a trio of racial and gender barriers and placing herself in position to be at the forefront of the country’s legal bulwark against the policies of President Donald Trump.

With her victory over Republican nominee Keith H. Wofford, James, 60, the public advocate for New York City, becomes the first woman in New York to be elected as attorney general, the first African-American woman to be elected to statewide office and the first black person to serve as attorney general.

The victory follows a rugged political season that arose after the surprise resignation of former attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman, following charges that he physically abused multiple women. James will succeed Barbara D. Underwood, who was appointed by the state Legislature in May to complete Schneiderman’s term.

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Underwood already has dozens of cases pending against Trump, including an investigation into his charity and lawsuits to stop immigrant families from being separated at the border and to block the rollback of net neutrality and environmental regulations.

In her victory speech in Brooklyn, James vowed to continue the office’s scrutiny of the president. “He should know that we here in New York — and I, in particular — we are not scared of you,” she said. “And as the next attorney general of his home state, I will be shining a bright light into every dark corner of his real estate dealings, and every dealing, demanding truthfulness at every turn.”

James has said she will continue cases such as the lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, which the state charges has misled the public about the dangers of OxyContin. She also said she intends to name a public ethics counsel, pursue criminal justice reform and push for the power to bring corruption cases independent of the governor’s office.

James led Wofford Wednesday morning 59.65 percent to 34.36 percent — by a margin of more than 1.4 million votes — with most of the precincts counted.

Results:

  • James (D): 3,453.446 - 59.65%
  • Wofford (R): 1,989,386 - 34.36%
  • Sussman (G): 66,989 - 1.16%
  • Sliwa (Ref): 24,720 - 0.43%
  • Garvey (L): 41,159 - 0.71%
  • Blank: 206,020 - 3.56%
  • 15,453 of 15,529 districts reporting
  • New York State Board  of Elections

“They may have gotten us tonight, but we’re right on the merits,” Wofford said in his concession speech, as a television in the corner showed James at a victory podium.

James had prevailed in a competitive four-person primary, aided by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s support. But her victory did not come without some stumbles.

Wofford, 49, attacked James’ relationship with Cuomo, questioning whether she would be independent enough from the governor to deal with the string of corruption convictions in Albany, which included two high-ranking associates of Cuomo’s.

All of James’ Democratic rivals also pounced on her after she said it was “critically important” that she “not be known as the ‘Sheriff on Wall Street.'” The nickname was given to former attorney general Eliot Spitzer for his use of the Martin Act to prosecute fraud on Wall Street. James eventually tempered her remarks.

And during a debate last week, James equivocated when asked a question about the death penalty being applied to the man accused of fatally shooting 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. James said she was against the death penalty but would support its use in the synagogue shooting.

“I oppose the death penalty, but in situations like this, it’s difficult to oppose the death penalty,” James said.

Sean Rankin, executive director of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, said the New York attorney general’s office has an outsize role in national matters, often because of issues involving Wall Street.

“Over the last two years, Democratic attorneys general have been the only check and balance on the Trump administration,” Rankin said. “They have halted his illegal executive orders and protected rights with injunctions. With Tish James, we will see a very good team get better.”

James is part of a record wave of black women running for higher office across the country, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. There were 59 black women running for congressional or state executive office in the 2018 election cycle compared to 45 black women in 2014.

“The nation is ready for black women’s leadership,” said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights, a group that works to get black women elected to office. “Some of it is in response to the current occupant of the White House, and some of it is that people are becoming aware that the majority of our elected officials are white and male, and that is not the makeup of the country.”

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