The Left Flank

Photo: Nigel Parry

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.

Andrew Cuomo greets Eric Schneiderman in Albany last January. Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters

“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.”

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.

The Left Flank