How Eric Schneiderman Went From Political Golden Boy to Disgrace

Eric Schneiderman in 2017. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Eric Schneiderman was never the most likely attorney general for New York. Before him the office was held by Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo, titanic figures who found new powers in the office to curb the worst abuses of Republican administrations and Wall Street titans. Schneiderman shared the same messianic impulse of his predecessors, but lacked their easy confidence, the certainty each had that the AG in their title stood for “Awaiting Governor.” Slightly built, twitchy, and priggish, Schneiderman was the son of a wealthy Manhattan lawyer who donated generously to causes like Planned Parenthood and public radio. He came up through the world of public interest law, one of those do-good types who keep protesters away from abortion clinics and government running with a minimum of corruption.

He wound his way up through the political ranks, serving as a local Democratic Party district leader and a spokesman for the Speaker of the Assembly Democrats before winning his own Upper West Side seat in the state senate in 1998.

Once in Albany, Schneiderman was so disliked by his colleagues that Democrats and Republicans alike conspired to redraw his district, placing him in one that took Schneiderman out of his liberal base on the Upper West Side and further into Washington Heights. Schneiderman learned Spanish and went door to door on the newly configured turf, winning anyway. As Cuomo prepared to run for governor, the state senate put Schneiderman in charge of an investigation into whether or not to expel Hiram Monserrate, a Queens lawmaker who in addition to throwing state government into chaos when he defected to the GOP side, had slashed his girlfriend in the face with broken glass in a domestic dispute, an incident caught partly on tape.

The investigation and the panel that Schneiderman led had a preordained conclusion to kick Monserrate out, and it was largely viewed as a political gift to Schneiderman by his colleagues who wanted to boost his political career — ideally boosting it out of the state senate.

When he ran for attorney general, the smart money was on Kathleen Rice, then the district attorney of Nassau County and now a member of Congress. She was young, had a good record in Nassau, and most importantly had the backing of then candidate for governor Andrew Cuomo and most of the party machinery in New York.

But Rice as a teenager registered as a Republican, and Schneiderman took that high-school-era misstep combined with Rice’s relatively moderate record as a suburban office holder and ran with it, painting her as the closet Republican in the Democratic primary. Schneiderman ran up huge numbers among New York City–based liberals and unions and poured $300,000 of his own money — or, more likely, his father’s money — into the race. On election night when he defeated Republican Dan Donovan, I ran into Schneiderman in the hallway of the midtown hotel where his victory party was and he seemed to be almost literally jumping up and down with excitement, while Jennifer Cunningham, his ex-wife and one of the most powerful political consultants in New York, tried to steer him into a private reception of awaiting dignitaries.

Schneiderman was viewed by liberals as the rare bright light in the dismal tea party election season of 2010, and he quickly became a nationwide progressive darling, winding up on the cover of magazines like The American Prospect. Barack Obama recognized Schneiderman as he was seated behind Michelle at his 2012 State of the Union, and announced that the New York attorney general would lead a group investigating fraud during the subprime mortgage crisis.

Schneiderman was able to claw back billions of dollars from banks and wrongdoers, including a $13 billion settlement with JP Morgan Chase, even as some Obama administration officials feared that the New York attorney general was acting too aggressively.

But largely Schneiderman failed to live up to the examples of his predecessors. He almost immediately began a feud with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who before he had Bill de Blasio to fight with saw Schneiderman as his biggest threat. Soon after being sworn in as governor, Cuomo unveiled a new unit in the executive branch, the Department of Financial Services, and installed a top aide, Benjamin Lawsky, in the job and tasked him with investigating financial fraud. It was as if Cuomo didn’t want to leave his old job behind, and Schneiderman vented to a friend, “I have got to get this guy off my ass.”

Spitzer and Cuomo had their glory years during the George W. Bush administration, when there was a need for Democratic legal oversight. Although there were some wins, like suing Exxon for misleading the public over climate change and suing over unfair labor practices in the fast food industry,  Schneiderman was largely a man without a cause for much of the Obama years, and several New York political figures told me over the last couple of years that the energy and oversight out of that office hadn’t been what it once was.

Until Trump came aboard. As much as Schneiderman was looking forward to an increased role under a President Hillary Clinton, the truth is that the prospect of a President Trump meant that at last the attorney general had a target worth taking on. The president was taking aim at environmental regulation, labor laws, the emoluments clause in the Constitution, and left behind a rash of seemingly corrupt business deals in New York. (Never mind that Schneiderman previously dragged his feet on the investigation of Trump University — something that, if it had been settled sooner, potentially could have stopped the Trump candidacy in its tracks.) Top lawyers from the private sector and from the U.S. attorney’s office came to work for him. “New York Attorney General in Battle With Trump,” the New York Times declared late last year, noting that Schneiderman had taken 100 legal or administrative actions against the administration in its first year in office. As Cynthia Nixon and Andrew Cuomo squabbled on the campaign trail, Schneiderman was in the catbird seat, the overwhelming favorite to replace Cuomo eventually in the governor’s mansion.

But now none of it will be, and Schneiderman will join the long list of disgraced New York politicians who become a national punch line —Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, Michael Grimm, David Paterson.

Schneiderman will leave office by the end of today; the state assembly will pick his successor.
If history is any guide, the choice is going to be uninspiring, likely a favorite of the legislative leadership chosen for his or her ability to not disrupt the status quo. Cuomo surely has an opinion, and the prospect of off-loading his lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, in the job and replacing her on the ticket with someone better able to bring the fight to Nixon may be tempting. But this will be the legislature’s prerogative, and if Cuomo stumbles in the campaign it remains to be seen if he has the sway over the chamber that he has demonstrated over the last eight years.

Then there will be an election in September, and expect Democratic lawyers and office holders from around the state to take a look at it — Kathleen Rice, Preet Bharara, former councilmember Dan Garodnik, and public advocate Letitia James are all thought to be likely contenders.

Yesterday afternoon, Eric Schneiderman was thought of as a top foil for Donald Trump and the likely next governor. One magazine article changed that. The coming chaos is going to make the last 12 hours seem relatively tame by comparison.

How Schneiderman Went From Political Golden Boy to Disgrace