On Sunday morning, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sat in a back room of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of Harlem’s most storied chapels, and prepared to give his first Sunday sermon. Hundreds of parishioners sat in the pews, along with a few hundred more tourists, expecting to hear the kind of stirring oration for which Abyssinian has long been known.
A deacon, dressed in a gray, striped, seersucker suit, tried to reassure him. “Just go up and be yourself, man,” he said. “You ran a righteous campaign. People know you, and people need you, and once you get on a roll, people aren’t going to let you sit down.”
In over a decade in the State Senate, Mr. Schneiderman developed a reputation as a wonky, left-leaning legislator, if not a particularly gifted orator. But his 2010 campaign—which succeeded on a platform of unabashed progressivism, amid a Tea Party climate that turned even stalwart Democrats into mini-Grover Norquists— turned Mr. Schneiderman from another downballot contender into the last, best hope for a liberal future.
“Well, it’s great to be here in a great house of worship and a great house of action,” Mr. Schneiderman told the deacon, before trotting out a line he would later use in his sermon. “And it’s not just in the seats—it’s in the streets, you know what I’m saying?”
The deacon smiled at the Harvard Law grad suddenly talking in the rhythms of the pulpit. “Now,” said the deacon, slapping the table. “You really could be joining us now.”
During the campaign, Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation, called his win “solace for the political soul on a grim election night.” In the Huffington Post, David Sirota declared his primary race “the progressive movement’s carpe diem opportunity.”
“Looking at what this man has to offer in this high-profile office with the power to steer the national debate, it seems obvious that a New York loss would be a setback for all Americans,” said the Daily Kos.
He ended up beating a tough-on-crime suburban prosecutor in the Democratic primary by making the race for the state’s chief law enforcement officer into a question of not who would lock up the most bad guys, but who would end the practice of overincarceration. Afterward, he ignored advice to tack to the center in his general election campaign against another popular district attorney, and made the race about social justice and abortion rights. He won by double digits.
And now that he is in office, Eric Schneiderman is not merely the attorney general of the State of New York. He is someone imbued with the hopes of left-wing America during a time when one-time heroes (like Barack Obama) seem happy to negotiate away the store and others (like Anthony Weiner) have exited the stage entirely.
“The Democratic Party always seems to be trying to accommodate, and the conservatives always seem to want to hit back harder and harder,” Mr. Schneiderman said in an interview in his downtown office. A tiny statue of the Buddha sat on his desk, alongside books like The New Jim Crow and a biography of Sir Thomas More. “This is an era when the next stage of conservative triumphalism is: Well, Bush did it as a Republican, and now even Democrats are doing it.
And so a lot of Democrats have pulled backed from their advocacy of regulation as something that makes us all safer, and makes us all capable of generating wealth over the long term.”
“In the long run,” he continues, “politics is really about changing people’s consciousness.”
For the first few months of 2011, the attorney general’s office was relatively silent. Progressives feared that their chosen hero was choosing to wait out the Tea Party’s moment as, across the country, pensions were slashed and collective bargaining rights curtailed. Ms. Vanden Heuvel said several friends sent to her with alarm a January article in The Wall Street Journal that wondered if Mr. Schneiderman “may be good news for Wall Street.”
In truth, Mr. Schneiderman was just biding his time. Albany was, for the moment at least, Andrew Cuomo’s town, as the new governor pushed through a new ethics bill and an austere budget, even as the Democrats who voted for him fretted that he cleaved to a relentlessly centrist agenda.
And Mr. Schneiderman was still taking stock of an office with 1,700 staffers and attorneys and hundreds of active cases inherited from his predecessor. He brought on well-regarded political types like Neal Kwatra, a labor organizer who turned the hotel workers union into a political powerhouse, and Blake Zeff, a former top aide to Hillary Rodham Clinton, and he named Harlan Levy, a partner at the white-shoe law firm of Boies, Schiller & Flexner and friend from his college days at Amherst, his principal deputy. He became a suddenly scarce presence among the Albany and New York City press corps.
