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Teachout pledges to be a more engaged Attorney General

Karen DeWitt

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 Monday.

She received 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 down pour.

Teachout, a 46-year-old Fordham University 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.

Teachout won 30 percent of the Democratic primary vote for governor in 2014, when she ran as a virtual unknown against Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She’s also been endorsed by Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, who in June won a primary against Queens incumbent Rep. 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 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 the governor 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 appeared 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. The candidates did not respond to a request for comment.

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 said 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."

Maloney said in a statement that “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 said a public hearing is not enough and instead called for “a full-scale investigation into sexual harassment in the New York State government.” Maloney said the state needs to “create meaningful, systemic changes in the reporting structure to empower survivors rather than abusers.”

The campaign of Tish James did not respond to a request for comment.

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

Back at the park, Assemblymember 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 DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.