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Editorial: Teachout for attorney general

Corruption plagues New York government. In the past year, alone, the former speaker of the State Assembly and former majority leader of the State Senate were convicted on federal corruption charges. So were two of the governor's closest aides.

Four people have been convicted of corruption in state contracting, including Buffalo businessman Louis Ciminelli.

It may be impossible to break the grip of New York's culture of corruption, which dates at least to the heyday of Tammany Hall. But the best chance — maybe the best chance in decades — is with one of the four Democratic candidates in this year's attorney general primary election: Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout.

Corruption in state and local government costs New Yorkers real money. It is part of what makes our taxes so high. It is part of what makes New York less appealing for businesses.

Teachout brings real expertise on how to fight corruption. Her deep understanding of its origins and how it has become entrenched in modern politics is detailed in her book, "Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United.”

She may not succeed. One part of her plan — reviving the Moreland Commission that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo empaneled, then abolished — may be wishful thinking. And she does not have experience running a large organization. She will need strong, experienced deputies.

Generally speaking, there is reason to worry about electing people who have never held office to high positions. It's among the concerns we had regarding gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon. But Teachout's background, and that fact that the attorney general's office is less political than it is legal and administrative, makes her inexperience less troubling.

Among the other Democratic contenders — all of whom have a solid background — is a Buffalo native, Leecia Eve. The daughter of former Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve is a Harvard Law School graduate, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, and works as a lobbyist for Verizon. If Eve falls short in this race, she no doubt will hold public office in the future at a high level.

Letitia "Tish"James, the New York City Public Advocate and a former City Council member from Brooklyn, is the candidate endorsed by the state Democratic Party. James, like the other candidates, talks tough about taking on President Trump and vows to clean up Albany, but there are questions about her ability to remain independent from the governor, who held a fundraiser for her this summer.

It was also troubling that, in an endorsement interview with The News, she said that as attorney general, she would like to investigate the State Senate on the possibility that, for nefarious reasons, it was blocking legislation that Democrats tend to favor. She denied the obvious inference, but the idea smacked of criminalizing political differences.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney is a Hudson Valley congressman who served as staff secretary in the Clinton White House. Maloney is running both for the attorney general nod and to hang on to his congressional seat.

These are all accomplished people, and all have the background to do the job. But Teachout brings something the others don't: independence and a record of opposing corruption.

"The next attorney general needs to be somebody who's willing to both use the full existing powers of the AG's office and be willing to call out leadership, Republican and Democratic, Assembly, Senate, and the governor's office," Teachout told The News' editorial board. "And call it out publicly because we know Albany can't fix itself.”

We hope that Teachout, who ran for governor against Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic primary, won't use the attorney general's office to continue her four-year-old fight against him. Like siblings who don't get along, the left wing of the Democratic Party seems more interested in fighting Cuomo than fighting New York Republicans. Teachout is solidly part of the party's left wing.

Teachout says she wants to be attorney general for the next eight or 12 years and that she would not use the position as a steppingstone to another gubernatorial race. That's part of the attraction: Her fight against corruption won't be measured against her political aspirations.

We take her at her word. In turn, we expect her to devote her energy to what will be a long and arduous fight to break New York's culture of corruption — not to the left's bickering with Cuomo.

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