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Charlie King says the attorney general belongs in court, not on a soapbox

Charlie King is clearly a passionate man, but just beneath the vigor with which he speaks, both to large audiences and in a one-on-one interview, is more than a hint of impatience.

“I am the only lawyer in this race who has been in court in this century, maybe even in the last two decades,” said King, who is one of four Democrats seeking the nomination for state attorney general in the September 12 primary. He made that comment in an hour-long conversation with Gay City News this week, but has emphasized the same point elsewhere, including during a recent debate aired on NY1 News.

On a superficial level, the comment suggests that he is a more practiced attorney, and in a race that includes opponents famous for their ambition—among them, Mark Green, the 2001 Democratic mayoral nominee, and Andrew Cuomo, the former Clinton housing secretary who faltered in a 2002 race for governor—it perhaps also alludes to King’s commitment to focus on the job of attorney general, rather than use it as a stepping stone to higher office.

But for King, there is also critical substance behind the sound bite.

Referring to his three Democratic opponents, a group that also includes Sean Patrick Maloney, who served as a top White House aide to President Bill Clinton, he said, “These guys talk about a lot of issues that have nothing to do with the attorney general’s office. Philosophically I have a different view of the office. I see the job as that of a lawyer, not a lobbyist. They see the office as using the job to lobby Albany for new laws. I see the job as using the laws we have to change New York. I don’t need new laws to make a difference on January 1 or 2.”

There has indeed been a lot of talk in the attorney general’s race about reform legislation needed in Albany. That in part is the ironic legacy of the highly successful incumbent, Eliot Spitzer, the odds-on favorite to become governor this year. Spitzer achieved national fame with his crackdown on corruption on Wall Street and the insurance industry. That success, however, begged the question of why more was not done to battle political corruption in Albany, a state government rated the most dysfunctional in the nation by NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice.

For Democrats loyal to the hugely popular attorney general, the answer of course is that with a Republican in the governor’s mansion the fundamental tools needed to attack Albany corruption were lacking. Implementation of a long list of recommendations that came out of the Brennan Center report, consequently, has been a rallying cry for all the candidates.

King believes that emphasis is misplaced. He argued that there is plenty that can be accomplished with laws already on the books. Asked what issues had not received proper attention in the campaign, he spoke first and in greatest depth about education. He laid out an ambitious series of steps the attorney general has authority to take to improve the schooling of New York youth—including going after corrupt school officials, insisting that the rights of students to transfer to schools that meet their needs be upheld (an issue which he has taken the city Department of Education to court on), placing investigators in individual schools to root out those that are failing, and even using the office’s organized crime division to go after gang violence in the schools.

King singled out school bullying and hate crimes throughout society as a whole as key priorities of the attorney general’s office.

Debate over education in New York immediately raises an issue that has been debated and litigated for years—and in this campaign has also implicated the question of how much autonomy the attorney general has in determining when that office is obligated to defend established state policy. New York City has long claimed that it is not receiving its fair share of state education funds, and the effort to change that culminated in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity winning a ruling from the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest, that Albany redress the imbalance.

That ruling’s devil was in the details—the state has dragged its feet in complying with the court’s order, with no apparent consequences to date. For King, the court’s ruling, however, means that the attorney general is under no obligation to defend actions by the governor or other state leaders aimed at thwarting the mandate to reconfigure state education funding. King differs from other candidates on this point and his differences with Maloney in particular shed light on an array of questions addressed in the debate held several weeks ago—including one of critical interest to gay and lesbian New Yorkers.

Maloney, the only gay candidate in the race, has consistently argued that when confronted with an issue in which the attorney general is expected to defend state law or state policy, “you do your job.” He has argued persuasively that there is no principled way otherwise to distinguish when to recuse yourself if your beliefs or analysis suggests that the state’s policy should not be defended. That posture has put Maloney in the uncomfortable position of saying he would have argued in favoring of barring same-sex marriage before the Court of Appeals this past spring—but he has also suggested that candidates who say they wouldn’t have done so are pandering for votes.

King takes a different view.

