Opinion

TMI: Let Cuomo and the legislature haggle over AG, then overrule them in the voting booth

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TMI: Let Cuomo and the legislature haggle over AG, then overrule them in the voting booth

Odds are you heard of former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s various fronts against President Donald Trump before you read The New Yorker story detailing harrowing allegations of physical abuse. Schneiderman brought the fraud case against Trump University and appeared to be positioning his office as a repository for cases against Trump should the president try to escape prosecution with his pardon power.

The NYAG can be a very powerful position. Its leader can force change on Wall Street, Washington and Albany.

While Schneiderman was aggressive in his crusade against Trump, he was fairly hands-off when it came to the very obvious corruption in New York state government. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that he was a creature of that system: Schneiderman was an ambitious state senator before he was attorney general.

I recall early in my time covering state government Schneiderman, seemingly overcaffeinated, manic and driven, spryly trying to escape questions from Fred Dicker and myself by darting into rooms off-limits to reporters. Finally, at the door to the legislative chamber forbidden to reporters, Schneiderman smiled and said, “He’s after me because I’m too liberal” as he pointed to Dicker. “And he’s after me because I’m not liberal enough!” as he pointed at me. He gave short answers to our questions and then disappeared into the safety of the legislative chamber. 

Perhaps Schneiderman’s lack of effectiveness on corruption in New York came from the fact the AG is the state’s lawyer. How could he effectively represent the state while ripping into the very people who control it?

Regardless of what stopped Schneiderman from aggressively calling out and going after the corruption in his own backyard, the fact is we now have an opportunity. The vacancy in the AG’s office has sparked a free-for-all for the position. Political jockeying is happening at a stunning pace. The Assembly appears set to appoint New York City Public Advocate Tish James to the position.

James, a former NYC councilwoman, would make history as the first black woman to hold the seat. But, according to a number of sources, her bid for the seat is predicated on a series of political deals and exchanges of favors that would leave her indebted to a vast array of political machines and prominent political actors.

Perhaps more concerning is the rumor that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is floating his Counsel and Alphonso David for the position, at least temporarily. That move would be tantamount to letting the fox guard the hen house.

Cuomo has shown that he has no will to reform the many loopholes and practices that lead to corruption in Albany. In fact, he’s capitalized on just about all of them. He likes the system how it is because he is of the system. He was born into it.

Let’s not forget that he sabotaged his own anti-corruption commission as it began getting close to his donors and has repeatedly appointed his lackeys to boards, ethics commissions and other prominent watchdog positions. He promised to make the state’s redistricting process free of politics and then signed off on Senate Republicans’ obscene gerrymandering.

By all accounts, acting AG Barbara Underwood is a great fit for the job. She’s served as Solicitor General since being appointed by Cuomo for over a decade. In 1998, she was appointed the U.S. principal deputy solicitor general by Janet Reno. She’s argued 20 cases before the Supreme Court.

All of that is good, but New York does need an ambitious AG. The entire country does need a legal crusader–a sheriff of Wall Street, a sheriff of Albany, and a sheriff of Washington wrapped into one neat package. To be honest, I have no idea if there is anyone alive who meets those qualifications.

Come September, voters will have a chance to decide. I suggest the first quality they look for is independence. If former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara were to run I’d suggest you vote for him–solely on the fact that he has proven he is willing to take on the powers that be in Albany and in Washington. The reality is more complicated, he would face conflicts of interest as he was fired by Trump and brought cases against legislators and Cuomo’s inner circle. Also, if you haven’t noticed, Bharara appears dedicated to his new role as media figurehead thanks to his podcast and his media venture CAFE.

Other independent possibilities include Zephyr Teachout, who challenged Cuomo during his last election. Teachout, a Fordham professor who specializes in analyzing political corruption, announced via Twitter that she is considering a run. She might offer the kind of independence the state deserves, but does she have enough experience to deliver on all fronts?

The field will get crowded. Congresswoman Kathleen Rice, who Cuomo favored over Schneiderman in 2010, appears to be making a serious bid. Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney is also floating a run. A number of backbench legislators also appear interested.

CNN talking head Chris Cillizza amused New York politicos with his Tweet <blockquote 

Here’s a name that would shake up the New York AG race: Hillary Clinton

— Chris Cillizza (@CillizzaCNN) May 8, 2018

For a reality check, all we need to do is look back to the fall of former Comptroller Alan Hevesi. Then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, coming off a historic landslide victory, demanded the legislature not replace Hevesi, who had been felled by a corruption scandal, with a legislator but instead allow an independent panel to screen candidates. Then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver ignored him and appointed Tom DiNapoli to the position. DiNapoli has a reputation for being affable, abiding and rather consistently cowed. Spitzer would go on to resign after a prostitution scandal. Silver resigned after Bharara’s office brought a number of corruption charges against him.

Make no mistake, this is a chance to change the cycle of corruption in Albany. But it will take focus, unity and an ability to see past naked political ploys. Perhaps most importantly, the next attorney general should commit to taking on the culture of sexual harassment that pervades state government. It’s the least they could do after an abuser such as Schneiderman was allowed to use the position to masquerade as an ally.

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