In a sign of the political times, for the first time in three-quarters of a century, no Jewish candidate is running to be attorney general of New York State.
In fact, except for the eight years that Dennis Vacco and then Andrew Cuomo served as attorneys, from 1995 to 1998 and 2007 to 2010, respectively, Jews have held that position for 75 years beginning with Nathaniel Goldstein in 1943. He was followed by Jacob Javits, Louis Lefkowitz, Robert Abrams and G. Oliver Koppell. After Vacco served one term, Eliot Spitzer served two terms. He was followed by Cuomo, who served one term, and Eric Schneiderman, who served until last May 8, when he resigned in disgrace during his second term amid charges that he physically assaulted four women.
But in this year’s Democratic primary — to be held Sept. 13 — none of the four candidates is Jewish: Letitia James, the party nominee and New York City public advocate; Leecia Eve, a former senior policy adviser to U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton; Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of the 18th Congressional District in upstate Cold Spring; and Zephyr Teachout, a professor at Fordham University School of Law who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 2014.
The Republican Party has nominated Manhattan bankruptcy attorney Keith Wofford.
William Helmreich, a professor of sociology at the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate School, said he does not believe that religion is much of a factor in such a statewide race.
“I think politics has shifted — the fault lines today are so clear and the population is so divided that people are not interested in [one’s religion] but rather in what party the person is running on,” he said. “The issues today include abortion, gay rights, the death penalty and immigration. … There is a less overt identification with Jewish issues today.”
But Ester Fuchs, director of the Urban and Social Policy Program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, offered several suggestions for the lack of a Jewish candidate for attorney general, including the fact that the last two Jewish attorneys general — Spitzer and Schneiderman — “had to step down for a variety of ethical lapses.”
She was referring to the physical assault allegations against Schneiderman and the prostitution scandal that forced Spitzer’s resignation during his first term as governor in March 2008.
“If you were a Jewish candidate and not tapped by the party professionals to run, would you enter a race that has the shadow of these two Jewish attorneys general blocking you out?”
Another reason is the fact that the Democratic Party hierarchy, which in the past “approached elections by balancing tickets, is no longer relevant,” Fuchs said. “A balanced ticket meant that it represented a variety of racial and ethnic groups considered important to turnout. But they no longer control the nominating process during primaries,” Fuchs said.
In addition, Fuchs said, “despite the fact that many claim people only vote on issues, identity politics is alive and well in New York City and in New York State politics. Identity politics is when your racial, ethnic, religion and gender are important. It informs people’s vote because people view identity as a shorthand way of saying they believe that person will represent their interests.”
Fuchs added: “My first inclination was to say [the fact no Jews are running for attorney general] does not mean anything — but it does.”