Eric Schneiderman is nervous. He has delivered hundreds of speeches in front of audiences ranging from friendly to bored to openly hostile. On this Sunday morning in early December, though, Schneiderman faces a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 1,000 people, many of whom are weeping. Schneiderman has been crying, too. This is a memorial service for Jon Kest, a legendary liberal political organizer and one of Schneiderman’s closest political friends. Kest got his start in the city leading squatter takeovers of abandoned apartment buildings, then helped launch the Working Families Party, and he spent his final days crusading for the unionization of car-wash workers. The memorial service, inside the headquarters of the United Federation of Teachers, begins with “Joe Hill” and concludes with a rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”
The stalwarts of New York’s progressive political coalition join in the singing, along with Patrick Gaspard, the former White House political director under President Obama, Senator Chuck Schumer, and the four Democrats running for mayor. When it’s Schneiderman’s turn to speak, he starts haltingly. Kest had died three days earlier, of cancer, at the age of 57. Compounding the agony: In October, Kest’s daughter, Jessie, 24, and a friend were killed by a falling tree during Hurricane Sandy. Jessie Streich-Kest helped lead Schneiderman’s 2010 attorney-general campaign in Brooklyn. “It has frankly come as sort of a jolt—Jon and Jesse together—and, uh, Jon and I were pretty much exactly the same age,” Schneiderman says. Then, as he shifts from the personal to the political, his tone grows confident. “To the extent that there is a progressive political movement here in New York, Jon Kest built that movement,” he says. “Over the last few decades, we had extraordinary successes together, but the work goes on. You can’t beat a movement with short-term, transactional politics. You can’t beat a movement with ego-driven politicians thinking they own the movement. You can only beat a movement with another movement … We cannot honor Jon really with words. But we can honor Jon with our work.” Now the sound of sobbing is overwhelmed by the roar of applause.
Eliot Spitzer is at heart a prosecutor. Andrew Cuomo is a pol. Eric Schneiderman shares some qualities with each of his immediate predecessors as state attorney general—but Schneiderman’s core is quite different. He has the soul of an activist—he sees himself as a movement progressive. And halfway through his term as A.G., Schneiderman, 58, has become New York’s definitive liberal, using the national prominence his predecessors brought to the office to try to yank an increasingly centrist Democratic Party back toward its progressive roots. He’s become a gatekeeper for the left.
Schneiderman carved out his new role by taking on the president. In the summer of 2011, the Obama administration was crafting a settlement with the banking industry to resolve claims resulting from dubious foreclosure practices after the collapse of the housing market. The deal, however, needed the support of the 50 state attorneys general. Schneiderman balked, calling it a giveaway to Wall Street, and led a drive to toughen the penalties. Last January, the administration compromised, increasing the industry’s payment to homeowners by billions and preserving a broader ability to sue over the causes of the crisis. The White House also created an investigative task force with Schneiderman in charge, and gave New York’s A.G. a prime seat behind Michelle Obama at the 2012 State of the Union address. Cutting a more generous mortgage deal with Schneiderman helped protect the president’s left flank just as he headed into a tough reelection year. Schneiderman was suddenly a darling of the national left, a cover boy for The American Prospect, and a favorite guest on MSNBC.
His newest good-government initiative is probing the “dark money” groups that flooded the 2012 elections with cash—the threat of “bought” elections being an especially popular liberal cause. Schneiderman’s cred with the left is so solid that he has made himself an indispensable progressive validator, a stature that may result in an ironic political twist closer to home. Lately, Governor Andrew Cuomo has been under attack by liberals, just as his 2016 presidential prospects heat up. “Those on the left and in liberal circles that have questions about Andrew will certainly be watching for any kind of signal from Schneiderman,” the Reverend Al Sharpton says. And that may be an interesting drama, because both were raised in the playground of progressive New York politics, but Eric Schneiderman and Andrew Cuomo haven’t grown up to be the best of friends.
Schneiderman’s father was a classic—and now nearly extinct—Upper West Side type: the socially left-wing wealthy corporate lawyer. Irwin Schneiderman, a partner at the Wall Street titan Cahill Gordon & Reindel, helped Michael Milken invent the junk-bond industry; he also became a pivotal financial and strategic backer of naral, WNYC, and City Opera. The teenage Eric graduated from the Trinity School and worked one summer as a clinic escort at a women’s health center before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. Then it was on to Amherst for college and—after two years as a deputy sheriff in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where Schneiderman created a drug-and-alcohol treatment program for inmates—Harvard for law school.