Buffalo native Wofford launches GOP campaign for AG with salvo at Albany corruption

June 4, 2018

The Buffalo News

By Stephen T. Watson and Tom Precious

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 University 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 acceptance speech to GOP convention delegates gathered last month in Manhattan, in two subsequent interviews or at Monday’s formal launch of his campaign in his hometown.

“I wanted to make my first campaign stop where it all started, here in Buffalo,” Wofford said Monday outside downtown’s Central Library.

The East Side native and City Honors School graduate kicked off his run for the state’s top legal job with a blistering attack on the office’s recent occupants and a vow to clean up Albany.

Only weeks earlier, Republicans from across New York had backed Wofford 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 also had never met most of the GOP delegates gathered to select an attorney general candidate until several hours before he was tapped. That followed a harried, behind-the-scenes battle with three other Republicans to get a job that has served as a stepping stone into the governor’s office 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 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 lead 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 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 GOP delegates selected as their candidate to run for governor this year, Wofford’s sudden rise surprised even party veterans. On the Thursday morning of the convention, 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,” he said in an interview.

His father’s family came to Buffalo from Georgia in the 1920s. Wofford’s father, John, worked at the Chevrolet engine plant for 32 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 clerk 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 & Erie County Public Library on Saturday mornings. His fond feelings for the Central Library are why Wofford held Monday’s campaign event in front of the building.

“I just began to love books,” Wofford said. “I still think it’s one of the best libraries in the country. It’s an underappreciated 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 at 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 mentored 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 William I. Schapiro 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.

Wofford is co-managing partner of Manhattan office of the international law firm Ropes & Gray, where he has concentrated on bankruptcy and creditors’ rights matters, but is on a leave of absence from the firm.

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

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.

Long road to the AG’s office

The 49-year-old Republican, who said briefly registered as 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.

Democrats have not settled on their nominee for attorney general, but one candidate is Leecia Eve, another attorney from Buffalo.

The last Republican to hold the job, Dennis Vacco, also was from Western New York. His term ended in 1998. Vacco was succeeded by three Democrats: Eliot Spitzer, who later served as governor before resigning in disgrace; Andrew Cuomo, now the governor; and Schneiderman.

Wofford on Monday was sharply critical of that trio and touted his political inexperience as an asset. Wofford said the state’s “pay-to-play system” hurts taxpayers by sending the cost of government soaring and by driving business away from New York.

“Corruption is wrong, and it must be stopped. But it cannot stop unless we stop electing insiders, political climbers and hacks as attorney general of this state,” he said outside the Central Library.

As Wofford spoke Monday, two of his cousins stood behind him. Constance Wofford Robinson and the Rev. Clyde Wofford said in an interview that they’re confident their cousin would restore the office’s integrity.

“This will be the first time I’ll actually vote for a candidate and I’ll know their heart, I know their mind, I know their passion, I know their seriousness,” said Clyde Wofford. He remembered his cousin, who is 14 years his junior, as the only family member who could beat him at chess.

Wofford Robinson said her cousin, as a child and teenager, always had his nose in a book.

“When my cousin announced that he wanted to do this, knowing the stock that he came from, there’s going to be a change in this office,” she said. “Because I know he’s from right. He was born, and he was raised, right. And I know he’ll do the right thing toward the consumers, toward the constituents and toward the people of New York State.”