“When state action is clearly unconstitutional, you are not obligated to represent the state,” he said. From his analysis, the existing marriage law is a clear violation of the state Constitution’s equal protection clause. Unlike Spitzer, who said he was compelled to argue the state’s position—and, of course, won—King would not have defended the law.

Only now that the Court of Appeals has ruled, King said, is the attorney general’s office obliged to recognize the validity of a marriage law limited to opposite-sex couples—“the law is no longer clearly unconstitu­tional,” he said.

“While the Court of Appeals has [now] constrained me on same-sex marriage, it has liberated me on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity,” King said. “The issue has been in the courts for 15 years and the Court of Appeals has now said it is time to enforce the law. I am the only one who said he will not defend the state on this.”

He added it wasn’t until after the Court of Appeals ruled on marriage—specifically during the mid-August debate—that he heard any of his opponents similarly argue he would not have defended state law excluding gay nuptials. King insisted that it was only then that Green seconded his view.

King, however, does not feel the liberty to recuse himself on another issue he cares deeply about—his opposition to the death penalty. Stating that it was “ill-conceived and unfortunate” that Spitzer earlier this year pledged to restore the death penalty overruled by the state’s high court, he said he would nevertheless likely feel compelled to defend such a law.

“I would be obligated to defend the state in death penalty cases because it is not clearly unconstitu­tional,” he said.

Asked whether he was concerned that a Governor Spitzer would move the Democrats to the right on civil liberties and criminal justice issues including the death penalty—King responded, “No, it will create a healthy debate.” He expressed confidence, however, that his view will prevail.

“The [Democratic-controlled] Assembly will stay strong on not having a death penalty,” he predicted.

In discussing marriage equality, education funding, and the death penalty, King made clear that constitutional, and not moral, principles would guide his actions as attorney general. But, he is strongly committed to marriage for gay couples.

“I am still morally sickened and outraged,” he said, about the high court ruling. Noting that he is an African-American in a biracial marriage, he said he would be a “personal hypocrite” to maintain any other position.

A long-time supporter of marriage equality, King has been an advocate for other gay causes as well—he represented demonstrators who attended an October 1998 Matthew Shepard vigil in Midtown and charged police with brutality and misconduct. In a career that has ranged from litigation work to serving as the lead federal housing official for the New York-New Jersey region during the Clinton administration, King has most recently stepped in to clean house in a once scandal-ridden non-profit organization, Praxis, that provides long-term housing for people living with AIDS, those dealing with substance abuse, and others seeking to stabilize their living situation.

As a longtime gay rights advocate, King offered a sobering assessment on the prospects for a marriage equality law in Albany—“10 years, at least.”

“The issue hasn’t percolated up enough to create that sense of outrage,” he said. “Even people who support the issue do not care about it enough about to bring about the level of social activism necessary. And I don’t think progressive people see it as a civil rights issue, that you’re denying gay couples something that really matters.”

For many, he said, civil unions appear to be the equivalent of marriage.

Though King emphasizes that the attorney general’s job is primarily about law enforcement and not advocacy or moral suasion, he does acknowledge feeling a particular obligation to lead on the question of race. Noting that there are more black men in prison than college in New York State, he said, “People think the problem is solved. Somebody needs to speak the truth.” He continued, “We pretend everything’s okay. We never discuss it, but race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation still divide us.”

In a contest in which polls show Cuomo and Green to be the heavyweights, King can be forgiven for a bit of impatience over the fact that the media has focused on “not much except the catfights between Andrew and Mark.”

In an appearance at the LGBT Community Center earlier this year, he took aim at a comment attributed to Green that King had “zero chance” to win, and has since criticized the former New York City public advocate for his attacks on front-runner Cuomo.

Asked to rate the job Cuomo did as Clinton’s housing secretary, which has come under harsh criticism from Green, King said, “Andrew did a very good jog at HUD.” Cuomo was up the chain of command from him when King had New York regional responsibility at the federal housing agency.

“Let’s compare and contrast our records rather than focus on the one mistake we each have made,” King said, summing up his view of the contest’s final weeks. Later he added, “I’m running because Eliot Spitzer has shown that this job can have profound impact on the lives of people in New York.”

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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