With bow to Buffalo roots, political novice aims for state attorney general

May 26, 2018

The Buffalo News

By Tom Precious

ALBANY – Keith Wofford lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has a top post with a global law firm, two kids in private schools, a vacation place and a Harvard Law degree.

But Wofford, the Republican Party’s new candidate for state Attorney General, is a Buffalo guy.

In fact, he can’t stop talking about Buffalo, whether in his Thursday acceptance speech to GOP convention delegates gathered in Manhattan, or in two subsequent interviews.

“While I live in New York City today, it was my time in Buffalo that taught me everything I need to know and, frankly, it’s an important part about why I’m running for attorney general,” Wofford said early on in his Thursday speech.

Only two days earlier, the political newcomer launched his campaign to become state government’s top lawyer in one of the nation’s most active attorney general’s offices.

Wofford is not only new to the statewide political scene, but he had never met most of the GOP delegates gathered to select an attorney general candidate until several hours before he was tapped following a harried, behind-the-scenes battle with three other Republicans to get a job that has become a stepping stone for the two recent office-holders into the governor’s job in Albany.

“My name is Keith Wofford … For many of you, it’s the first time you’re hearing from me,” Wofford told the delegates just after they made him the party’s first-ever African American candidate for attorney general. In the end, the closest challenger to him was Joseph Holland, another African American lawyer.

Wofford said he had no specific plans to run for the office until Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat,resigned amid a sexual abuse scandal just two weeks prior to the start of the GOP convention.

Senior GOP officials started talking to Wofford, who has been quietly active in some Republican circles and has donated to the party in the past. He was also tapped in 2006 by then Gov. George Pataki to chair a state panel involved in development efforts in Harlem. Friends, too, who had been casually chatting him up about a run someday for the office got more serious in their advice.

“I had not planned on getting involved in this race,” he said. But, he added, “When it became clear that there was a real opportunity to get someone into that seat who was actually independent, I was worried that we would squander the opportunity.”

Pushed late in the game by Ed Cox, the state GOP chairman, and Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County Executive who on Wednesday was selected by GOP delegates as their candidate to run for governor this year, Wofford’s sudden rise surprised even party veterans. On Thursday morning, he was spotted for the first time publicly at the convention hall. Before delegates voted, he was seen on an upper level of the ballroom complex working on his acceptance speech.

Shaped by Buffalo

Wofford grew up in a modest, two-story house with his father, mother and brother on Buffalo’s East Side on Winslow Avenue, a block or so from what were the then-Conrail train tracks. Born in 1969, he played street football and basketball in friends’ backyards.

But he credited the world beyond his neighborhood – his parents, teachers, librarians and mentors in the legal field – for shaping the path he took.

“The elements of Buffalo that I really treasure the most was that it was a place where people really wanted to help the individual without having a real reason to do so other than to do the right thing. And that happened to me over and over again, and Buffalo had the resources available to the public to help someone from a regular family to experience great things,” he said in an interview Friday.

His father’s family came to Buffalo from Georgia in the 1920s. Wofford’s father, John, worked at the Chevrolet engine plant for 24 years. His mother, Ruby, graduated high in her class from Hutchinson Central Technical High School and, when not raising her two sons, worked as a sales clerks in several different local department stores; her ancestors had moved to Canada from upstate following the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and then into New York several decades later.

Wofford said he was taught that there was a world beyond his neighborhood when at a young age his mother would take him on the bus to the Central Branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library on Saturday mornings.

“I just began to love books,” Wofford said. “I still think it’s one of the best libraries in the country. It’s an under-appreciated resource.”

It opened his eyes. “Buffalo was a great place to grow up and learn. We grew up in a working-class environment but I got to take school trips to Kleinhans Music Hall and I spent a lot of time at the Museum of Science, which was only a few blocks from my house,” he said.

Until fifth grade, he attended a small Lutheran school, transferring to City Honors School in the fifth grade. Wofford said he was a regular on the science fair circuit, played trumpet – not very well, he believes – in the school band and helped the debate team to what he recalls was a string of undefeated matches. His jobs to make extra money as a teenager include working at a small publishing company as a proofreader, working the phones at a local call center and a chemistry internship at the University of Buffalo.

Wofford didn’t make it into the 12th grade, he said, because he was accepted in his junior year to Harvard, where he majored in government. (City Honors later gave him a diploma.) At a local dinner for Harvard students and incoming freshman in 1986, he met the first in a steady line of local lawyers who would mentor him on the ways of the legal profession.

“I was not coming from a prep school with a lot of those sorts of connections … They were extraordinary,” he said of the lawyers who gave him time and summer jobs. Richard “Rit” Moot, who died last year, was a key early influence, Wofford said. The next summer, he worked for Robert Shapiro at Jaeckle Fleischmann & Mugel. He was introduced to Matthew Jasen, who had just retired as a judge on the state’s highest court. And he was helped along by the partners at the storied Buffalo law firm of Magavern & Magavern.

“They all gave me good advice and started teaching me what practicing law was all about,” said Wofford, who today is co-managing partner of the international law firm Ropes & Gray, where he has concentrated on bankruptcy and creditors’ rights matters.

The 49-year-old Republican, who said he was briefly a registered Democrat in the 1990s, today faces tough odds, as does any statewide GOP candidate in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one. Publicly, he appears undaunted, at least in the first 24 hours since he became a statewide candidate.

Wofford lives in an apartment on the west side of Manhattan with his wife, Marla, a 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.

As he mounts his campaign, he said he has Buffalo on the mind. “People in Buffalo and upstate New York are very free-thinking. They are very hardworking and they are really genuine people who take people on their merits. That fairmindedness and that openness and hard work are all things that I benefited from,” he said.