With New York’s top job up for grabs after Andrew Cuomo’s resignation, state elections coming up next year are shaping up as a high-stakes round of musical chairs — and attorney general is a coveted seat.
When Cuomo stepped down as governor, it created a power vacuum not seen in New York since Eliot Spitzer’s resignation from the same job in 2008. About two months after Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul replaced Cuomo, Letitia James, current attorney general, announced she would run for governor.
But James switched course abruptly on Dec. 9, stepping out of the gubernatorial race and saying she’d run for reelection as AG, instead.
“I have come to the conclusion that I must continue my work as attorney general,” she said in a statement on Twitter. “There are a number of important investigations and cases that are underway, and I intend to finish the job.”
That decision threw the attorney general race into early turmoil, as the crowded field had to contend with having to run against the incumbent — or bowing out.
As of early-December, eight people, five Democrats (not including James) and three Republicans, had officially filed with the state Board of Elections to start campaigning for the state’ top legal job.
But all of the other Democrats running have since called it quits: Former federal prosecutor Dan Goldman and State Sen. Shelley Mayer dropped out and endorsed James as soon as she jumped back in. Zephyr Teachout did the same a couple of days later. Fordham Law professor Maria Vullo and Assemblymember Clyde Vanel left the race on Dec. 13.
Even more have considered running. THE CITY reported that Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez has given serious thought to tossing his hat in the ring. Also reportedly mulling joining the fray are State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz and U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Long Island).
It’s unclear, though, whether James’ decision will push any of those elected officials to stay put.
We’ll keep updating this election guide as the campaign forges ahead. But first, let’s go over some basics.
What is an AG, and what do they do?
The attorney general is the highest legal officer for the state, serving as a top prosecutor but also an advocate for New Yorkers in general.
The AG oversees 1,800 employees, including about 700 lawyers who work on a wide array of cases. Their work can touch on anything from wage theft to consumer protection to investigating dubious charitable groups.
The office also runs specialized task forces, including units to tackle organized crime and Medicaid fraud.
The role also serves as New York’s counsel in state and federal courts and brings lawsuits on behalf of the state, if necessary — such as when then-AG Barbara Underwood sued the Donald J. Trump Foundation in 2018, or when James sued to dissolve the National Rifle Association earlier this year.
The AG’s office continues to investigate the Trump Foundation, and has since merged its work with a criminal probe of the former president by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, who is set to be succeeded Jan. 1 by Alvin Bragg.
Whoever wins the AG seat in 2022 could win up overseeing that effort. Just before James announced she would step away from the governor’s race, The Washington Post reported she’s seeking to depose former President Donald Trump in the New Year as part of that investigation.
In theory, the attorney general’s office works independently from the governor or any other department. But the AG still needs a referral, or permission letter, to start certain types of special counsel investigations, as it did when James investigated Cuomo this year and produced the report that spurred his resignation.
To maintain the independence of the office, state Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Island) introduced a bill in March to do away with that referral requirement.
Who Is Running?
Letitia James: James has served as state attorney general since 2019. Her’ office led the investigation that spurred Cuomo’s departure from his office. She had announced a run for governor in late October, but left the race just six weeks later. Before becoming AG, James served as the city’s public advocate between 2013 and 2018, and represented Brooklyn 35th District in the City Council between 2004 and 2013.
Michael Henry: He’s a commercial litigator from Queens who declared he would run against James this summer — before she announced her own run for governor. He believes she’s made it “harder for law enforcement to do their jobs,” he told the Daily News, and said she did not do enough to hold Cuomo accountable on nursing home deaths from COVID-19.
Joseph Holland: He’s an attorney, author and real estate developer who briefly served as commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Renewal during the Pataki administration. Holland previously ran for attorney general ahead of the 2018 Republican primary, but ultimately withdrew.
John Sarcone: He’s a litigator from the Hudson Valley who has served as town attorney in Westchester and Orange counties. He also runs his own private practice. Sarcone is running to address “a public safety crisis in our state” and against “defunding the police,” he said at a November campaign launch event.
When does this matter?
You’ll still have some time to mull over all these choices and learn more about the candidates before you vote. The general election will be on Nov. 8, 2022, following a June primary whose exact date is still to be determined.
We’ll be updating this guide as developments merit, and stay in the loop on other election news this cycle by signing up for our Civic Newsletter.