1:29 pm Sep. 1, 2010
The conventional wisdom in the New York attorney general's race is that it is a contest between Kathleen Rice, a substantively vague Democratic district attorney from Nassau County, who has profited from the perception that she is the preferred candidate of Attorney General and presumptive governor Andrew Cuomo, and Eric Schneiderman, a state senator from the Upper West Side who Cuomo dislikes, but who has the support of unions and The New York Times editorial board.
A.G. candidate Sean Coffey begs to differ with this scenario. Rice, he said in a phone interview yesterday, has blown a chance to put the race away early and is now "flagging," while Schneiderman is suffering from a "growing concern" among Democrats that he's too liberal to win a general election.
"I would just say, 'stay tuned,'" Coffey said.
In pure political terms, here's what Coffey does in fact have going for him as a candidate: he has given his campaign $3 million of his own money; he has an attractive biography: a son of Irish immigrants, a politically progressive former naval officer and a successful assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York; and now, apparently, he stands to benefit from Cuomo's almost-public desire to hedge an initial, unofficial bet on Rice.
Coffey is running first and foremost on a platform of reforming Albany. And central to this premise, in Coffey's telling, is the idea of a relationship with Cuomo that is more partner than watchdog.
Answering a general question about the role of the attorney general in big legislative debates and budgetary issues, he said he envisioned a role that is "indirect but profound." He said he would seek to defend the perogatives of taxpayers, essentially by policing both the state legislature and Wall Street. And then, "I think Andrew Cuomo's done a terrific job there and if he's elected governor, which I think he will be, it's likely to happen that he'll bring that same determination to the governor's mansion, and he'll have, in this attorney general, someone who can work alongside him to get state government working again."
Asked whether Cuomo, as attorney general, hadn't sought to play something more than an indirect role in these debates, Coffey said, "Sure, I think as a statewide officer, you're entitled to weigh in on it. I intend to use the attorney general's office as a bully pulpit for things that may not be seen as being in my lane."
To his credit, Coffey has been more specific than, say, Rice, about what he would like to do to change the way the deeply unpopular legislature functions. He wants to make it easier for the A.G.'s office to initiate investigations into public corruption allegations. He wants to require legislators to disclose more about potential conflicts of interest in their non-legislative work. And he wants to take the power over legislative redistricting away from the legislature and give it to a non-partisan commission.
These are laudable goals, but despite efforts in the past, they never seem to happen.
Coffey, who proudly refers to himself as a "political newcomer," says things are different this time. He said he thinks that his proposals are exceptionally specific, and that the atmosphere is more intensely anti-Albany and pro-reform than ever before. And, of course, "Andrew Cuomo."
"The incoming governor has put in writing his commitment to these things and I think that combination is going to make for a very interesting early 2011, when the reformers, whom I believe are Cuomo and me, and a whole bunch of folks who've found religion, if they're incumbents, or who are new, if they tossed out incumbents, are going to say, 'This is what the people want and we need to do it.'"
I pointed out to him that when New Yorkers put Eliot Spitzer in the governor's mansion, they most certainly wanted the same thing, just as they did when they put Andrew Cuomo in the attorney general's office. They each tried, in their way—Spitzer by making open political war on recalcitrant legislators; Cuomo by actually hiring one of the authors of these reform proposals—yet here we are still, with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver looking just as secure (and, presumably, as disinclined to surrender the vast powers of his office and his chamber) as ever.
Coffey reiterated that he thinks things are very different now than they were four years ago, and that he is confident he'd be able to achieve results, citing the "mission-oriented" outlook he picked up as a naval officer and pointing to a career highlight—$6 billion he recovered from Wall Street banks in a lawsuit on behalf of the New York State Common Retirement Fund.
"I'm not a bomb-thrower, but I am determined and I'm a pretty good negotiator," he said.
Pressed more than once to say what he was actually prepared to do if he and the governor—who he said he would work independently from on many other matters—could not prevail upon legislative leaders in the Senate and the Assembly to surrender their traditional prerogatives through negotiation, Coffey said, "I don't want to start saber-rattling ... I am very committed to reform, and I will use all legal and ethical means to achieve it. If it has to get a little rough and tumble, I'm not going to shrink from that in the slightest. The specifics of what that means, I'm going to leave alone for now."
His mission over the next two weeks is to break through the clutter—he's in a five-way primary in a down-ballot race, and is probably the fourth- or fifth-best known of those candidates. (The other candidates, aside from Rice and Schneiderman, are Assemblyman Richard Brodsky and former state insurance department head Eric DiNallo.) He went up two weeks ago statewide with a TV ad that is, for better or worse, entitled "YOU," in the style of Time magazine's widely panned Person of the Year stunt.
He believes that Rice's broadly stated posture as an Albany outsider is "laughable," given, among other things, the fact that she has received a good chunk of her campaign contributions from a law firm connected to Sheldon Silver. And as for Schneiderman, a self-described progressive who supports same-sex marriage, Coffey said he simply fears that Schneiderman is too liberal to win statewide, citing specifically Schneiderman's opposition to a property-tax cap that was advocated vigorously by Andrew Cuomo.
"There's growing concern that Senator Schneiderman is going to have great difficulty winning the general election given, one, that he was a leader of the most dysfunctional bodies in American history, and New Yorkers certainly know that, and that two, he is running what is in essence a campaign for Manhattan borough president."
Coffey noted that he was, at the time of the interview, in Rochester for a debate that both Rice and Schneiderman had declined to attend. Schneiderman is in fact targeting liberal primary voters, who tend to be concentrated in Manhattan, and who tend to care who The New York Times endorses in primaries. That's an easily identifiable coalition in a primary, and sometimes, depending on turnout, it's enough.
Asked what his own coalition would look like, Coffey eventually said, "I win by running up the score upstate, by doing well on Long Island, by doing well in the outer boroughs and I'm going to take enough of Manhattan to win."
The Republican and Conservative Party nominee is Staten Island district attorney Dan Donovan.
(Schneiderman's spokesman James Freedland responded: “This desperate attack about upstate would come as some surprise to Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who just endorsed Eric Schneiderman days ago. In the days after Eric landed the coveted endorsements of Mayor Brown, The New York Times, Citizens Union, El Diario and Scott Stringer, his trailing opponents lob desperate attacks at him. You do the math.”)
Coffey touted a recent endorsement by the New York Post (he called it a "validator," in that the Post wouldn't throw it away on a sure loser) and noted correctly that Rice had been "shut out" of endorsements by the three big city newspapers.
About Schneiderman's endorsement from the Times, he said, "The Times endorsement did little other than to solidify the people who were going to vote for Schneiderman anyway and—you know this—it's also significant because it didn't go to Rice."
The last line in the "YOU" ad says that as a prosecutor, Coffey fought against Wall Street greed and concludes, "So, vote for them, or vote for you." Coffey's image flashes briefly on the screen in the middle, interspersed among shots of ordinary New Yorkers, and then his face appears on screen for two seconds at the very end, blinking into the camera.