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Leecia Eve draws on political legacies in bid for state attorney general

Leecia Eve’s name will appear on a ballot for the first time come Sept. 13, but that doesn’t mean the candidate for state attorney general hasn’t been around government and politics for almost all of her 53 years.

One of four competing for the Democratic nomination in the party primary, Eve has absorbed lots of politics – beginning as the daughter of Arthur and Constance Eve, possibly Buffalo’s best known African-American “power couple.”

In fact, as she enters the home stretch of a tough race against three primary opponents, Verizon’s vice president for state government affairs is touting that experience: a graduate of Smith College, the Kennedy School at Harvard and Harvard law school; clerk to Court of Appeals Judge Fritz W. Alexander II; Hodgson Russ partner; aide to Sens. Joseph R. Biden and Hillary Clinton; and top economic development adviser to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

“I’m running as the most qualified and best prepared candidate,” she said while in Buffalo over the weekend. “I’m telling people they should want somebody with an understanding of the needs of this state. And my roots in New York State run deep.”

Indeed, those roots extend everywhere. As a youngster she worked for her father — the former deputy speaker of the Assembly – when he ran for mayor in 1977. She played behind-the-scenes roles in the Senate during her Washington days, breaking into public politics only once in 2006 when she unsuccessfully sought to run for lieutenant governor with Democrat Eliot L. Spitzer.

Now she’s calling in those chits as she competes against Letitia James, the New York City public advocate; Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of the lower Hudson Valley; and Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout.

Eve’s campaign team involves her brothers: Eric, a former political director in the Clinton White House and veteran of Al Gore’s presidential campaign; and Arthur O. “Champ” Eve Jr., Erie County’s deputy elections commissioner and major figure in Buffalo Democratic politics. Others stem directly from Hillary Clinton’s world, including well-known political consultants Harold Ickes Jr., Peter Kauffmann and Joe Trippi. Basil Smikle, former executive director of the state Democratic Party who is close to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, also is on board.

But her main champion may be Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner, who bucked Cuomo’s choice of James at the Democratic State Convention in May in favor of his hometown candidate, who now lives in Harlem. She also found herself opposing Mayor Byron W. Brown, Cuomo’s state Democratic chairman and a one-time political rival to her father, who supported James.

“It was not an easy thing for him to do,” she said of Zellner's support.

While Cuomo’s nod for James sealed her convention endorsement, Eve appears to remain in the governor’s orbit. He recently appointed her to the boards of directors of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center as well as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – both considered high-profile posts.

“That’s a reflection of my commitment to the state and Western New York, and says much about the experience I bring,” she said.

Eve competes in the Sept. 13 primary as an underdog. The latest Siena College poll showed her with only 4 percent of the Democratic vote, compared to James with 25 percent, Maloney with 16 percent, and Teachout with 13 percent.

“But Siena also said the race is ‘wide open’ because 42 percent don’t know any of the candidates,” she said. “That’s a golden opportunity for my campaign.”

Now Eve finds herself all over New York State – last weekend at events in Washington and Columbia counties, this past weekend in Buffalo. Her mother speaks in East Side churches each weekend to turn out the significant Buffalo base.

And Eve is attempting to enlist her new and powerful connections in Harlem, as well as engaging all those she has met during a long and varied career.

“My job as counsel to Hillary Clinton in the Senate was to understand all regions of the state, so I know about everything from Empire State Development to Ag and Markets,” she said. “Yeah, I understand agriculture, like the state’s big yogurt industry and how important it is. But not because somebody gave it to me as a talking point.”

Like all of those running for the post this year, she promises to continue former Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s legal efforts against Trump administration policies like immigration that she considers “horrific, immoral and illegal.”

“It’s critically important,” she said. “He is using his extraordinary powers as chief of the executive branch to change existing federal law, and you can’t do that.”

Many political observers give James an edge in the primary, mainly because she was elected citywide in New York and served on its Council. She already commands significant name recognition among the city’s 3 million registered Democrats.

None of that bothers Eve, who launches two television ads on Monday titled “Qualified” and “Unshackled” that will emphasize her resume and her representation as a young lawyer for women imprisoned by the District of Columbia.

“I don’t need to win in New York City, although we have a path there,” she said. “I just need to hold my own. And I think the rest of the state is tired of statewide official after statewide official hailing from the City of New York. As we get closer to Western New York, I hope to ‘overperform,’ as they say in political speak.”

She also reflects her father’s politics, who bucked the party to win the Democratic endorsement for mayor in 1977, only to lose to James D. Griffin.

“I’m grateful to not have that establishment candidate label,” she said. “For many years, my father was usually not an endorsed candidate. I’m proud of that legacy and will build on it as attorney general.”

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