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New York has a new interim attorney general

Barbara Underwood, the state’s solicitor general, will serve out the remainder of Eric Schneiderman’s term.

Barbara Underwood.
Hans Pennink/AP
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The New York state legislature appointed a new attorney general on Tuesday to serve out the remainder of disgraced Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s term.

Barbara Underwood, the state’s solicitor general, had been serving as acting attorney general since Schneiderman resigned less than 24 hours after the New Yorker reported that four women said he physically abused them.

The legislature, after interviewing about a dozen candidates, decided to keep her on until New York’s voters choose a new attorney general in November. Underwood inherits a slew of high-profile cases, including challenges to the Trump administration’s agenda and a lawsuit against Harvey Weinstein and his company.

Underwood is also the first woman to hold the job of New York attorney general, a statistic that seems even more astounding in the wake of allegations against Schneiderman. Schneiderman, in his public and political life, ran as a champion of women and, more recently, of #MeToo. The accusations that he slapped, choked, and threatened women transformed him from a hero of the movement into, as Vox’s Anna North wrote, its “biggest betrayal.”

New York voters will ultimately have the chance to choose a new attorney general in November, and the three Democratic candidates who’ve entered the race so far are all women. (Underwood said she has no interest in running.) New York City Public Advocate Letitia James — who would be the first African-American woman to hold statewide office — declared last week. The same is true for Leecia Eve, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo. Law professor Zephyr Teachout, who mounted a failed 2014 gubernatorial challenge against Cuomo, is also reportedly seeking the Democratic nomination.

The list of potential candidates is starting to narrow and set after weeks of rumors. After all, the attorney general is the second most important political office in the state and now, more than ever, offers a chance to build a national profile as one of President Donald Trump’s chief antagonizers.

Underwood is in charge. What happens next?

Underwood, the No. 2 official in the attorney general’s office, was sworn in as the attorney general earlier this month and she’ll now have the job until a new attorney general is elected in November 2018. She is incredibly well-credentialed and more than equipped to take over the office’s public caseload.

The New York state legislature interviewed about a dozen candidates last week but ultimately decided on Underwood. Her experience, and others’ grumbles that the whole process looked a bit like backroom dealing, likely swayed their decision.

The candidates who want the job permanently, including James and Teachout, said they wouldn’t submit their names to the legislature for interim consideration. (Eve also withdrew her résumé.)

For those who want to be elected attorney general, the filing deadline is July 12. The Democratic Party can also nominate candidates at the state convention on Long Island this week. James, Teachout, and Eve will all reportedly seek the party’s nomination. That doesn’t prevent others from running in the primary if they secure enough signatures and meet the filing deadline.

New York has never elected a woman attorney general. Now might be the time.

So New York will get a new attorney general in November. Women have been scarce in statewide positions, and the state has never elected a female attorney general. New York political observers tend to agree that’s probably what the state party and electorate might be leaning toward.

“There’s just been so many scandals out of Albany. And when I say scandals, I mean political, financial, and sexual in nature, and of the many, many New York politicos who’ve gone to prison or lost their jobs, almost all have been men,” Christina Greer, a professor of political science at Fordham University, told me. “So I do think we’re in a moment right now where we see that the political winds blowing into ‘at least let’s try something for a change.’

“I think people are saying it feels like women, in terms of all the obstacles it takes to get elected, they get in and do their job without all this other dark baggage that we consistently see with these male politicians,” she added.

Three women are already in the race. James, the New York City public advocate, declared last week. “We find ourselves in a very precarious time in this country — at a time when we should use the shield of the law to protect New Yorkers from the sword of injustice,” she said, announcing her candidacy at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

James had reportedly been interested in a 2021 mayoral run, but the vacancy Schneiderman left behind opened up another chance at higher office. She likely lacks name recognition outside of New York City, but that probably won’t hurt her in the heavily Democratic primaries, where a substantial share of the votes comes from the five boroughs. She also just won Cuomo’s endorsement.

Teachout, a law professor and progressive who lost a gubernatorial challenge against Cuomo in 2014 and a House race in 2016, is reportedly seeking the Democratic nomination at the convention this week.

Eve, the third candidate to say she’ll enter the race, probably suffers from lack of name recognition, but she has some powerful allies, including Harold M. Ickes, a former deputy chief of staff to Bill Clinton. Eve, if elected, would also be the first African-American woman to win statewide office.

“I am proud to be a woman, and a woman of color in particular,” she told the New York Times. “But I’m running because I believe I’m the best person to be the attorney general of our state.”

There have also been a few dropouts among the early favorites to enter the race: Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice, a former Nassau County district attorney who narrowly lost to Schneiderman in the Democratic primaries in 2010, and state Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens.

Some others may still get in the race: Assembly member Daniel O’Donnell, a Democrat who represents Manhattan, was among the candidates who interviewed for the interim position last week. Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney is also reportedly thinking of a run.

Then there’s Preet Bharara, the former star US attorney for the Southern District of New York and current podcaster.

Bharara has previously said he wasn’t interested in running for office, though he’d be a popular choice among voters who see him as a crusader against Trump — particularly if the New York attorney general’s office investigates Trump aides in parallel with special counsel Robert Mueller’s office to bring state charges as a deterrence to presidential pardons.

Bharara, who spent his tenure as US attorney going after corrupt lawmakers, probably had no chance of being appointed attorney general by the legislature even if he wanted the job. But on his podcast last week, he said he would not seek the appointment of the legislature because it had “the look and feel of a backroom deal.”

Yet he didn’t completely dismiss the idea of becoming a candidate, saying that despite his antipathy for politics, he recognized the importance of the job. “The question about what I’ll do with respect to the election in November, that’s for another day,” he said.

Bharara’s resistance hasn’t stopped people from courting him. Politico reports that the kingmakers from across the political spectrum are trying to convince him to run, among them former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Republican consultant John Weaver. Bharara’s appeal comes from his independence, which is at odds with a run.

A few Republicans are also jumping into the race. Manny Alicandro, a Manhattan attorney, announced his candidacy before the New Yorker story broke. Schneiderman’s resignation prompted one more candidate, Rockland County attorney Thomas Humbach, to jump into the contest. And now Joseph Holland, a former state housing commissioner who was also considering a gubernatorial run, has joined the race, along with attorney Keith Wofford.

Greer said that Republicans might have reevaluated their odds in the wake of the allegations against Schneiderman, but the climate in 2018 still isn’t favorable for the GOP. This isn’t an election year in which Republicans can easily run on Democrats’ misdeeds, particularly when President Trump is still in the White House.

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