“I grew up in the sixties with the sense that things aren’t perfect but we keep moving toward greater equality and greater justice,” Schneiderman says, sitting at his desk in the A.G.’s office, just around the corner from Wall Street. “That was the way the world seemed to me. My grandfather never made it through elementary school. My father went to law school on the G.I. bill. He didn’t get where he got because of small government. He got where he got because of a government that was going to invest in its people.”
He seemed ready to follow in his father’s career footsteps, taking a job at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart and working in private practice for twelve years representing clients including the American Stock Exchange and Merrill Lynch. But Schneiderman also took on public-interest work, counseling tenants trying to evict crack dealers from their buildings and health clinics being picketed by anti-abortion protesters. Schneiderman began working his way up the political ladder, first as a Democratic district leader, then, in 1998, running for the State Senate seat vacated by Franz Leichter. Six terms in Albany produced a reliably progressive résumé. Schneiderman worked to pass tougher ethics and hate-crimes legislation; he led a successful push to ease the Rockefeller drug laws and end “prison gerrymandering,” which counted inmates as local residents upstate and weakened downstate Democratic districts. He also showed an increasing aptitude for the inside game, steering the 2002 coup that installed David Paterson as Senate minority leader. In 2009, Schneiderman led the successful push to oust Senator Hiram Monserrate over allegations that Monserrate had abused his girlfriend.
The next year, Schneiderman won a narrow victory over a crowded, talented field of fellow Democrats seeking to succeed Cuomo as attorney general. Democratic primaries, particularly for down-ballot races, are usually decided by city voters—and a subset of city voters, the most dedicated liberals, at that. So even though Schneiderman had no prosecutorial experience, he was in perfect political position. He’d become a favorite of labor unions and of minority leaders. The Working Families Party backed Schneiderman as a progressive counterweight to Cuomo. He squeaked past Cuomo’s preferred candidate in the primary, then dispatched the Republican nominee. Schneiderman had a new title, but in fundamental ways his campaigning never ended.
The office of the New York State attorney general used to be a fairly dull place, manned quietly, and mostly competently, for long stretches by Louie Lefkowitz and Bob Abrams. Things got more exciting in 1999 when Eliot Spitzer took over, and the high-stakes action continued through Cuomo’s four years as A.G. The first half of Schneiderman’s term has often seemed like a return to the low-key model. He’s pursued important but unglamorous cases, like winning restitution for construction workers cheated out of wages, but he hasn’t generated the run of headlines his predecessors enjoyed. “The shift in expectations for the office has been so vast that it’s a little unfortunate for Eric,” Spitzer says. “He’ll perform, and it will all be good over time. He is doing very well.”
And Schneiderman has selectively exploited the office’s expanded footprint. In the aftermath of the financial crash, the Wall Street bailouts were the hottest progressive button. Schneiderman flew out to meet with California attorney general Kamala Harris in the summer of 2011 to try to get her to join his opposition to the mortgage settlement taking shape in Washington. California was crucial, not only because the state had the greatest number of underwater homeowners but because its decision would get outsize media coverage. Harris was inclined to go along with the majority of A.G.’s, who wanted a faster resolution for homeowners and weren’t equipped to pursue protracted investigations.
So Schneiderman mounted a behind-the-scenes effort to change her mind. He’d hired as his chief of staff Neal Kwatra, who had turned the city’s hotel-workers union into a potent political force. Kwatra sees life as a campaign, and now he went about organizing the ground troops, including a group called Californians for a Fair Settlement. Calls and letters were dispatched to pressure President Obama, members of Congress, and most immediately Harris. By late September, though, Harris still hadn’t budged. Schneiderman’s team turned to Gavin Newsom. The telegenic former mayor of San Francisco is now California’s lieutenant governor. Newsom is also expected to be Harris’s main Democratic competitor in a future run for U.S. Senate or governor of California. Schneiderman’s forces enlisted Newsom to oppose the settlement. Coincidentally, the same day that the Los Angeles Times wrote about Newsom’s move, Harris sided with Schneiderman.
In Washington, Schneiderman’s team pointed to the rising populist anger about the lack of accountability for the crash, represented most vividly by Occupy Wall Street. They highlighted key swing states with large numbers of underwater homeowners. “The two of us had heated moments at the beginning,” says Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who was the administration’s chief negotiator with Schneiderman. “We’re both opinionated New Yorkers. What has been good about working with Eric is that he is clearly a progressive, but he’s pragmatic too. Ultimately, it wasn’t just about sending a message. It was about getting help to homeowners.” The final arrangement contained startling numbers: In exchange for being released from culpability over the robo-signing of mortgage documents, banks would cough up $25 billion worth of relief for struggling mortgagees. The fine print, however, brought howls from some on the left because only about $5 billion was cash directly from banks. “Eric comes out of the progressive movement that is used to pressuring elected officials, but now he’s a statewide official, so there’s a tension,” says David Sirota, the liberal writer and commentator. “It’s not easy to go up against the administration and say I think you should do more, and to tell grassroots movements we should take half the loaf. But I think he’s done a damn good job of balancing that.”