Eric T. Schneiderman’s resignation last week as state attorney general may have unleashed powerful new forces in New York politics.
An array of statewide hopefuls and resulting alliances appear to be forming just before Democrats and Republicans stage their conventions next week. All take shape in a new dynamic guiding state politics since the two-term attorney general shocked the establishment last week when he quit amid allegations of physical abuse by four former girlfriends.
Some of the developments include:
- The long-awaited entrance of former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara onto the statewide scene with hints he may run for attorney general as an independent.
- Bharara’s support on Wednesday for creating another Moreland Commission to probe public corruption, prompting Democratic primary challenger Cynthia Nixon to claim the popular former prosecutor’s “endorsement” of her own efforts for a similar investigating panel. Even if the pair are not in cahoots, they seemed to be aiming in tandem at Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
- The statewide emergence of New York City Public Advocate Letitia “Tish” James, who Wednesday announced her bid for attorney general following widespread mention as a future mayoral candidate.
- Potential attorney general candidacies by a host of other New Yorkers, setting up a possible Democratic primary in September never anticipated one week ago. The list includes Leecia R. Eve, a Buffalo native and Harlem resident with widespread political contacts.
- New stability surrounding the future of Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who appears to have gained the confidence of Cuomo after his forces attempted to dump her from the ticket last month.
- Optimism within New York’s downtrodden Republican Party, which is seizing on the Schneiderman situation and its resulting confusion to present an alternative. One party insider said John P. Cahill, the former department of environmental conservation commissioner and 2014 attorney general candidate, is 90 percent committed to running again this year after no major GOP figure showed interest before Schneiderman’s departure.
Following Schneiderman’s fall from grace and this week’s re-conviction of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on corruption charges, former Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan said doors have opened for new candidates while Schneiderman provided a “wake up call” that shines the political spotlight on reform.
“Whether it’s Preet Bharara or Tish James or the others, the issue in state government this year is reform,” he said, “and how we put public corruption behind us.
“The bottom line is that it has come to a head during this period of nominating for the statewide slates,” he added.
Hank Sheinkopf, the veteran Democratic strategist based in Manhattan, agreed the landscape has substantially changed since last week.
“Chaos always provides an opportunity, and there is now chaos because the AG seat is empty,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for Democrats, Republicans and independents.”
And he pointed to Erik T. Bohen’s April 24 victory in a special election for the Assembly as a Democrat running on the GOP line as reason for at least some Republican optimism. If Democrats are in lockstep in New York City, he said, it’s not guaranteed everywhere.
“Look at the guy in South Buffalo,” he said of Bohen. “It’s just not the case.”
Another Wednesday development included Nixon’s highlight of Bharara’s echo of her call for a new Moreland Commission, similar to the one Cuomo convened in 2013 only to disband it later that year.
“By contrast, Cynthia’s commission will be strong, and independent of influence from the governor,” her campaign said Wednesday in highlighting the Bharara statement.
James, meanwhile, announced her candidacy in Brooklyn Wednesday and immediately gained support from three major unions. She told The Buffalo News in her first interview as candidate that she will also focus on fighting corruption and seeking reform. She cited the state’s pending cases against former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon and defendants in the Buffalo Billion program as the kind of prosecutions she will also emphasize.
“Without a doubt,” she said, “I look forward to continuing to focus on public corruption. The public demands it.”
Holding the number two post in New York City government, the former City Council member and assistant attorney general said she seeks the office without any preconceived notions about the Trump administration – the target of a slew of Schneiderman actions.
“I do not view this office as political but as an office to protect the rights of all New Yorkers,” she said. “If the rights of the public are put in jeopardy by the president of the United States, I will be their champion.”
James’ entrance into the race may also offer Cuomo an easier exit from efforts of his forces to substitute Hochul, a Buffalo resident, for Grand Island Supervisor Nathan D. McMurray in an uphill race against Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence. Speculation swirled around the governor’s need for a minority candidate on the lieutenant governor slate, but Hochul is now widely deemed a safe bet to continue.
And the governor seemed to pronounce his intentions a few days ago in a much forceful manner than back on April 19 when he said Hochul's continuing on the ticket was “up to Kathy.”
“An endorsement I do make, I have made, I will make, I’ll repeat, is for Kathy Hochul as lieutenant governor,” Cuomo said over the weekend. “She has done a great, great job and she’s been a great partner. We have a great record together, which is what we’ll be talking about during the campaign.
“So, I support her 100 percent and I’m going to say to the convention, I hope they support her 100 percent."