ALBANY — Several potential candidates for state attorney general are opting out of what the Assembly leadership is calling a transparent process to temporarily fill the vacancy created by the abrupt departure of Eric Schneiderman in the wake of devastating sexual misconduct allegations.
The interviews concluded Wednesday.
Those avoiding the sit-downs include Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, Fordham Law School professor Zephyr Teachout, New York CIty Advocate Letitia James and Rep Sean Patrick Maloney, D-Putnam County — all well-known in New York political circles.
Some observers suggest potential candidates for the office took a pass from the appointment process because they don’t want to be associated with Albany’s reputation for political dysfunction, corruption and cronyism.
“What’s going on tells me that even the Democrats who are interested in running for attorney general know that this process is tainted and they don’t want anything to do with it,” said Tom Dadey, Onondaga County’s Republican Party chairman.
Barbara Underwood, who had been New York’s solicitor general, has been the state’s acting attorney general since Schneiderman cleaned out his office last week. The state’s top lawyer resigned after the New Yorker magazine published a story with detailed allegations that he was physically abusive to four women he had dated.
Underwood has emerged as the apparent front-runner for the appointment, though she signaled Tuesday that she has no interest in running for the office in this year’s elections. Regardless of what lawmakers do with the vacancy, voters will determine in November who will get the next four-year term as attorney general, beginning on Jan. 1.
The office offers flexibility as to the legal areas its occupant chooses to emphasize. Past attorneys general have ranged from a defender of consumers, a crime fighter, an investigator of Wall Street corruption and, in Schneiderman’s case, an adversary to the policies of President Donald Trump.
With the most heavily populated region of the state being New York City and its suburbs, the state Legislature is dominated by downstate Democrats. The state Constitution gives the power to fill vacant statewide offices to lawmakers, making Assembly Speaker Carl Heasite, D- Bronx, a key person in the selection.
But with little more than seven months remaining on Schneiderman’s term, the best-known potential candidates are staying on the sidelines, eyeing the statewide political party conventions that will take place before month’s end.
That may be a wise move, said veteran New York political observer Larry Levy, director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
“Incumbency can only take you so far,” Levy said, “and this is one of those years where being appointed in this current political climate can actually become a negative.”
Whether Republicans can capitalize on the Schneiderman scandal coming amid the #MeToo movement and public disgust for those who abuse women remains to be seen.
Levy noted that all New York Republican candidates will have to weather what polls suggest is voter displeasure with President Donald Trump.
Several GOP female state senators, including Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, are calling on Schneiderman to donate his remaining campaign funds to programs that support domestic violence victims.
Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, echoed that call Tuesday, saying it would be the appropriate move “given the allegations of abuse and assault that have come to light.”
Jones, in an interview, said he hopes the qualifications of those seeking to be the next attorney general matter more in the process than any partisan considerations.
He said he wants the interview process to be completed before he backs any particular candidate.
If the Legislature does anoint an individual who opts to run for the office, the appointment may not carry the baggage that some suggest it would, said New York political strategist Tom Doherty.
He noted that, while Congress typically gets low voter approval ratings, its incumbents usually win re-election efforts.
“At the end of the day, you’re voting for the individual,” and not the process that produced the occupant of the office, Doherty said.
Meanwhile, Common Cause New York, a watchdog group, is pressing lawmakers to keep Underwood in the office through year’s end.
“She will do a more than excellent job,” said Susan Lerner, the director of Common Cause, who also cited the fact that Underwood has no aspirations to run for attorney general or any other elective office.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at [email protected].