Photo credit: Mackenzie Stroh

By Jonathan Greig

The Democratic primary race for New York State attorney general has suddenly turned into a dogfight ahead of the election on Thursday, pitting heavily-backed New York City Public Advocate Letitia James against United States Representative Sean Patrick Maloney and law professor Zephyr Teachout.

The candidates are battling to face unopposed Republican candidate and lawyer Keith Wofford in the general election in November. Former Solicitor General Barbara Underwood was forced to take over the position in May after Eric T. Schneiderman resigned amid a scandal over accusations he had abused several women.

James started the race as the frontrunner, securing the party’s endorsement in May and a helping hand from Governor Andrew Cuomo. But a Sienna Poll released yesterday found that the race is now nearly a dead heat, with Maloney in the lead at 25 percent and James right behind at 24 percent. Teachout is not far off either, getting 18 percent of the poll surveying 509 Democratic voters. Leecia Eve, a former Hillary Clinton aide from Buffalo, is also running.

Increasingly vocal critics to James’ left have pushed back against seemingly all “establishment” candidates — especially those tied to Cuomo — despite her impressively long record of advocacy, across-the-board support from most of the state’s labor unions and liberal bona fides on many key issues.

In an interview with Haitian Times, James said voters should focus on what the state’s attorney general can do to oppose many of the worst policies that have come out of Washington since Donald Trump’s election win. One of the most devastating Trump administration decisions to come down the pipeline since the last election is the imminent termination of temporary protected status for Haitian immigrants on July 22, 2019.

More than 5,200 Haitians in New York City alone will be affected by the move, and James said the attorney general was integral in fighting back against policies like these.

“I’m going to work with a collection of AGs across the country to oppose this administration’s disastrous decisions. It is important that we protect the rights of immigrants, enforce the law and use all of our efforts to help people stay in this country,” she said, adding that in general, there needed to be a more robust effort to help immigrants understand the legal system and, more importantly, understand what rights they are afforded under New York State law.

She noted Underwood’s significant role in the lawsuits against the Trump administration decision in March to add a question about U.S. citizenship status to 2020 census forms. In July, a federal judge in Manhattan allowed two cases against the new rule to move forward, led in part by Underwood, who is representing New York in the multi-state lawsuits. Before Schneiderman resigned, he had taken more than 100 legal or administrative actions against the Trump administration, and earlier this summer Underwood sued Trump for using his foundation to fund his campaign and business.

James said the question was designed to disproportionately affect immigrant communities and added that she was eager to join other states in the fight to get it removed. The Census Bureau has not asked the question in nearly 70 years, and groups involved in the lawsuits pointed specifically to Trump’s heavily-criticized comments on Haitian immigrants as direct evidence that these moves, and other decisions like it, were intentionally aimed at immigrants. In January, the Washington Post and New York Times reported that Trump asked a room full of senators why the US would want any immigrants from Haiti.

“Immigrants should have access to courts and we will use our voice to help immigrants navigate the system. We want to fund more legal services across the state to help people learn their rights and know how the system works. We also have to make sure that ICE is not allowed to just arbitrarily arrest people and obstruct justice. We have to protect everyone here, including DACA residents as well,” she said.

The Brooklyn native has faced heavy criticism over the past month after telling the New York Times she did not want to be known as the “Sheriff of Wall Street” — a moniker often given to the New York attorney general — eventually revising her statement to say she wanted to focus on a number of different issues including financial crimes.

“I fully plan on fighting to root out corruption on Wall Street and going after predatory lenders. Lenders in New York are still charging excessive fees, offering no loan modifications and many are back to the same tactics they were using to defraud people before,” she told the Haitian Times this week.

“The student debt crisis is also a pertinent issue affecting voters across the state. Students are leveraging way too much debt at an early age, and I plan to take on for-profit universities that are saddling students with worthless degrees that leave them with excessive amounts of debt and no tangible way to pay it back.”

These issues also bled into the housing crisis, she said, as “zombie” homes were a clear by-product of the foreclosure process plaguing many New Yorkers and fueling the homelessness crisis.

“As a former assistant attorney general in Brooklyn, I sued a lender that was engaging in the same patterns as other abusive lenders and I brought action against them based on deceptive advertising and other abuses,” she added. She went on to describe plans to use the civil rights bureau to initiate litigation against housing discrimination and lenders violating federal as well as state law through predatory loans that target immigrants.

Part of her blueprint to help immigrants in New York is to increase awareness and access to government institutions through better language services, stating that “Haitians who speak Creole deserve to have the same services as their fellow citizens.”

As public advocate, she has introduced more legislation than anyone who held the position before her and pointed to her record as evidence of a dogged determination to bring local issues to the fore. On top of immigration, Wall Street regulation, environmental protections and the housing crisis, she mentioned that the opioid epidemic was being exacerbated by deceptive advertising from giant pharmaceutical companies who needed to be checked by the attorney general’s office.

When asked about her two major opponents in the race, James said flatly: “I have real world courtroom experience, not classroom experience. I’ve opposed Trump at every turn and never backed any of his decisions. That’s what separates me from the pack.”

Jonathan Greig is a journalist based in New York City working as a contributing writer for CBS Interactive. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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