I knew Eric Schneiderman was coming to the attorney general debate at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn last night, so I didn’t park in the campus lot.
I preferred to take the chance that I’d be stopped and frisked by Ray Kelly on my walk through Crown Heights to see a debate at which all five Democrats competed with one another to see which one could more shrilly denounce frisks.
Schneiderman chirped that the NYPD practice revealed in Graham Rayman’s “NYPD Tapes” series in the Voice reminded him of “the most famous line in American law enforcement,” namely “Round up the usual suspects.”
The reference forced Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, the apparent frontrunner in the attorney general race, to say, with a smile, that she had “to call you on that one, Eric,” claiming that she was “the first one to say that the other day.”
That’s when Sean Coffey, the big bucks successful litigator who lit up the Evers stage all night, chimed in: “Actually, it was Claude Rains in Casablanca.”
No one recalled that Rains, who played corrupt French (not American) police captain Louis Renault in the 1942 classic, called for the roundup though he knew that Humphrey Bogart had just shot a Gestapo thug who’d fired at him. Another less-famous Rains line in the movie was “I have no convictions. I blow with the wind.”
No one could accuse the AG crowd of that. Richard Brodsky, the Westchester assemblyman who competed with Coffey for starring one-liners, said toward the end of the session orchestrated by ex-New York Times reporter Jonathan Hicks: “There isn’t a bum in this race.”
In fact, it’s one of the finest fields to run in a statewide Democratic primary in years — it also includes Eric Dinallo, the ex-top deputy under AG Eliot Spitzer whose subdued debate performance didn’t match his sterling credentials.
In fact, it’s strength of conviction, all liberal, that could make the Democratic winner a loser in November against Republican nominee Dan Donovan, the Staten Island District Attorney. It wasn’t just on stop-and-frisk issues that the five leapt into rhetorical positions that could get them in electoral trouble in November.
Everyone rallied around a bill Schneiderman is sponsoring in the Senate that would make New York the first state to stop counting prisoners as residents of the legislative districts where the prisons are located, and require counting them as residents of the neighborhoods where they lived before incarceration. Schneiderman insisted at the debate that this was “not an anti-upstate thing,” but that’s not only an impossible sell upstate, no one was buying it at Evers.
The audience clapped when candidates referred to the redistribution of “resources” that would result from such a shift of census numbers for redistricting purposes, adding legislative power to the city.
Rice said the current system of counting inmates as upstate residents “encourages upstate legislators to be pro-prison” and Coffey said it “undermines one person, one vote.”
Brodsky said: “I have to take second to Eric on this.” Dinallo echoed: “Am I up to congratulating Eric Schneiderman?” and did so. And Schneiderman vowed that the bill would pass this session and be signed by Governor David Paterson, setting what he said would be a precedent for the country.
The Schneiderman triumph may seem like elemental fairness in Kings County, where its population loss is a population gain in Chemung, Erie, Dutchess, Clinton, Franklin, Cayuga, Oneida, Greene and other counties. Chuck Kelly, the publisher of the Ogdensburg Journal, was recently quoted as saying of Saint Lawrence County, where several prisons are located: “We’re poverty. There’s no other way to tell you that.” He said that counting inmates as county residents is “compensation” for the public security risks that come with them.
Democratic senator Darrel Aubertine says that prisoners add to water, sewer and other infrastructure costs. Dean Skelos, the Republican senate leader, points out that college students are treated precisely the same way for districting purposes. As unpersuasive as downstaters may find these arguments, it was fears of just such a geographic redistribution, fanned in television commercials, that fueled George Pataki’s defeat of Mario Cuomo in 1994.
Schneiderman and the rest of the AG candidates are on the same page as the recent Cuomo, Andrew, who did an op-ed contending that 44,000 mostly black and Latino residents of the city are bolstering the legislative power of “upstate prison towns.” He said “this miscount misrepresents New York State’s demographic makeup and skews its system of legislative representation.” Apparently, miscounts like it do the same all over America. Changing it, however, requires deduction as well as addition, and that’s a recipe for supercharged upstate turnout in the 2010 elections.
It turns out, by the way, that Rice was right on the Claude Rains quote. At a press conference on Tuesday about stop and frisk, organized by Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, Rice did say on tape that “the round-up-the-usual-suspects mode of law enforcement doesn’t work.”
That was two days before Schneiderman invoked the same line. The senator says a 22-year-old aide who was recording the press conference missed Rice’s use of the phrase and that he didn’t discover until this morning, hours after the debate, that he’d inadvertently stolen Rice’s theatrical reference. Wink, wink.
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” Schneiderman was said to have whispered to Rice when she called him on the hijacked hyperbole.
Research Assistance: Nicole Maffeo and Jenny Tai