Attorney general candidates, minus the front-runner, argue about recusal , the meaning of ‘outsider’

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In a departure from a fiery showdown just hours earlier, a debate between four of the five Democratic attorney general candidates was a civilized affair.

Moderator-blogger-anchor Liz Benjamin set the tone: “It got a little feisty this morning,” she said. “We’ll have none of that.”

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, State Senator Eric Schneiderman, Sean Coffey, and Eric Dinallo sat side-by-side before a near-capacity audience in the Jacob Burns Moot Court Room in the Cardozo School of Law. Conspicuously absent was Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, whose seat was likewise vacant at the debate that morning. Her absences are perfectly in keeping with conventional tactical wisdom, coming on the heels of a SurveyUSA poll indicating her as the clear frontrunner with 32 percent of the vote—exactly the combined total of the other four candiates. She’s second only to “undecided,” which comes in at 36 percent.

“I’m going to let Ms. Rice’s decision be judged by the people of the state,” Brodsky said, echoing the other candidates who said it’s up to the voters to decide what Rice’s absence means in the scheme of the election

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The debate, for the most part, was marked by similarly subdued responses. (Earlier that day, at a debate held at CUNY Graduate Center, the four hurled some pretty pointed accusations at one another. Coffey and Dinallo had a particularly heated exchange when Coffey attacked Dinallo for taking a pass in 2003 on Wall Street analysts who had engaged in some fraudulent practices.)

This time direct discussion between the candidates was purposely limited, and they took prepared questions asked by Benjamin, the New York Democratic Lawyers Council—the debate’s sponsors—and the audience. The questions touched on most of the usual hot-button debate issues, reiterating platforms that they’ve articulated in a string of recent debates.

The substantive differences between the candidates were subtle. Asked about a database of thousands of New Yorkers stopped and frisked by the NYPD, most of them condemned it, and applauded a new law signed by Governor Patterson which limits the database.

“I think we all stood in favor [of the new law],” Dinallo said. “I would take a serious look at where that approach to a city basically sends its entire police force in a stop-and-frisk state of mind.”

Coffey differed slightly, argued that the situation is more complicated.

“I think there is a deeper, more difficult question, which is how stop-and-frisk is being applied to New York City,” Coffey said. “I think stop-and-frisk when used appropriately is occasionally a good law enforcement mechianism. It keeps people safe.”

On issues of voter disenfrachisement, the death penalty, online credit-card fraud and a number of other often-discussed issues, the four candidates expressed similar philosophical approaches, disagreeing only on the logistical means of achieving the same goals.

But on one of the final matters discussed—whether the attorney general should be allowed to recuse himself from a case based on personal beliefs—the discussion becme divisive as Dinallo asserted that there are some cases he would anticipate having to recuse himself from.

“I think it’s the choice of the attorney general, who is elected by the people, and I think there are cases that I would not represesent because I would be morally against it,” Dinallo said.

But the other candidates found that highly problematic, particularly Coffey, who said that Dinallo should immediately disclose the types of cases he would refrain from working on.

“I applaud your moral compass,” Coffey said. “But if there are issues that you know you can’t defend, you ought to let the electorate know.”

When further probed by Benjamin about which cases he would remove himself from, he said that there aren’t any he can think of at that time.

There were some other moments of fine disagreement disguised as something moderately dramatic. Brodsky’s closing argument, which condemned the concept of “outsiders” versus “insiders,” was a backhanded blow to Coffey, who had repeatedly prided himself throughout the debate as being an “outsider” to Albany. (Coffey has never held an elected position before).

“John Kennedy was murdered my senior year of high school…Bobby Kennedy was murdered the weekend I graduated from college,” Brodsky said. “I was part of a movement there. We didn’t ask anyone, ‘are you an outsider?” He called the distinction between an outsider and an insider nonsensical.

He went on to ridicule Coffey for calling himself an outsider in light of his background.

“Sean is a millionarie lawyer from Bronxville,” Brodsky said. “Where I grew up, that wasn’t an outside.”

“Self-made millionarie,” Coffey retorted.

Unsurprisingly, there was complete unanimity on the proposition that Albany is a shambles and that the attorney general ought to be able to use the office to clean up the mess.

“I believe there is no greater calling than the pursuit of justice—I speak about justice wherever I go,” Schneiderman said. “This is the best time to be a reformer in the last decade since I’ve been fighting in Albany.”