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James, Henry face off in New York attorney general's race

 Michael Henry, left, and Letitia James are competing in this year's election for New York attorney general.
Henry: Campaign website
James: NY Attorney General's Office website
Michael Henry, left, and Letitia James are competing in this year's election for New York attorney general.

When New Yorkers vote this election season, they will be choosing an attorney general for the next four years.

Democrat Letitia James is seeking reelection, and is being challenged by Republican attorney Michael Henry. The two candidates have different views on how the Attorney General’s Office should operate.

During her first term in office, James gained recognition for her actions against former President Donald Trump and former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

She sued Trump’s business several times, including an ongoing lawsuit that accuses the former president, the Trump Organization and senior executives of engaging in years of financial fraud.

“The complaint demonstrates that Donald Trump falsely inflated his net worth by billions of dollars to unjustly enrich himself and to cheat the system,” James said on Sept. 30. “Thereby cheating all of us.”

In August, Trump testified in a deposition related to the legal action, where he invoked the Fifth Amendment more than 400 times instead of answering any of the questions.

James issued two key reports on the actions of Cuomo and his administration. The first, in late January 2021, found that Cuomo and his health department had undercounted by half the number of nursing home residents who died during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then, in August 2021, she issued findings on allegations of sexual harassment against Cuomo.

“The independent investigation has concluded that Gov. Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women,” James said. “And in doing so, violated federal and state law.”

Cuomo denied the accusations but resigned a week later.

James, the first African American and first woman to be New York’s attorney general, was formerly the New York City public advocate. Before that, she was a New York City Council member, representing parts of Brooklyn.

She briefly ran for governor last year, which would have placed her in a primary against Gov. Kathy Hochul, who replaced Cuomo. But James eventually decided to seek reelection for her current job.

Her challenger, Republican Michael Henry, does not have a career background in politics. He’s a New York City-based attorney focused on commercial litigation. A member of the conservative legal group the Federalist Society, he’s appeared on local and national television and talk radio as a legal and political analyst.

Henry has far less money to spend than does James, and he is little-known to the public. But he’s been diligently making the circuits throughout the campaign, including a Republican-sponsored clambake outside Binghamton in late August.

Henry said James has politicized the Attorney General’s Office by going after big-name targets like Trump. He said that wastes taxpayer money.

“We all know about Letitia James and her weaponization of her office,” Henry said.

In the case of the report on sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo, though, Henry said James should have gone further and issued criminal referrals.

His campaign has also focused on the state’s bail reform laws, which ended many forms of cash bail. He argues they should be repealed.

“It is time that the government starts working for the people of this state,” Henry said. “We’re going to work to put victims’ rights back ahead of criminals' rights.”

The attorney general does not have jurisdiction over most forms of street crime, including laws governing bail. That is normally the purview of local law enforcement, judges and district attorneys.

Nevertheless, James, perhaps sensing vulnerability on the issue, made headlines when she told a Buffalo television station in October that perhaps bail reform should be reexamined in the context of other criminal justice issues. She explained her remarks at the State Capitol a few days later.

“What I said was, we need to look at a panoply of issues, including, but not limited to bail reform,” said James, who added other “drivers of crime” also need to be examined.

James turned down offers to debate Henry. The race has tightened in recent weeks, but the incumbent is still leading in the polls by double digits, at 51% to 40% in the most recent Siena College survey.

Copyright 2022 WXXI News. To see more, visit WXXI News.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.