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The Left Flank

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Schneiderman hinted for months that his investigation would deliver serious legal action against mortgage fraudsters. The results have so far been modest: In October, Schneiderman announced a civil lawsuit against JPMorgan Chase for the alleged mortgage misdeeds of Bear Stearns, which the firm acquired in 2008 at the behest of the Feds. A month later, he unveiled a similar suit against Credit Suisse, alleging that it deceived investors when securitizing packages of mortgage loans. Yet no criminal charges have been filed. Schneiderman says he hasn’t given up on criminal prosecutions, but says it would have helped if more groundwork had been done before he arrived as A.G. “I’m not averse to cases against individuals,” he tells me. “I wasn’t here in 2008, 2009, 2010. We started our investigation last spring.” Left unsaid is that the state A.G. in the early days of the financial crisis was Andrew Cuomo.

In mid-December, Schneiderman is perched on a stool in a chilly TV studio in Chelsea; to his left in the otherwise barren room is a flimsy kitchen, the set for a cooking show. He stares into a TV camera and, for two hours, gives repetitive answers to repetitive questions coming into his earpiece from reporters all over the state asking about the attorney general’s new proposal to crack down on political groups masquerading as charitable organizations. Schneiderman has some quirks—he practices yoga and is a fastidiously healthy eater—but his public style is dry and factual. Though he does perk up when WNYC comes on the line, telling Amy Eddings he’s a big fan of “All Things Considered.”

As A.G., Schneiderman has indicted a former Senate colleague on corruption charges, cracked down on illegal sales of prescription drugs, and sued a Buffalo furniture retailer for allegedly ripping off customers. But he’s most energized about reforming the political system. “The public’s confidence has been badly shaken in the idea that there’s one set of rules for everyone in America,” he tells me. “My understanding of the idea of free speech, of equal protection under the law, and equal justice under the law, is completely inconsistent with the notion that a multibillionaire has that much more speech than someone who is just a regular working American. [Citizens United] was a terrible decision. Just because the Supreme Court says it’s right doesn’t mean you have to think it’s right. And I think it will eventually be overturned. But it takes time to build these movements.”

Schneiderman’s plan to expose who is spending campaign money is a good and necessary one. Yet within an hour after the attorney general leaves the TV studio, Governor Cuomo announces he’s got an even better idea—it won’t just cover charities registered in New York, but anywhere. The best part, though, is that Cuomo manages to expound on the subject for a long three minutes without once mentioning Schneiderman by name.

Ego and rivalry are not exactly new in politics. Cuomo threw a brushback pitch at Schneiderman shortly after becoming governor: He proposed transferring the attorney general’s strongest weapon, the Martin Act—which gives New York’s A.G. greater powers in fighting financial fraud than those possessed by any other state regulator—to a new agency controlled by Cuomo. Schneiderman fended off the maneuver. Part of the Cuomo-Schneiderman tension is that they’re very different personalities. “Andrew has an extraordinary facility to him: He can be the intellectual, or the tough pol, or the regular guy who fixes his car,” a Democratic insider says. “But Eric is a pretty one-way guy. Superintelligent and committed, but he’s not much fun. I don’t think they hate each other, but they’re not natural buddies.” The small world of New York politics has also given them a peculiar overlap. Schneiderman’s ex-wife, Jennifer Cunningham, is one of New York’s savviest political strategists, and she’s become a key adviser to Cuomo. In 2010, Cunningham advised both men as Cuomo ran for governor and Schneiderman for A.G.

The larger split is philosophical. “Eric has a very different view of the political landscape than Andrew does,” a Schneiderman associate says. “He thinks the divide between right and left has never been bigger, so that trying to be in the middle, as Andrew is doing, makes no sense.” Schneiderman believes liberal Democrats are on the right side of both the issues and of history. “An extreme conservative movement has taken over the Republican Party, but they have a policy problem and a demographic problem,” he says. “They finally had a chance to implement their policies during the Bush years, and foreign policy was a catastrophe, criminal-justice policy was a catastrophe, and we ended up with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And they’ve run and won on an appeal to fear, but last year they woke up in a country where the ‘other’ had become the majority. They’re appealing to an increasingly small portion of the electorate.”

Cuomo’s partisans make a strong case that he’s delivered progressive results, from legalizing gay marriage to rejiggering the tax code. The attorney general measures his words carefully when it comes to the governor. “Our office is very much entwined with the executive branch,” Schneiderman says. “We are the lawyers for the executive branch. We work together every day. That’s the core of the relationship, and I think on that front we’re doing very well.” For two years, Schneiderman has made his biggest splashes nationally, on issues that fit both his liberal convictions and his local need to stay out of Cuomo’s orbit. The deft balancing act has won Eric Schneiderman a following on the national left and political peace at home. Keeping the two realms separate, though, could become progressively more challenging.


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