New York's Next Attorney General Inherits Some Big Climate and Energy Cases

Democrat Letitia James is known for speaking up for environmental justice and fossil fuel divestment. Her opponent was critical of the Exxon lawsuit.

Letitia James, New York City's public advocate and a former city councilwoman, won the Democratic primary for state attorney general. If elected in November, she will have some high-profile investigations on her plate. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Letitia James, New York City's public advocate and a former city councilwoman and public defender, will take over some high-profile investigations as state attorney general. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Update Nov. 7: Letitia James has won the New York attorney general's race. 

Letitia James, who led a fossil fuel divestment campaign as New York City's public advocate and has a history of speaking out on environmental justice issues, won the Democratic nomination for state attorney general, making her the favorite to win New York's top law enforcement job. 

Election 2018

The winner will take charge of the office's high-profile investigation into whether ExxonMobil misled investors about climate change risks. It also has been at the vanguard of blue-state challenges to the Trump Administration's attempts to roll back environmental protections and favor fossil fuel development.

In her victory speech, James, who is a lawyer and the first African-American woman to win a statewide primary contest in New York, vowed to continue the multi-front litigation agenda.

"This campaign was never really about me or any of the candidates who ran," she said. "It was about the people, but mostly it was about that man in the White House who can't go a day without threatening our fundamental rights." Aside from climate and environmental issues, New York has led lawsuits against the Trump administration over immigration policy, and health care.

Her opponent in November will be Republican Keith Wofford, managing partner of the New York office of an international law firm focused on business and finance, who has the handicap of the Democrats' 2-to-1 registration edge over the GOP in New York. Wofford has been critical of the Exxon case and said he couldn't imagine why he would pursue it as attorney general.

Divestment, Exxon and 'Sheriff on Wall Street'

James came out in support of divesting the city's pension funds from fossil fuel businesses in 2015 and helped organize a public hearing on the issue in New York City last November. After New York Mayor Bill de Blasio won re-election, he announced a commitment to move forward with divestment, a process expected to take years.

But alongside her bona fides with the climate movement, James also has garnered support with the Democratic party establishment. With a campaign war chest of more than $1 million, she was the top fundraiser in the four-way primary race and had the endorsement of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Her opponents tried to paint her as too close to the party establishment, but she was able to capture more than 40 percent of the vote. Cuomo bested his primary challenger, actor-turned-progressive activist Cynthia Nixon, by more than 30 points.

How she would handle the Exxon case is also unclear. James' office did not immediately answer a request for comment on her position on the case. Neither she nor her opponents were pressed on the issue during the campaign, although James' closest rival, law professor Zephyr Teachout, pledged to continue the case at one of the candidates' debates.

James drew harsh criticism from her opponents during the campaign when she told The New York Times that it was "critically important" that she "not be known as the 'Sheriff on Wall Street,'" a moniker that former New York Attorney General and Gov. Eliot Spitzer had embraced. Wall Street firms have been urging lawmakers to weaken New York's tough shareholder protection law, the Martin Act, which is an important weapon in the state's securities fraud case against Exxon.

Future of the Exxon Investigations 

New York launched its probe of Exxon in 2015 under then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. After Schneiderman resigned earlier this year in a sexual harassment scandal, acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood pushed forward with the investigation, and in October filed a lawsuit

The Massachusetts Attorney General's Office has a similar investigation into Exxon underway. 

The political action committee 350 Action, which did not endorse a candidate for attorney general but backed Nixon in the governor's race, saying Nixon embraced a more ambitious climate plan, was measured in its response to James' victory.

"As attorney general, she would have an immense responsibility to ratchet up investigations into all that Exxon knew about climate change," said Lindsay Meiman, a spokesperson for the grassroots activism group and native New Yorker. "As hurricanes batter the east coast, New Yorkers need an attorney general who will make sure it's fossil fuel billionaires—not our communities—who bear the costs of climate destruction."

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