NEW YORK—Democratic candidate for New York Attorney General Sean Coffey is a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and the son of immigrants who had the opportunity to live the American dream. He says that public service and the desire to fix Albany is why he has donated over $2 million of his own funds to enter the race.
With just five weeks to go until the Democratic primary on Sept. 14, Coffey will keep busy vying for public attention with four other Democratic candidates, all of whom enjoy greater political exposure than him.
Intense maneuvering and two rounds of voting by party leaders at the Democratic state convention in May successfully brought five candidates into the race, reported the New York Times. Entering the race in the first round were Westchester State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, State Sen. Eric Schneiderman, and Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who is gubernatorial candidate and current Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s favorite. Coffey and former State Insurance Superintendent Eric Dinallo came next.
Richmond County District Attorney Daniel M. Donovan Jr. is the sole Republican candidate.
The Epoch Times sat down with Coffey to find out his perspective on the race:
ET: How is the race going for you so far?
SC: It is going great. We are five weeks out, and we are right in the thick of it, and I feel very good about how we are positioned. Every one of the other four Democratic candidates have some real advantages, and they haven’t exploited them—either in incumbency, a network of contributors, and contacts … No one has broken out. So it is wide open, and I think it is how we close. … As people begin to pay attention, I think we have a very, very good message. And in this environment, I feel very good, and I think I am going to win.
ET: Would you tell us about your priorities?
SC: First and foremost by a long shot is to be a catalyst for reform in Albany. That is what really got me in the race. I mean I was very, very content in my challenging law practice. I loved the work that I was working on, but as I began to think about public service, what really motivated me was the need for big change in how our state government is run. And I think I have demonstrated ability to take on tough assignments and get great results. I think we need a new voice in Albany. I think we need somebody who is independent, and so first and foremost, it is to get up to Albany and lead the charge for reform to get the state government working for New Yorkers again. Because when we do that, … we get the economy going as it should be going—create jobs, fight for workers’ rights, all the things that we ought to do.
The second piece is to keep an eye on Wall Street. Wall Street is obviously our most important industry here in New York. It is important to have it growing and creating jobs and paying taxes, but in my view, the best way to do all that is to keep it honest. And what is very important is to have an attorney general who understands Wall Street. You know I have been called Wall Street’s 'new nemesis.' They are not the enemy, they are quite important, but to me it is important to go after the folks that cross the line. People make plenty of money on Wall Street, and that is what makes the world go round, but it’s the folks who decide that they want to make a lot more money by breaking the rules who are the folks that I want to go after. And that has consequences across the economy—folks are very hurting, the recession has been very painful … more so because of some Wall Street misconduct.
The third thing that I want to focus on is to be the people’s lawyer, the attorney general. It’s a terrific job, and it has a lot of responsibilities in the office—from the environment, to civil rights to workers rights, to antitrust, to charities, [to] organized crime. It’s got a lot of responsibility. You know one of the things that people do not realize about the attorney general is that very little of what the office is involved with is criminal. It is mostly civil litigation, either defending the state against lawsuits that are brought against agencies of the state or bringing affirmative civil claims, suing on behalf of the state. So, I am the only one running who has tried cases as a criminal prosecutor, as a corporate defense lawyer, and as a plaintiff’s lawyer.
ET: What is your stand on immigration reform?
SC: I think we need immigration reform, but here is where I start: I am the son of immigrants. My parents came here in the early 1950s independently from Ireland. They met here and lived in a very ethnic neighborhood … I am a big believer in the power of immigration as a driver for the American economy and the American dream. Essentially, immigrants are people who for one reason or another left where they lived—whether it was because they were dissatisfied or often times they were persecuted—and they made their way to our shores. And they bring energy, ingenuity, fresh blood, and continually water the plant of American progress, in my view, because they start new industries, and they want a better life for their kids. I lived that. My parents came here believing in the American dream. On his death bed, my father gave me this pin. He was in the carpenter’s union for 50 years—active and retired—and he gave that to me. And he said that he had lived the American dream, because he had come here with a fourth grade education, yet through hard work and certainly with the help of my mother to say the least, they sent seven kids through college. So, I have been able to live the American dream and I want other immigrant families to have the same opportunity.
