Is New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman the One to Finally Fight Big Money's Power in Politics?
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The same well-heeled Manhattan stream that spawned Spitzer also produced Schneiderman. He's a privileged, Jewish native of the Upper West Side, where he still dwells. His dad was a lawyer, he attended the city's elite Trinity prep school and then Harvard Law. Schneiderman's trajectory into politics was a little less perfectly aimed, or perhaps a little more perfectly progressive. He seems to have collected all the progressive merit badges. Besides a stint helping out his aunt running an abortion clinic in Washington before Roe v. Wade, when he was 17, he spent a college year in China talking with people there about Vietnam, and worked in a jail in the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts, starting up a drug and alcohol program.
He spent 15 years with a corporate firm and occasionally defended bankers and financiers. But he gravitated toward pro bono work, and eventually decided to run for the New York state Senate. There, he managed to so irritate the Republicans in control that they attempted to gerrymander him out of a job by redrawing his West Side district to include all of Hispanic Washington Heights and Inwood, and almost none of white, Jewish, Upper West Side New York. He won anyway and learned some "political Spanish" along the way. "I know how to say the state budget is not balanced in Spanish," he said.
New York Public Interest Group lawyer Gene Russianoff worked with Schneiderman when the public action group sued the transit authority over a fare hike, on civil rights grounds, and won. "He was like a gift from the gods," Russianoff said. "Politically savvy, a great lawyer and really good on his feet. He made things happen, but he's not your table-banging extemporaneous politician. He's thoughtful." Russianoff recalled sharing space at a news conference with him when he was a state senator. Schneiderman leaned over and drily advised, "Answer all the questions: The sponsor has not read the bill."
Schneiderman deflects comparisons with Spitzer, with whom he is friendly. "Look, I did not expect to get engaged in this more national level. The difference is, Eliot brought cases because he had jurisdiction" -- cases that no one in the Bush administration Securities and Exchange Commission or Justice Department would have bothered with at the time. "This is a very different time. This is more politically significant than nationally significant. I think the Indian Point case [a groundbreaking action against nuclear power] was a case of national significance."
Given that he's now running a case of national political significance, the question is, can he withstand the heat, as Spitzer and, yes, Anthony Weiner -- New Yorkers with similar political, if not other, passions -- could not?
"I didn't get involved in public life because I need a job or some lust for power," he said. "I liked public policy law and I can always go back to that and if I can't pursue my long-term vision of what I think is right and what I think is the quintessentially American mission of constantly working toward greater equality and greater justice, then I can go do something else! People think everyone in politics is like Bill Clinton, who was 8 and wanted to be president. That's certainly not my profile."
In pursuing his own investigation, Schneiderman has irritated the administration and the bankers, but he hasn't buckled. He says that to believe there is any other possible way to resolve things is misguided.
"Look, this [the AG's deal] is fraying at the edges. I don't know at what point this thing actually ends." He admits pressure from the Obama administration to get on board: "There were sort of calls made to friends," he said without naming names. "But my take is people who are concerned about this, borrowers, unions whose members' pension funds got some of the bad paper, they are all very supportive."