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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

New York AG race is the next progressive test

There’s a fire burning, and the Democratic establishment is scrambling to put it out.

Zephyr Teachout speaks in front of a Brooklyn

Zephyr Teachout speaks in front of a Brooklyn court. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

Old-guard Democrats are warily eying New York’s other big race this September — the Democratic primary for attorney general — to gauge just how much a progressive insurgency has taken hold within the party. There’s a fire burning, and the Democratic establishment is scrambling to put it out.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary upset over powerhouse Queens Rep. Joe Crowley, on top of actress Cynthia Nixon’s decision to primary Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September, was worrisome enough. Now an unanticipated race for state attorney general featuring progressive Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout against three mainline Democrats is heating up. What’s next, locusts? (Former AG Eric Schneiderman resigned in May after accusations of sexual violence.)

Before there was Nixon; before there was Ocasio-Cortez, there was Teachout — and there’s no love lost for her in Cuomoland. She challenged Cuomo in 2014, seemingly out of nowhere, taking an unexpected 34 percent of the primary vote. It must have embarrassed the governor, who’s backing NYC Public Advocate Letitia James in the AG primary. Buffalo attorney Leecia Eve and Hudson Valley Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney finish out the field. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked in races against Teachout, Cuomo and Maloney.)

The AG primary looks to be a three-way tossup: A July Quinnipiac University poll shows 42 percent of Democrats undecided, 26 percent supporting James, 15 percent supporting Maloney, 12 percent for Teachout and 3 percent for Eve. As one pundit friend put it, it’s Teachout vs. The Man vs. a man.

It would have been inconceivable to label James “The Man” a few years ago. The African-American woman was the darling of the progressive Working Families Party, whose ballot line she now refuses. But politics is politics, and James morphed from being a political outsider to a party insider, which offers institutional support.

Maloney, who walks a high-wire act by running for Congress and attorney general at the same time, presumably hopes his money and maybe even his gender will make him the standout in the field.

If news coverage is a measure, Teachout runs rings around the field. But watch for the telltale sign of her gaining real traction: third-party attack ads against her beginning in August. They’ll be like water on a fire that might be burning out of control.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.

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