We need immigration reform. It is a federal issue, not a state issue—unless of course you live in Arizona. But what I would say about what the attorney general can do with regard to immigration [is that] no one should have to worry about being asked for documentation if they are reporting an unsafe workplace or a crime. We want folks to help make this a safer place by raising their hand when they see something wrong, and they shouldn’t have to do that at the risk or fear of deportation, and I am very much in favor of not requesting paperwork when someone comes forward to report something.
ET: Are you concerned with a more diversified attorney general office?
SC: I think the attorney general office should reflect the diversity of New York … Ideally, you would have it be a mirror image of the state, and I think progress has been made, but more can be done. And I do have a diversity initiative that involves trying to recruit talented, economically challenged law school graduates to the office by setting up a fund that would help pay off their law school debts, so that they wouldn’t have to go to the big law firms, where they would work around the clock—like I did when I was a young lawyer—to help pay off debt.
ET: Is this a personal initiative, consistent with your record of donating to worthy causes?
SC: Well, it is consistent with what my wife and I have done as a family. My father sent seven kids to college. Well, indirectly, he is sending a lot of other people to college as well. We set up several scholarships in my father’s name at Georgetown Law School, and what I am exceptionally proud of is ThanksUSA. We set up scholarships that provide six or eight scholarships every year for relatives of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, so my dad is sending, indirectly through us, a whole bunch of other kids to college.
At the office of the attorney general we want to set up a fund—and I have committed to donating my first year’s salary to the fund—to recruit talented minority lawyers and also upstate rural lawyers, who leave law school with huge debt, and give them another option. They want to go back to their communities and help, … and I want those kind of people who want to give back to their communities.
ET: In 2008, Falun Gong practitioners were attacked on the streets in Flushing. The district attorney’s office considered pressing charges, but later dropped them. How would your office respond to that and would you take more initiatives to effectively fight and prevent hate crime?
SC: Well, I think hate crime is very serious, but the first line of defense is the local district attorney, and I would defer to them in the first instance—they are right there on the ground. But if I had come to the conclusion that there is a systemic problem that either one particular district attorney or perhaps several are not giving hate crime the priority it ought to have, if there is a systemic problem, then I think it is appropriate for the attorney general to get involved.
ET: Is there anything else you would like to add?
SC: I think that New York is at a very critical time now. People are very cynical and unhappy, and it is exacerbated by the poor economy. And folks are losing hope, not completely though. … New Yorkers are tough, but they are a bit cynical right now, and what I hope they will do is see that there is at least one candidate who is in it for one reason, and one reason alone, and that is public service.
I grew up in an immigrant family, where my parents reminded me every day that we were fortunate to be here. I joined the Navy at age 17 in order to go to college, but I was also very happy to serve my country. I owed the Navy five years after graduation from the Navel Academy, and I gave them eight active. And then, having gone to law school at night and becoming a lawyer, I then continued to do 18 more years in the reserve, retiring just six years ago as a captain. So those 18 years are meaningful for New Yorkers, as they try to determine who they should trust for this important job, because for 18 years … I had one or two weekends a month to go put on a uniform [and] fly a plane, and for two to three weeks a year as well. And I flew our missions off of Yugoslavia [and participated in] counter-narcotics missions over Columbia—and this was all while I was a lawyer here in New York. And I believe in public service, and I have missed it. And our state is in serious, serious trouble. I think I can offer a lot. I am an accomplished lawyer, and as I say when I am at subway stops: It is time for change, it is time to put public service back into politics, it’s time for Coffey.
ET: What is next for your campaign?
SC: I continue to work hard. This weekend I was in Binghamton, Ulster, Brooklyn, Queens, [and] Nassau. I started this morning at seven at a subway station on the Upper West Side shaking hands and just had an interview with a newspaper, and I will end up my evening at a soup kitchen in Coney Island. And then tomorrow it is more of the same, and I am enjoying it. I am meeting New Yorkers, and I am enjoying it. It is a great state, and folks haven’t given up hope. I haven’t given up hope either that [on] Sept. 14 they will give me the honor of selecting me as the Democratic nominee.