NEW YORK – A lawyer who grew up on Buffalo’s East Side was selected by Republican Party delegates Thursday to be their candidate for state Attorney General, an office GOP insiders believe could be in serious play this fall in the otherwise Democratic-dominated New York.
Only two days after announcing his campaign, Keith Wofford, a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, beat back two other would-be candidates during a furious round of cajoling and arm-twisting over the past 24 hours in and around the party’s convention at a midtown ballroom here.
Like other Republicans on the statewide ticket, Wofford launched his new campaign with an attack on Albany, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Eric Schneiderman, who recently quit his office following allegations he engaged in sexual abuse. He called New York a “national embarrassment” in tax levels, anti-business policies and ongoing corruption cases at the state Capitol.
“My top priority will be to tackle the political corruption, both legal and illegal, that have plagued our state government for too long," Wofford told the GOP delegates. He said he will make the attorney general’s office “truly independent” from the governor’s office, vowing to look into economic development decisions and how state contracts are awarded.
Wofford beat out Joseph Holland, a former aide to ex-Gov. George Pataki in a vote tallying session that featured open voting followed by rounds of meetings and huddling on and off the convention floor. Holland ended up with more than 25 percent of the vote, giving him a spot on a primary ballot against Wofford. In a speech to delegates, however, Holland said he would not challenge Wofford, and endorsed him in the general election.
Both Wofford and Holland are African-Americans, and the former Buffalo resident will be the first African-American to run for attorney general.
“He got a crash course in Republican Party convention politics," said Nick Langworthy, the Erie County Republican Party chairman, said of Wofford. It was a whirlwind for Wofford; it was only Wednesday when Langworthy said he had never met him.
It took some musical chairs for Wofford’s introduction into politics, let alone a statewide campaign. Manhattan lawyer Manny Alicandro, who this week threatened to run in a primary if he did not get the party’s backing for the attorney general slot, told party leaders shortly before the convention’s second day commenced he would, instead, run for the GOP designation for state comptroller.
But Alicandro lost out on that bid, too. Delegates, instead, selected Jonathan Trichter, a former JP Morgan executive. Delegates ignored Trichter’s long ties to the Democratic Party – he only recently applied to switch his voter registration to Republican – and he has done campaign work in the past for an array of Democrats, including former Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Trichter did do campaign work four years ago for Republican Harry Wilson in his race against state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
Joel Giambra, the former Erie County Executive whose gubernatorial campaign dreams never materialized, had told GOP officials that he would be willing to run for comptroller. The idea fizzled.
Wofford and the two other remaining attorney general candidates pledged to delegates during a private breakfast meeting that none would commence a potentially bitter and expensive primary run against the party’s choice. Quickly, delegates began to coalesce around Wofford.
Wofford, 49, grew up on Winslow Avenue, attended Martin Luther School until fourth grade and transferred to and later graduated from City Honors School. He has an undergraduate and law school degree from Harvard University. He is the co-managing partner of the New York City office of Ropes & Gray, an international law firm where he has handled bankruptcy and creditors’ rights cases involving automobile, power and mortgage companies. His father, he said, got up at 4:30 in the morning for 24 years to work at a Chevrolet plant in Western New York.
“This is a great American success story," Langworthy said.
Wofford is a newcomer to state GOP campaigns. He donated $15,000 to the state GOP in 2016. Before delegates were called to order, he was upstairs on a balcony overlooking the ballroom practicing his acceptance speech. He deferred on an interview until after the selection was settled.
Wofford was backed in his sudden bid for attorney general by state GOP Chairman Ed Cox and Marc Molinaro, who was selected Wednesday as the party’s gubernatorial candidate.
Wofford’s acceptance speech touched on many GOP-friendly themes. But it was not, in some ways, the usual law-and-order speeches by past attorney general candidates for the Republicans. Wofford talked of using his office to help the state “deal with disaffected young men." He quoted Frederick Douglass, and of an interest in pressing to end the “school to prison pipeline" that is especially prevalent in many urban neighborhoods. He also lashed out at the “broken immigration system," saying he would “uphold the rule of law” regarding immigration matters. He did not elaborate.
Wofford gave a peek at his campaign themes: a career outside of politics and decades’ worth of experience in the practice of law. “Let’s send someone who actually knows how to do the job," he told delegates.
Democrats at their convention Wednesday tapped DiNapoli as their nominee for another term as the state’s chief fiscal watchdog and New York City Public Advocate Letitia James as their state attorney general candidate. James faces possible primary challenges from Leecia Eve, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton, and Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law school professor who challenged Cuomo in a Democratic primary in 2014.