And he went around to religious and business leaders to reassure those who feared that Mario Savio was taking over as the state’s chief law enforcement officer. He spoke before the Association for a Better New York, met with Archbishop Timothy Dolan and traveled upstate to meet with energy lobbyists and gun-control opponents.
After the budget was done, and Governor Cuomo was basking in the accolades, Mr. Schneiderman began to assert himself. In the wake of the Japanese earthquake, he won a federal ruling that makes the Indian Point nuclear power plant’s relicensing contingent on safety and emergency response upgrades; he is suing the Environmental Protection Agency over its failure to study the effects of natural gas drilling; and he subpoenaed the state’s largest foreclosure law firm in an investigation of possible improprieties.
Then, in May, it was revealed that Mr. Schneiderman had requested information from top Wall Street firms about their mortgage securities operations in the years leading up to the financial crash. The move was Mr. Schneiderman’s first strike at the kind of investigation that had forged towering reputations for each of his two predecessors, Eliot Spitzer and Mr. Cuomo. The subpoenas indicated that Mr. Schneiderman wasn’t acceding to a negotiated settlement that 49 other attorneys general had been working toward, at least not yet.
“They were negotiating a settlement with the folks who basically blew up the economy,” Mr. Schneiderman said of his fellow attorneys general. “This was not like a volcano blowing up. This happened because the housing market peaked and the residential-backed security market peaked in 2004, and then these guys should have stopped selling this stuff, and they wouldn’t stop.”
If successful, the investigation could do what the Matt Taibbis and Robert Scheers of the world have long advocated, and what officials from President Obama on down had hoped to avoid: actually send Wall Street malefactors to prison.
It is hard to remember now, but at this point in their respective tenures, neither Mr. Spitzer nor Mr. Cuomo had embarked on the cases that made their careers and that solidified the New York attorney general’s office in the public’s mind as the place where societal wrongs got redressed. But there is already a sense that this inquiry, which puts Mr. Schneiderman at odds with the rest of the elected officials in the land, could be his landmark case.
Mr. Schneiderman presides over the A.G.’s office at a very different time than either of his predecessors. Mr. Spitzer’s era was marked by Enron and WorldCom, when it seemed as if there were no checks on corporate power, especially at the top of the ladder. During Mr. Cuomo’s tenure, it had become clear that Bush-era regulators had no interest in regulation.
Asked to characterize the current moment, Mr. Schneiderman joked about “these dark days of the Tea Party,” then described an era in which everyday people have lost faith that everybody plays by the same set of rules.
“The trust bank is empty,” he said. “What I see happening in America is we have growing disparities in wealth, but there is also growing inequality in our legal system. As a lawyer and as a prosecutor, that is something I have no tolerance for. It’s something that puts the whole enterprise of the United States at risk. People have to believe there is not one set of rules for the rich and powerful and another set for everyone else. And that is why we are taking a hard stance on issues related to people who have power.”
Staking his claim on the foreclosure crisis is not without risks. Former aides to Mr. Spitzer and Mr. Cuomo said that if Mr. Schneiderman can find a way to keep people in their homes, he will be hailed as a hero, but that his investigations may be too backward-looking at a time when the perils threatening the economy are still very much in the present.
“I think it’s an old story, and there are too many people involved in it already,” said one veteran of Mr. Cuomo’s office. “The key is to find one issue and get there before anybody else does.”
“I don’t think A.G.’s make their tenure by explaining rather than discovering things,” said a former staffer to Mr. Spitzer. “I don’t think there is anything there that is unknown by the public.”
Mr. Schneiderman’s allies hope it will be a definitive case for his office. They share a view that Mr. Spitzer, and to a greater degree Mr. Cuomo, were more focused on generating headlines than actually seeing investigations all the way through.
