Doing due diligence on Israel

The ‘Magazine’ sits down with Keith Wofford, the first African-American Republican candidate for New York State attorney-general.

KEITH WOFFORD (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This coming November, a bit of political history will be made, when Keith Wofford will be the first African-American Republican candidate on the ballot for the post of New York State attorney-general.
Born and raised in a working-class section of Buffalo, Wofford is a political outsider who grew up in a home that stressed the values of education and hard work.
He won a scholarship to attend Harvard, where he also went to law school, and went on to become a co-managing partner of the New York office of Ropes & Grey, a prestigious legal firm with offices on three continents.
Although Democrats far outnumber Republicans in New York, Wofford has succeeded in marshaling a great deal of support, thanks in no small measure to his earnestness, keen intellect and especially his no-nonsense approach to defending the rights of taxpayers by clamping down on institutional waste and fraud.
Last week, Wofford paid his first visit to the Jewish state together with his wife, Marla. He granted an exclusive interview to The Jerusalem Post in which he addressed a variety of topics, ranging from race relations to Israeli innovation.
Election Day in the United States is less than three months away. What brings you to Israel?
This is my first time in Israel. I came to Israel because I thought it was important to see the country, learn more about the situation here and do some firsthand diligence on the issues facing the country. It is of obvious importance to a number of New Yorkers and frankly to the United States.
What are your impressions of the Jewish state?
Israel is an amazing country. It has been a wonderful visit and I have learned a lot about the progress that has been made over the past decades and how much progress there has been in terms of technology, infrastructure and innovation. What has been done with agriculture is simply amazing – Israel has really been pioneering in a number of ways. There are many things that I was not directly familiar with before I visited and that I learned as a result of coming here.
Is there something in particular that you found especially meaningful?
The experience that will really stay with me is when we went up to the Golan Heights, adjacent to the borders with Lebanon and Syria. A brigadier-general in the Israel Defense Forces, the IDF, was kind enough to accompany us and tell us about some of the experiences and sensitivities of the situation geographically, particularly in light of the history of the 1967 and 1973 wars. I really came away from that experience with an understanding of the degree of difficulties that Israel has, vis-à-vis its hostile and sometimes unstable neighbors.
You are a successful lawyer and a partner at a top firm. Why would you put that aside to enter politics? What do you hope to achieve?
What I would like to achieve is to improve the lives of everyday New Yorkers. There really is a need for as many high-quality selfless people as possible to go into public service. One of the things that I bring to this race is that I am someone who has no real attachment to the political system, and I really just want to do this because there is an opportunity to help the state where I lived for virtually all my life. And that’s why I am doing it. It is a special opportunity to help other people and to help the state move forward.
What change do you wish to bring about?
The first thing we have to do is we have to clean up the corruption in New York State. We are simply not getting the government that we are paying for, and one of the reasons we don’t, one of the main reasons we don’t get the government we pay for, is because there are people in the government who are aligning public policy to be guided by things other than the public interest; so we have got to clean that up. There needs to be a clear message sent that someone is watching what we are doing as a state, how we award contracts and how we deal with taxpayers’ money.
The age-old debate about imprisonment is whether it should constitute punishment or rehabilitation or perhaps both. What are your thoughts on this matter?
Well, it’s going to have to be elements of both because we have such a significant percentage of our population enmeshed with the justice system that ultimately will have to be reintegrated to society, that we cannot ignore rehabilitation as part of what society needs to do.
Has enough effort been put into rehabilitation?
There’s been a lot of effort put into rehabilitation, there probably needs to be more focusing on that effort, and frankly we need to reduce the number of people who are drawn into our criminal justice system in the first place. To the extent we can do so consistent with public safety.
For well over a decade, New York State has not applied the death penalty, even in cases involving the murder of policemen. Do you think the death penalty should be restored?
I think that is primarily an issue for the legislature and not the attorney-general. You know, it is something the state has gone back and forth on for years. I think it is part of a general reexamination of our criminal justice procedures and that it is something that should be considered, but at this point I wouldn’t advocate it. But I think it is something that should be potentially on the table.
Both Massachusetts and New Jersey are heading toward the possible legalization of marijuana, and according to a report in last month’s New York Times, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is moving closer to adopting such a position as well. What do you think of this?
With respect to recreational marijuana, two things.
No. 1, we need to deal with the current differential impact on minority communities of the current enforcement regime and tactics.
