Can I start with the final straw and work my way backwards?
While I was away on vacation last week, Al Sharpton, one of the worst tax scofflaws in New York, endorsed Eric Schneiderman for the state’s top law enforcement office. No big deal. Any one of the four other Democrats running for attorney general would have, oddly, welcomed the endorsement of the man everyone presumes has great influence with New York blacks even though he got eight percent of the total vote in the state’s 2004 presidential primary, barely nosing out Dennis Kucinich, and only a third of the black vote, a universe away from the 85 percent Chicago’s Jesse Jackson got in NY a decade before him.
Here’s what astonished me. Schneiderman could have just said “Thank you, Rev.”
Instead, obsequious Eric said how great it was to get “the Good Housekeeping seal of approval from the man from the House of Justice,” which is what Sharpton calls his National Action Network (NAN) headquarters in Harlem.
Schneiderman cited Sharpton’s pursuit of justice and said he would “seek to follow that model as AG,” adding: “The House of Justice will have an annex in Albany for the first time in the history of the state.”
It was craven excess, an unconscious declaration of how transactional Schneiderman actually sees the office he seeks. No one really expects a Sharpton cubicle in Schneiderman’s office, but the AG-to-be was declaring that an organization that the current officeholder, Andrew Cuomo, investigated just two years ago would have an inside track with Schneiderman because its leader was helping to make him AG. The Federal Election Commission recently levied its largest fine ever on Sharpton’s presidential campaign — $285,000 — and one reason was that the House of Justice’s NAN, and other Sharpton entities, had illegally covered $387,192 of Sharpton’s campaign expenses. Sharpton went nuts when federal subpoenas were served on his ex-chief of staff and many others in the NAN posse. Federal prosecutors wound up indicting no one but forced Sharpton to agree to a payout plan on his taxes. NAN is one hell of a strange annex for a top law enforcement officer.
Republican Dan Donovan, who salivates to face Schneiderman in the fall, will throw the tape up in a statewide TV ad and probably win his own Good Housekeeping seal in November. The seal, by the way, just celebrated its 100th anniversary, and it guarantees a replacement for any defective product. Donovan may well replace the devastatingly defective alliance for justice that Schneiderman and Sharpton are peddling.
Ironically, it was an electrical fire in the original House of Justice that Sharpton has repeatedly cited as the reason he wound up owing millions in federal, state and city taxes. It’s always been a bit of a mystery as to how a fire that occurred in January of 2003 explains why Sharpton still had state liens in 2008 and 2009 of $988,000, but his lawyer Michael Hardy once explained: “He’s poor.” So poor he’s actually lived at the Helmsley Carlton for years.
Schneiderman appears barely aware of the duties of the job he seeks. Its Bureau of Charities actually regulates nonprofits like the House of Justice. And a check with the AG’s office reveals that NAN has yet to file its 2009 tax forms and financial statements. In May, it got an extension to file until August 15. But it’s missed that date too. Just today NAN requested another extension until November 15. So the organization with a prospective annex in Schneiderman’s office is extending one defiant middle finger in the direction of the same office, and Schneiderman is so oblivious to his potential oversight responsibilities he is giving the House of Justice his own Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Starting with Bob Abrams a couple of decades ago, New York State attorney generals have been more interested in Sharpton’s possible crimes than his advice.
Am I missing something? The New York Times endorsed Schneiderman, as did The Nation. He’s supposed to be the progressive hero in this divided field, a reformer who has proven his willingness to take on the powers-that-be. The Times actually said in its endorsement that Schneiderman had “again bucked his own party leadership” when he pressed a domestic violence case against State Senator Hiram Monserrate, forcing him from office. No one has fairly credited the Times in recent years for its sense of humor.
In fact, Schneiderman helped install John Sampson as chairman of the Democratic conference a few months before the Monserrate vote and Sampson was at the Sharpton endorsement, just as he has been again and again at Schneiderman campaign events. He is one of Schneiderman’s loudest backers. Sampson did, technically, vote against Monserrate’s removal, ostensibly just to keep the party-switching amigo in line should he have won the special election ordered when he was removed. Schneiderman so boldly broke with his leadership that he joined virtually the entire Democratic delegation in the Monserrate vote, making it apparently an entire conference of renegades all worthy of higher office no doubt. Charades are rarely offered as rationales in Times endorsements, a reflection of how thin the actual reform resume is for the paper’s new “independent” icon.
Since every paper, including the Times, is filled with stories about the ethical swamp Sampson leads, has the Times ever considered how “independent” Schneiderman will be when it comes to allegations against his colleagues? All it cares about, bizarrely, is independence from Governor-to-be Cuomo, who favors anyone in the race but Schneiderman. So the paper that once threatened to blackball all incumbent state legislators as a new form of Albany punishment has decided to elevate one to the top law enforcement job because he’s supposedly not like the rest of them. He is so much not like the rest of them that he was a pivotal player in the anointment of David Paterson and John Sampson as leaders of his conference — achievements he has actually boasted about during this campaign.
