9:56 am Sep. 2, 20101
ALBANY—This was Senator Eric Schneiderman’s crowd.
He's a former board member of the left-leaning Citizen Action, as he reminded the three dozen liberal activists and elected officials who have bucked the county's political machine to back him, and who had gathered at the public library here for a forum last week on how to reduce gun violence in New York’s cities.
They had worked with him to repeal harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and, last year, to give judges even more discretion to sentence non-violent offenders to treatment instead of jail. They, as part of a larger umbrella group, had encouraged him as he cast a vote against an Andrew Cuomo-backed property-tax cap in July.
Now, they’re enthusiastically supporting his run for attorney general, lauding him as the “only choice” and a “champion” of their issues. They reminded me in a follow-up letter to their forum, “we are holding phone banks every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday…and door knocking every Saturday.” (By contrast, the Albany County Democratic organization is lined up behind Nassau County district attorney Kathleen Rice, a legacy of their deference to Cuomo, who was unofficially supporting her before apparently thinking better of it.)
Schneiderman is banking on a coalition of these kinds of liberals—concentrated in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn but also in reliable-voting pockets around the state—along with black and Latino Democrats and union members, and in recent weeks he has been feeding them all a steady diet of red meat.
“The old ways of thinking about the justice system are not going to solve our problems, and I think the public wants new directions, they want reform, they want change I think I can make that case very effectively,” Schneiderman told the Citizen Action crowd as he denounced “mass incarceration of young men of color.”
In proudly catering to his party's ideological base, Schneiderman has gained traction in his five-way primary, but he has also aroused a powerful foe: the aforementioned Andrew Cuomo. Polls show 77 percent of registered Democrats surveyed are undecided; Cuomo enjoys a 69 percent approval rating. More important, Cuomo is a shoo-in for governor, and enjoys a commensurate amount of influence with Democrats concerned about their short- and medium-term well-being within the party.
Although Cuomo has yet to make an official public endorsement, and quite probably won't, he is an unsubtle hint-dropper, and a shameless practitioner of the background PR offensive.
The current attorney general and likely next governor has made his displeasure with Schneiderman clear for some time, conspicuously omitting his name from a list of preferred replacements in a live radio interview in July. It would be inconvenient, after all, for Cuomo to run a campaign that takes the legislature—particularly the Senate—to task while having a senator on the ticket. And how much balance does a guy with a Jewish surname from Manhattan add to a ticket already abundantly equipped to appeal to downstate progressives?
Less than a telegenic, tough-on-crime Irish female from the suburbs, the thinking goes, or a former naval officer. (As Cuomo edged away from Rice, on the grounds that her campaign has amounted to something less than the sum of her standard talking points, he has of necessity suggested a flirtation with other non-Schneiderman candidates, including retired trial lawyer and navy veteran Sean Coffey. Josh Vlasto, a spokesman for Cuomo, repeated Wednesday what has been his public mantra for months: Cuomo has not expressed a preference in the race and will do so at an appropriate time.)
This week, the tabloids’ Monday political columns parsed the Cuomo tea leaves yet again.
"Schneiderman is backed by all the big unions, including the teachers, by all the big spenders, including the hospital and public-employee unions, and by all the liberals who are horrified at Cuomo's economic platform, which is aimed at improving the business climate, cutting taxes and bringing state spending into line with state revenues," a “well-known Cuomo supporter” told the New York Post’s Fred Dicker, who is well known to be close with Cuomo himself.
“Concern over a possible win for the lone Republican candidate, Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, could tip Cuomo's hand. He doesn't want a "partisan" to follow him in the AG's office,” a source “familiar with Cuomo’s thinking” told Liz Benjamin for her column in the Daily News.
There’s also the chicken-egg explanation for Cuomo’s opposition to Schneiderman: now that he’s started opposing him, he can’t let him win, because who wants a guy with more than half a brain, subpoena power and press aides not liking you?
Rice wouldn’t make much trouble, the theory goes. When I asked her Wednesday if she was Cuomo’s candidate, she said I’d have to ask him, before saying, “I, like probably the other people in this race, have a good relationship with him, I’ve worked with him as attorney general and me as D.A. and if I’m fortunate enough to become the attorney general and he is fortunate enough to become the governor, I see that good working relationship continuing.”
Schneiderman has clearly made the calculation that he is best served by refusing to engage at all. (Asked about Cuomo's pronounced non-support, Schneiderman spokesman James Freedland responded by citing a number of the candidate's advocacy and editorial endorsements. The statement did not mention, or refer to, Cuomo.)
He's acting, in other words, like a man who suddenly has a lot to lose. Whereas he appeared for most of the race to be in determined pursuit of Rice, Schneiderman has since picked up endorsements from unions including the mighty 1199, from the close-Democratic-primary-swaying New York Times, and from a whole bunch of influential elected officials willing to defy the preferences of the man who is about to be governor.
On Wednesday, he backed out of a debate in Albany that was broadcast on live radio across seven states, citing “scheduling conflicts.” Alan Chartock, supreme allied commander of the Northeast Public Radio empire and a longtime political observer, called it “shameful.” The other candidates—including Rice—used it as a chance to attack him. Coffey took special care to attack Rice, too, explaining he had no qualms about “showing the contrasts” between the candidates. Former state insurance department head Eric Dinallo talked about his experience for the job and Assemblyman Richard Brodsky was less than modest about describing his super-amazing record as a reformer, including his work on “Soviet-style bureaucracies” that are the state’s public authorities.
Schneiderman was elsewhere, not talking about Andrew Cuomo.
Jimmy Vielkind is a political reporter for the Albany Times Union and principal contributor to its Capitol Confidential blog. He is also a regular contributor to 'New York NOW,' a weekly public television program examining New York politics and government. Jimmy has covered the Capitol since November, 2008, for The New York Observer and the TU. His writing has also appeared in City Limits, the New York Daily News and the Glens Falls Chronicle. He lives in Troy.
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