“Cuomo and Spitzer were pretty fortunate to have the 10-year run that they did,” said one veteran of the attorney general’s office. “Schneiderman isn’t going to find as much space for an active attorney general to step into.”
But for Mr. Schneiderman and his supporters, this is precisely the point. Merely electing Democrats isn’t enough. The attorney general wants a movement, a way to show how progressive politics can be effected when your side is in charge, and especially when the other side is dictating the terms of the debate.
“On the mortgage-backed securities case, a lot of my colleagues are looking to settle. But I have made it clear to my colleagues and to the federal agencies that are involved that I will not participate in this settlement that provides a broad release for financial services institutions before a thorough investigation is done, and we will insure that anyone is engaged in wrongdoing is held accountable.”
He adds, “It seems like the feds are just like, ‘Let’s move on and get this out of the way.’”
“The thing about Eric is that he is a fighter,” said Ms. vanden Heuvel, a supporter and long-time friend. “We have a president who has not been willing to find points of conflict in order to even educate the American people … Eric is someone who is willing to take his own side in an argument. Too often in this country, liberals have ducked and bobbed and not been willing to do that.”
In 2008, Mr. Schneiderman penned an article for Ms. vanden Heuvel’s magazine in which he implored liberals to not sacrifice transformational politics for what he called “transactional politics.” The latter involved electing allies and forging compromises to get the best deal possible in the legislature; the former meant shifting the terms of the debate to beat back the tide of reactionary politics.
Implicitly, at least, it is a rebuke to what is currently happening in Washington, where liberals are dismayed that President Obama appears to keep negotiating for himself.
But Mr. Schneiderman’s op-ed also served as something of a rebuke to Mr. Cuomo, who campaigned last year on the government-slashing rhetoric of the right, and who overachieved in his first year in Albany by packing legislative deals on top of other legislative deals.
Veterans of the A.G.’s office say that the relationship between an attorney general and governor is destined to be fraught with tension. The attorney general is the governor’s lawyer, and most of the office’s work involves defending state agencies from lawsuits. But the two also co-exist in a rather nebulous sphere where the prerogatives of the two offices, and the credit for sweeping victories, awkwardly overlap.
Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Schneiderman first met during Mario Cuomo’s 1982 campaign for governor, when the elder Mr. Cuomo rallied from 40 points down to defeat Ed Koch. Still, Mr. Cuomo quietly backed Mr. Schneiderman’s chief opponent, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, during the 2010 campaign—though aides argue it had more to do with the desire to have a woman from the suburbs on the ticket.
Soon after he was sworn in, Mr. Cuomo proposed legislation that would have added sweeping new provisions to his portfolio, and ones that could have transferred away much of Mr. Schneiderman’s ability to investigate Wall Street malfeasance. Mr. Cuomo has also demurred in turning over ethics enforcement to the A.G.’s office. Mr. Schneiderman has told friends that he feels himself under “the glare” of Mr. Cuomo, and he has undergone criticism from some allies that he hasn’t more aggressively opposed some of the governor’s initiatives.
For his part, Mr. Schneiderman allied with Comptroller Tom DiNapoli—who suffered a drawn-out investigation by Mr. Cuomo when he was A.G.—to expand his office’s power to investigate public corruption.
“The relationship between the governor and the A.G. is like that of any lawyer with a pain-in-the-ass client,” said one former Cuomo-era official.
The job is made even more difficult by the fact that the past two attorneys general served with their eyes firmly focused on the governor’s mansion. Mr. Schneiderman has asked friends to refrain from even making jokes about him as the “awaiting governor,” and those who know him say that although any statewide elected official can’t help but see himself in the governor’s mansion, Mr. Schneiderman doesn’t seem consumed with ambition to get there quickly.
“Some of the work I am doing won’t yield results tomorrow, or next year, but if we don’t do it we are going to keep losing ground over the long haul,” he said. “This is a moment for a redefinition of American politics.”
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