The Real Deal New York

Letitia James, occasional thorn in real estate’s side, wins Democratic primary for state Attorney General

Zephyr Teachout came in second
By Kathryn Brenzel | September 13, 2018 10:52PM

Tish James (Credit: Getty Images)

After a highly contested race, Letitia James won the Democratic primary for New York Attorney General on Thursday — beating out both a candidate who spoke out against the real estate industry and one who received the most money from it.

If James is victorious in November (a Democrat has held the position for the last three decades), she’ll be the first African-American woman to hold the position. She’ll be the second woman, following Barbara Underwood, who became the first when she took over for Eric Schneiderman in May.

In the general election, James will face off against Republican Keith Wofford, a partner at the law firm Ropes & Gray.

James defeated Zephyr Teachout and Democratic congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, who were respectively the most critical and favored (in terms of campaign donations) candidates of the real estate industry. The Associated Press called the race for James at 10:30 p.m., with 80 percent of precincts reporting. She carried 41.5 percent of the vote, topping Teachout at 30.8 percent and Maloney at 24.4 percent.

As the city’s public advocate, James occasionally clashed with the real estate industry, especially when it came to her office’s “Worst Landlord’s Watchlist.” One landlord, Kamran Hakim, filed an unsuccessful lawsuit, seeking $15 million in damages, claiming he was unfairly put on the public advocate’s list in 2015 and 2016. James inherited the list but expanded its scope last year by adding the names of each of the landlords’ lenders.

Still, James quickly won the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (real estate’s favored candidate by campaign contributions and Thursday night’s victor in the gubernatorial primary) and raised thousands of dollars from the industry in the lead up to Thursday. She took in more than $290,000 from real estate-related donors, according to an analysis by The Real Deal. James received another $17,500 from the industry this week.

Despite her role as public advocate, the industry didn’t play a huge part in her campaign. Real estate isn’t explicitly targeted in the 10 issues listed on her campaign website.

The role of state Attorney General goes far beyond the real estate industry but plays a crucial role in the development of condominium buildings. The office oversees the sale of condos and co-ops throughout the city and also cracks down on tenant harassment, deed fraud, bank fraud and other housing issues through its real estate enforcement unit. Real estate’s influence over statewide elections proved a reoccurring theme of this primary season.

Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University and one-time gubernatorial candidate, was the most vocal opponent of real estate. She pledged that her campaign wouldn’t accept money from corporate developers. Though she received a $5,000 donation from L+M Development Partners co-founder Ron Moelis, she ultimately returned it, Politico reported. She came in second Thursday night.

According to Crain’s, the Real Estate Board of New York’s position could be summed up as “A.B.Z.—anybody but Zephyr.” The organization’s campaign donations seem to back that up: REBNY contributed $25,000 to each James and Maloney, and gave $5,000 to Leecia Eve back in July.

One of the city’s largest developers, Related Companies, donated $100,000 to a political action committee that launched a digital campaign against Teachout on Sept. 7. And its chairman Steve Roth and his wife each donated $21,000 to Maloney.

Maloney raised the most from the industry and even got a last minute infusion of cash from developers this week. He took in more than $490,500 in real estate contributions, of which $60,500 was thrown his way this week.