That said, the way to deal with it at this point is not through legalization for recreational purposes. The reason is that there hasn’t been enough diligence done and there hasn’t been enough thinking about all of the spillover effects if we currently legalize marijuana. For example, we do not even have an ability today to analyze and test whether people were driving while high, operating machinery while high. So if you think about the implications for traffic safety or for a workers’ compensation system or safety around construction sites, none of those issues have really been vetted, examined and analyzed.
We haven’t looked into public health implications of it either; and given the breadth of health coverage provided by New York State, I think we would want to have a clear view of the public health and public safety implications, before there is any attempt at legalization of recreational marijuana.
So you have to deal with the enforcement issue that people rightfully state exists, but the way to do it is not legalization. Not at this point, since we simply don’t know enough about what the ramifications of that would be.
As the first African-American ever chosen to run as the Republican candidate for New York State attorney- general, how would you describe the current state of race relations in the United States?
The state of race relations in New York and the USA is that they’re a work in progress. On the one hand, we have remarkably positive developments over the years.
Great examples of personal achievement, greater rapprochement in terms of social interactions, particularly with the younger generation, but there is still substantial imperfection. We are not where we want to be with our criminal justice system, we are not where we want to be with respect to the equality of educational opportunities, we are not where we want to be with respect to equality of economic options.
Now one of the ways to address the economic opportunity issue is to create more economic opportunities for everybody, regardless of background. We still have to be mindful of the issues we have to improve, even though there have been very, very positive trends that have been developed over the last 30 to 40 years.
The previous attorney-general, Eric Schneiderman, initiated dozens of legal and administrative rulings against US President Donald Trump and his administration, and the current attorney-general, Barbara Underwood, has also pursued action against the Trump Foundation. Do you think Democrats are using the law as a political tool to bash their opponents?
There is no doubt that not every suit and not every action that has been brought against the government has been the result of purely merits-based analyses, and there has been some proportion of it purely political.
There is simply no doubt about that in my mind.
The question is which action benefits the taxpayers in New York and which actions, either fully or in part, are politically motivated. That’s really the issue that has to be sorted out. But there is no doubt that there has been some degree of political posturing and motivation in some of the things that have been undertaken.
New York State has laws such as the Kosher Law Protection Act of 2004 which aim to protect kosher consumers from fraudulently advertised products being depicted as kosher. What is your position regarding such laws and where do you think the line should be drawn between state and religion?
I think that the tension in that sort of a law is that you want to have consumer protection, but you don’t want the protection to be done in a way that has the government defining a religious issue like what is or what is not kosher. So we want to protect New Yorkers, but we don’t want to make the religious determination inherent in that.
Fifty years ago, the black and Jewish communities in the US were close political allies, but that no longer seems to be the case. What happened?
So, my view of this is that African-Americans and Jews face some common problems. Those common problems include, for example, housing discrimination.
There are people who are unhappy to live near African-Americans, there are people who are unhappy to live near certain members of the Jewish community.
There are other issues, such as stereotyping, or what might be regarded as blaming or scapegoating, that are common to the African-American and Jewish communities, and I honestly don’t believe those have changed. But I think you are going to continue to see political alliances or cooperation, because those challenges are persistent.
It seems that many traditional values are under attack and that those who question the latest fads in society are immediately tarred with labels aimed at silencing them. Has political correctness run amok and what would you as attorney-general do to reverse the trend?
I think one of the things that the attorney-general needs to do is to support freedom. I think it’s incredibly important, whether that is freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press or freedom of association. It is very easy in the elected offices that are more overtly political to bend with the wind, and one of the positive things about having a constitutionally elected A-G is that it is a less overtly political office where I would endeavor – and I think you should endeavor – to support freedom. And again, that includes freedom of speech.
Finally, a somewhat philosophical question. In Deuteronomy (16:20), the Jewish people are commanded, “Justice, justice shalt you pursue.” One interpretation of the repetition of the word “justice” is that it is meant to teach us that the pursuit of justice must be ongoing, that we must never be content with our own grasp of the truth. Is there room for more humility in the American system of justice?
There is always room for more humility in the justice system. The American justice system overall has very, very laudable aspirations with respect to the rights of individuals and pursuing the truth and erring on the side of freedom – both freedom to actively pursue life and liberty and freedom from a corrosive or overbearing government. Do we always meet those lofty aspirations? Not always, but we persevere with them even in the knowledge that we are imperfect in meeting them.
So yes, there is always room for humility in the system of American justice, and one of the things we have done in this vein is to initiate innocence projects to figure out where we made mistakes. We must make sure there are checks and balances and appellate review.
Yes, there is always room for humility, but that is part and parcel of our aspiration to preserve freedom through the justice system.