The New York state legislature just interviewed potential candidates this week to serve out the remainder of disgraced Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s term.
The swift downfall of Schneiderman has rattled state politics and left New York’s top law enforcement job wide open months before the 2018 election.
Schneiderman’s resignation letter signed and delivered pic.twitter.com/7VqylopWcA— Nick Reisman (@NickReisman) May 8, 2018
New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood took over as acting attorney general, inheriting 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 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.”
An obvious, if imperfect, antidote is appointing or electing a woman to succeed Schneiderman. The New York state legislature can leave Underwood in place or select another interim AG until a new one is elected. Lawmakers are interviewed prospective AG candidates this week — though some interested in the AG job declined to participate because the decision has appeared to be more insider politics than democratic process.
New York voters will ultimately have the chance to choose a new attorney general in November. Whom that might be is anybody’s guess. At least one high-profile candidate has declared: New York City Public Advocate Leticia James, who would be the first woman elected attorney general and the first African-American woman to hold statewide office.
But the list of potential or rumored candidates continues to grow. 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 Trump’s chief antagonizers.
Schneiderman resigned. What happens next?
Underwood was sworn in as the attorney general last week. She is an incredibly well-credentialed attorney with extensive litigation experience, more than equipped to take over the office’s public caseload. She’ll have that job until a new attorney general is elected in November 2018 and sworn in — unless the New York legislature appoints someone else before then.
Craig Burnett, a professor of political science at Hofstra University, said Underwood is exactly the type of person that, if you lose an attorney general, you hope is following right behind. But that might not be enough to convince the legislature.
“It’s a precarious time to be New York’s attorney general,” Burnett said last week, because the state’s top law enforcement official is seen as being a counter to the current White House administration. “There’s some political impetus there,” he added.
Underwood has won endorsements from editorial boards, Republican lawmakers want her to stay, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has hinted that Underwood should stick around. “I don’t think there’s any rush to replace the vacancy,” the governor said last week. “I think the office is in very capable hands. How many times do you want to disrupt that office?”
New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), who will help steer the selection as the leader of the overwhelmingly Democratic lower chamber, asked interested candidates to submit résumés and covers letters by Friday, May 11. A bipartisan committee made up of members of the state Senate and Assembly conducted interviews Tuesday and Wednesday this week.
The legislature interviewed 11 hopefuls including Underwood. The number started at 16, but shrank to 13 as some contenders withdrew, apparently fretting about the political optics of the selection process. Just ahead of the interviews, two other candidates pulled out.
Besides Underwood, the résumés came from states lawmakers and practicing attorneys — some with name recognition, but most without. They are:
- Thomas J. Abinanti, a Democratic assembly member from Westchester;
- Daniel J. O’Donnell, a Democratic assembly member from Manhattan;
- Elizabeth Holtzman, a former Democratic Congress member and Brooklyn district attorney;
- Lloyd Constantine, a former aide to Eliot Spitzer who wrote a tell-all book about the governor;
- Doris Ling-Cohan, a judge on the New York State Supreme Court; Michael D. Diederich, Jr., an attorney;
- Nicole Gueron, a former federal prosecutor who worked in Cuomo’s AG office;
- Thomas Humbach, Rockland County attorney who’s already announced he’ll be running for the GOP attorney general nomination;
- Jennifer P. Stergion, an attorney; and
- Alex Zapesochny, an executive at a biotech firm and former Bronx prosecutor.
Underwood is the favorite for the job; lawmakers crowed about her qualifications and actually asked the other candidates how they measured up to her.
She told lawmakers she had no interest in running for attorney general in the fall but would like to serve out the remainder of Schneiderman’s term. “Perhaps most important to me, it means being a shield against discriminatory or otherwise unlawful action by the federal government that harms New York,” Underwood said.
The legislature has not said when it will make its decision; though it’s likely next week. If lawmakers decide to go with someone else, that person could become the automatic frontrunner for the position in an election, gaining an incumbency advantage for both the primary and potentially the general in November 2018.
But being the chosen attorney general of New York lawmakers could also backfire in a primary or general election. Any business in Albany tends to carry the whiff of backroom dealing. Many of the candidates who want the job permanently — including James and Zephyr Teachout — said they wouldn’t submit their names to the legislature for consideration. James has already said she’s running; others, such as Teachout, has said publicly they’re mulling over a bid.
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 at the end of May. Democratic leaders can nominate up to four candidates to run for attorney general, according to Newsday. 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, possibly one appointed by the legislature and another after an election in November. The list of potential replacements is long, but a few potential frontrunners have emerged.
The clamor to appoint a woman is also intensifying, and New York political observers tend to agree that’s probably what the state legislature is leaning toward — and maybe the state electorate too.
“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,” Greer added.
One woman is already in the race: James, the New York City public advocate. “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 Wednesday as she declared her candidacy at the Brooklyn Historical Society.
So allow me to reintroduce myself. My name is Letitia “Tish” James, and I want to be your Attorney General for the great state of New York. #PeoplesLawyer— Tish James (@TishJames) May 16, 2018
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 come from the five boroughs. James also reportedly has the backing of Cuomo; though questions emerged as to whether it came with conditions.
And a few women’s names have cropped up as likely contenders. Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and progressive who lost a gubernatorial challenge against Andrew Cuomo in 2014 and a House race in 2016, has publicly expressed interest in running. She’s currently working for Cynthia Nixon’s gubernatorial campaign.
Teachout said she wouldn’t participate in the legislature’s attorney general job search but also said this week that she’s forming an exploratory committee. She endorsed Underwood to complete the remainder of the term and urged other potential candidates to do the same.
I have decided to form an exploratory committee to consider running for Attorney General of New York State. I will make a final decision in the next few weeks. Thanks for all the encouragement. If you are in, sign up here! https://t.co/S06Dsm3kCg— Zephyr Teachout (@ZephyrTeachout) May 14, 2018
Other women have been floated as possible candidates, including Carrie H. Cohen, a former federal prosecutor who led the first corruption trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver; and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (though her name had also been floated as potential House candidate in New York’s 27th District); and Leecia Eve, a former counsel to former Sens. Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Then there’s the candidates who submitted their resumes to the legislature, including Holtzman.
Out of the running is Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice, a former Nassau County district attorney narrowly lost to Schneiderman in the Democratic primaries in 2010. She emerged as an early frontrunner but said Tuesday she would not run for AG and instead seek a third term in Congress.
Full statement from Rep. Kathleen Rice: "I have determined that I cannot run for Attorney General at this time." pic.twitter.com/NEbRMT9nmO— Shane Goldmacher (@ShaneGoldmacher) May 15, 2018
Other serious candidates include state Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens, who had been eyeing the attorney general seat after Schneiderman’s tenure and has funds on hand for a statewide campaign, according to Politico New York. He, too, said he wouldn’t participate in the legislature’s interview process but is still mulling a run.
Assembly member Daniel O’Donnell, a Democrat who represents Manhattan, is another potential pick and is on the list of candidates the legislature will interview this week. O’Donnell, who was the first openly gay member of the Assembly, has been a longtime advocate for LGBTQ rights in the state.
Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney is also reportedly thinking of a run, though he withdrew from the legislature interview process.
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 told CNN earlier this month that talk of a run was flattering, but “other people have put the thought out there. I’m not putting it out there. And I’m happy doing what I’m doing now.”
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 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, 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.
More names may emerge — or more likely fade out — as the legislature makes its pick and Democrats get serious about declaring. James seems like the frontrunner right now as a progressive and history-making candidate. But that’s an easy call to make as the lone candidate in the race.
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. He’s the only Republican being interviewed this week.
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.