News & Politics

Here Comes the Mad Scramble to Replace Eric Schneiderman

The abrupt resignation of New York’s high-profile attorney general is likely to set off a Democratic battle — or several — for his seat

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New York State’s attorney general is no more. Last night, Eric Schneiderman swiftly announced his resignation after the New Yorker reported on a long, deeply disturbing history of physical and psychological abuse he allegedly carried out against former partners. Schneiderman was accused of beating multiple women; he was also portrayed as a self-destructive alcoholic and serial hypocrite, burnishing a pro–women’s rights image while terrorizing the women he dated.

Not since Eliot Spitzer’s resignation a decade ago has New York seen such a shocking, sudden collapse of a promising political career. Spitzer, a new, hard-charging governor, was a former attorney general with presidential aspirations when he abruptly resigned after it was reported that he was a frequent client of high-end sex workers. Schneiderman, preparing to glide into a third term, was until yesterday widely viewed as a governor-in-waiting, and a darling of Democrats everywhere for the myriad of lawsuits he brought against the Trump White House.

What happens now?

While State Solicitor General Barbara Underwood will be acting attorney general once Schneiderman officially departs at close of business today, a permanent replacement is still likely to be named. When a statewide vacancy is created, the New York legislature usually fills it. There are already a number of names being bandied around, including Congressmember Kathleen Rice, a former attorney general candidate; State Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens, chair of the Democratic Conference; Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, whom Cuomo has contemplated booting from his re-election ticket; New York City Public Advocate Letitia James; and State Senator Todd Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor. Long-serving assembly members like Helene Weinstein and Joe Lentol could also be appointed as interim AG’s. Preet Bharara, the headline-grabbing U.S. Attorney fired by Donald Trump, has long been a rumored candidate for elected office, but would be an unlikely pick by a legislature whose members he repeatedly prosecuted.

The assembly and senate together choose a replacement in a joint session, but it is the Democrat-dominated assembly that effectively controls the process. This is a result of simple math: There are 150 assembly members and only 63 state senators. The legislature could also choose not to hold a joint session and allow a simple open primary in September, but this has not happened in recent history.

Statewide vacancies are not unprecedented in New York. Alan Hevesi, the state comptroller, resigned in late 2006 following a plea of guilty to corruption charges. Emboldened by a historic landslide victory as governor, Spitzer insisted assembly Democrats not pick one of their own to replace Hevesi; he was adamant that a new comptroller should be picked only after passing through an independent screening panel.

The powerful assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver — like Spitzer, he would eventually resign from office — ignored the governor, backing a Long Island assemblymember named Tom DiNapoli. DiNapoli won the vote of the joint session of the legislature in 2007 and became comptroller, serving out Hevesi’s term. He is still in office, having won re-election in 2010 and 2014.

But the state legislature’s pick isn’t guaranteed a cakewalk. Just ask Oliver Koppell, the Bronx assemblymember voted in by his colleagues in 1993 to fill out the remainder of the term of Robert Abrams, New York’s longtime attorney general. Weary from a bruising U.S. Senate campaign loss to incumbent Republican senator Al D’Amato in 1992, Abrams unexpectedly stepped aside to practice law in the private sector.

Koppell hoped to keep the job, running for re-election in 1994. But in a contentious Democratic primary, he narrowly lost to a former judge named Karen Burstein. A Harvard-educated lawyer from Riverdale, Koppell would hold a grudge against another Harvard-educated lawyer from Riverdale who ran in that primary and garnered a sizable number of votes: an aggressive attorney named Eliot Spitzer.

Four years later, Spitzer would be elected attorney general.

Whether the legislature picks a replacement for Schneiderman or turns things over to voters, any interim attorney general is unlikely to face a clear field for re-election. (Zephyr Teachout has already tweeted that she’s “seriously considering” a run.) Statewide vacancies are exceedingly rare because state officials don’t have term limits. The attorney general of New York is one of the highest-profile prosecutor gigs in America, and a stepping stone to the governor’s mansion. With the Democratic nominee a heavy favorite in the general election against any Republican, a primary win will be a valuable prize for any Democrat who decides to run.

Expect a Democratic war this summer.

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