He even joined in the farce that led to the selection of Pedro Espada as the majority leader of the Senate. This was a stunt conceived in the shadows of the Senate where Schneiderman whispers and maneuvers. Now, you might think that a majority leader of any legislative body is actually elected by the majority. That’s the way it works all across America. But not in Schneiderman’s Senate. They came up with a plan to elect Malcolm Smith as the Senate’s president pro tempore and let him appoint Espada as majority leader. That way Eric, and the rest of the Democrats, can claim that they never voted for Espada, who might as well be named Desperado and is a metaphor for all that convulses New York. In the Times‘ eyes, Eric is not the rest of the Senate claque and can claim that he didn’t vote for Espada, just like all the rest of them. The fact that his campaign got caught hiring Espada’s right-hand man, Stanley Schlein, is mere anecdote.
Eric also, the Times tells us, stood up for a strong ethics bill this year, but his efforts were “blocked by political leaders eager to protect the sleazy status quo.” The bill Schneiderman championed was so strong that the Times urged Paterson to veto it, which he did, leaving us with no ethics reform at all, but at least we got a lot of standing up. “If reform dies now,” the Times wrote when Paterson heeded its will, “all 212 legislators and the governor are to blame.” Oops. Maybe 211. The Times did not note that Cuomo had attempted to get another reform bill passed strengthening the power of the AG to investigate public corruption, but Schneiderman, even after he became chair of the pivotal Codes Committee, never tried to move that bill at all.
The easiest way to tell the Times is just kidding is when it uses the word “bucked,” because it is so stuck on that phrase that the Eric endorsement rolled it out again to say Schneiderman took on the powerful public employee unions, who apparently like legislators who buck them so much that they all endorsed him anyway. Maybe it is a new use of the term and has something to do with how many “bucks” these impressionable unions are giving Schneiderman now.
The only Times evidence of Schneiderman’s supposedly “bucking” the unions was his support of “a less costly pension plan for new state employees.” In fact, as the Times itself reported, the unions jumped at the Paterson pension deal, which bound the state to a no-layoff, no-furlough, no pay-raise-deferral policy. “The agreement,” said the Times in 2009, “requires legislative approval, but endorsements by the governor and the labor unions virtually assure success.” Now legislative approval of this deal — which was virtually unanimous — has been elevated to a badge of courage for Schneiderman, proving his stiff spine in the face of union pressure.
Can you manage the beers hoisted at union halls when they got the news that their boy Eric was getting both them and the key editorial board that thinks public officials should be independent of the unions? It’s a touching triumph of paradox in a time of peril, when pensions and other costs threaten the viability of state government. Schneiderman is so independent of the powerful public employee unions that he voted against charter schools before he voted for them, right on schedule with the UFT, which has refused to endorse Democratic senators who voted for charters when the union said no. His UFT endorsement, too, came along right on schedule.
I have to admit — and I know you find it hard to believe — I like Eric Schneiderman. He is a good liberal. As the Times wrote, he did play a key role in changing the Rocky drug laws, a worthy achievement but one unrelated to the AG’s job. It troubles me that so many progressives I respect are for him. I do believe he deserves credit for helping to elect a Democratic Senate majority, but he can’t both have his clout and deny it. He can’t be responsible, as he chirps, for forcing Joe Bruno out of the majority leadership and claim clean hands now that Espada holds that title. I know him better than most of his opponents and share many of his values, but I think he is raw meat that labor and the activist left is serving up for Republicans in November. He thinks Manhattan can nominate the Democrat in a five-candidate, low-turnout primary. And if he’s right about that, it’s a formula for November defeat.
Schneiderman is everything state voters seem primed to reject in a general election. He has falsely claimed he has some law enforcement experience, so inflating his couple of years as a so-called deputy sheriff in his 20s that all he’s done is expose his lack of preparation for this job. City Hall magazine has exposed this claim as Richard Blumenthal hot air, but the Times apparently only cares about such resume resuscitation when it occurs in Connecticut. “I was a deputy sheriff,” Schneiderman declared at the WABC debate, “I’ve shot over the years.” He backed away from the boisterous claim in the City Hall interview, conceding he “didn’t carry a gun” and “wasn’t a uniformed officer.” I sat at the Medgar Evers debate when Schneiderman went on and on about his shred of law enforcement legitimacy, recalling that he “was working in a cell block in 1977,” without mentioning that he was a teacher and that his weapon of choice was a hardcover. If he wins the primary, he will be running against a real district attorney, elected twice in Staten Island, and his fairy tale bio will wither by November.
As labored as the Times‘ effort was to distinguish him from the nest he occupies, it will not work when Donovan makes conquering Albany corruption his sacred commercial mission. Albany is the only thing Eric has to offer.
Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo have combined to establish the NY AG’s office as something it never was prior to 1999 — a threat to the Wall Street carnivores who consume countries. A Republican AG backed by Mike Bloomberg who never mentions Wall Street is unlikely to continue that tradition. I believe Schneiderman would try, though he is far less equipped than several of his opponents to actually do so. The problem is that his resume, combined with the ethnic dynamic of statewide politics, makes it doubtful that he will ever get the chance.
Republicans are praying for him. They are laying low, loving the impracticality of the Democratic left, who apparently prefer nominating an old friend for a job that’s an awkward fit to picking a winner that can sustain the new aggression of a vital office.