Tish James claimed the Democratic nomination for New York attorney general in late September with a call to arms. The first black woman nominated by a major party for statewide office in New York explained that her campaign is about much more than filling another ballot line in another election. “Most importantly,” James said, it is “about that man in the White House, who can’t go a day without threatening our fundamental rights, can’t go a day without threatening the rights of immigrants, can’t go a day without dividing us.” James told a cheering crowd in Brooklyn that she is seeking one of the most potent law-enforcement posts in the nation in order to erect “a wall of constitutional protection that never crumbles”—a wall stronger than anything Donald Trump has proposed.
That’s no idle promise. State attorneys general have the tools to challenge edicts from the White House, as was powerfully illustrated just days after Trump’s inauguration, when Attorney General Bob Ferguson of Washington State upended the new president’s Muslim ban with a legal challenge that identified the executive order as unlawful and unconstitutional. Since Trump took office in January 2017, Democratic attorneys general have resisted his administration’s assaults on everything from immigrant and labor rights to legal marijuana—just as Republican AGs have aligned with the administration’s schemes to undermine the Affordable Care Act and promote judicial nominees like Brett Kavanaugh.
The nation’s state attorneys general have come to be understood both as forces unto themselves and as members of multistate coalitions that can affect national policy. As the chief law-enforcement officer on the state level—30 of whom will be elected this fall—they have the authority to safeguard the environment, protect consumers, shield employees from workplace abuses, defend immigrants, and fight for the rights of women and members of the LGBTQ community. They can put criminal-justice reform on the agenda, demand accountability from the Catholic Church, preserve voting rights, and assure that the meetings of state and local boards are open and their records accessible. The power of these positions, which has been utilized more aggressively in recent years, has made attorney-general races some of the most high-stakes contests in an incredibly high-stakes election year. In an era characterized by gridlock and dysfunction at all levels of government, attorneys general get things done.
Nevada State Senate majority leader Aaron Ford—now a Democratic nominee for attorney general who has pledged to fight for background checks on gun buyers in a state that was traumatized by last year’s Las Vegas massacre—is right when he argues, “Some people refer to [the office] as a quote-unquote ‘down-ballot race.’ I think it’s separate and apart from the ballot, because it serves as a check on other agencies.”