Keith Wofford knows all about the effects of crime.
As a kid, the Republican candidate for state attorney general watched drugs and violence overtake his East Side Buffalo neighborhood and the deterioration that followed.
He’s also witnessed public corruption consume New York State government, with top leaders going to jail followed by erosion of trust in economic development programs like the Buffalo Billion.
To him, it’s a combination that robs the state of revenue while driving away the business it seeks. And even though a long line of attorney general candidates this year has elevated fighting corruption to the top of their campaign agendas, Wofford – a partner in the New York City law office of Ropes and Gray – says there is no excuse for it in the first place.
A vigilant Attorney General’s Office with the ability to spot trouble before it happens offers solutions, he says, and thinks his own experience can wake up the watchdog.
“Someone should have been looking; that should have been red-flagged and stopped,” he said of the Buffalo Billion case that resulted in several convictions. “You set the tone at the top so that everyone in Albany and the municipalities knows someone is on the case and looking at public corruption.”
During a visit to his hometown a few days ago, the Harvard College and Harvard Law graduate who grew up on Winslow Avenue and attended City Honors School acknowledged the significance of his effort. As he faces New York City Public Advocate Letitia "Tish" James, he knows the race will produce the state’s first black attorney general.
But he also recognizes the challenge: Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3 million voters in New York; no Republican has won statewide since George E. Pataki was elected governor in 2002, and no Republican has won for attorney general since Brant native Dennis C. Vacco in 1994.
Still, Wofford sees a path to victory.
“Independents,” he quickly replies, “plus a lot of common sense Democrats who say they want a reality check and someone who will focus more on jobs than settling a political score.”
Vacco, the Erie County resident who won in 1994 and narrowly lost in 1998, acknowledges the path is a narrow one. But he advises the candidate he calls “one of the most qualified to come into the race in a long time” to emphasize his “outsider” status.
“That still works in 2018, especially when his opponent has been in politics and government for such a long time,” Vacco said. “His challenge is to pick up a lot of steam upstate and siphon off some of the votes in the five boroughs. I think he can do better than the average Republican in the city, and then do as well – if not better – than the average Republican upstate.”
Wofford needs to become a “household commodity” upstate with a special emphasis on Erie County, Vacco says, and hope that as an African-American he can also appeal to minority voters in New York City.
The latest Siena Research Institute poll shows James comfortably leading Wofford 50 to 36 percent (still the closest statewide race in its late-September survey). But James is a citywide elected official, and is far more recognized than Wofford among the downstate voters who make up the bulk of the electorate.
Wofford nevertheless thinks his concentration on government corruption will resonate as it did for Democrats in the September primary. The right safeguards, he said, would never permit rigging Buffalo Billion bids in the first place.
“We’ve got to start the criminal and civil investigations to uncover this; using everything in the power of the Attorney General’s Office,” he said. “It’s about connecting the dots on the contribution side with what goes on in the government side.”
It all requires a beefed up Public Integrity Unit in the Attorney General’s Office and restoration of the comptroller’s audit power to identify those signals, he said.
Wofford says that James claims new legislation is needed, but he calls that “passing the buck.” He asks why federal authorities have led the way on many prosecutions (though several recent cases were brought by the state attorney general) and calls it unacceptable. He would establish a “list of red flags” to automatically gain his attention, starting with the state authorities he says need more scrutiny of their “back-door borrowing.”
James, he says, is backed by the state Democratic Party and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and cannot be independent of the executive branch.
“She was picked by the governor, and the attorney general has to be independent,” he said. “That’s why it’s constitutionally elected rather than appointed.
“The notion that after all that, she can investigate this administration is fantasy,” he added. “It’s not going to happen.”
Wofford says she is establishment; he is not. That, along with the knowledge of contracts stemming from his legal experience, which he said will enable him to identify corruption problems, forms the basis of his campaign.
“Careerism itself is corrupt,” he said.
The James campaign rejects that view. Though Cuomo endorsed James, her campaign sources insist she earned support at the convention and then won a four-way primary.
They also say she has run independently in the past, including her first Council victory on a minor party line, and that as public advocate she has sued the governor and the mayor.
Wofford, meanwhile, has lived in Manhattan all his adult life, never returning to Buffalo after an early acceptance to Harvard while at City Honors. He has only occasionally visited Western New York during the campaign, but says he brings a needed upstate perspective.
“Folks in upstate New York have rightfully believed that state government is disproportionately affected by downstate views that reflect circumstances very differently,” he said. “There has been a long-term decline in Western New York, Northern New York and Central New York. Voters will understand that someone here will bring sensitivity to that.”
That’s why he says state government and the attorney general should not brand all business and industry as bad, with more “discretion” needed in enforcing existing laws.
Wofford wants to debate his opponent, and James campaign sources say they expect to work out details soon.
Story topics: Election 2018