9:16 am Sep. 9, 2010
As he has run for attorney general, it has become clear that Eric Dinallo is no Andrew Cuomo. He's also no Eliot Spitzer.
Dinallo was a key player in the A.G.'s office as Spitzer was busy becoming the Sheriff of Wall Street, and after that he did was what by most accounts a remarkable job in the unglamorous role of state insurance commissioner. But he is utterly lacking in whatever political quality it is that allowed each of the last two occupants of that office to use it as a platform for national stardom.
He is aggressively apolitical, and thinks that—in a five-way Democratic primary field full of impressively marketable candidates—this will be a selling point.
"I've never misrepresented myself as some sort of canny political animal or anything," he said, in a phone interview.
Quite the opposite. It is part of his pitch, to the extent that he has one, that he has worked his way through a severe stutter, and that he's a comic-book-collecting Trekkie nerd. Mostly, Dinallo, who is 47, just presents his record and his ideas for the office and says, "I hope people will respond on Sept. 14."
One of the things he wants to do, as a matter of fact, is to get the attorney general out of the business of "doing Washington's work"—the stuff of national headlines—and more into dealing with cases driven by complaints by consumers, that "reflect what people are dealing with out there."
One area in which he promises to be a crowd-pleaser, in a media sense, is in combating public corruption at the state level. The dysfunction of the legislature in Albany is so bad, and by such universal consensus, that the interests of editorial writers and the public have come into something of an alignment in terms of it being a real priority.
When Dinallo talks about compelling the legislature to do things it doesn't want to do—requiring legislators to disclose outside sources of income that present obvious conflicts of interest, for example—he doesn't talk about popular mandates or editorial dudgeon or any of the other expressions of public displeasure that don't actually mean anything to the professionals in Albany.
He says he would use the office to bring pressure on the legislature in the same way that he used the securities bureau of the attorney general's office under Eliot Spitzer.
"I think we could we could do what we did with Wall Street, which is to make cases with such outrageous facts that the public, once you start making them and showing them there's going to be a cascade of these cases ... you could bring on a paradigm shift," he said.
Asked how he expected to deal with Sheldon Silver, the steamroller-proof, change-averse leader of the Democratic supermajority in the Assembly, Dinallo said, "I feel like I had a good working relationship with him on various insurance issues. But I think he has to help usher the legislature into the modern age."
He added, "Our legislature is like pre-ordained to have conflicts of interest and the kinds of corruption everyone points to because the legislators are wholly dedicated to public service."
(Silver receives an undisclosed compensation package from the large litigation firm Weitz & Luxenberg.)
Dinallo articulates an equally systematic approach to his relationship to the current attorney general and almost-certain next governor, who has loomed singularly large over the primary, and whose favor Dinallo has gone out of his way not to seek in any obvious way.
Dinallo has pointedly refused to sign a one-page reform pledge drawn up by Cuomo that other candidates, hoping for his support, or fearing his opposition, have signed.
"I think it's a good relationship," Dinallo said, noting that he was on Cuomo's transition team in the A.G.'s office and that he had worked with Cuomo on insurance issues. But, he said, "I just didn't sign the pledge because I thought the look, the optics, of a potential future A.G. pledging some kind of allegiance to the future governor's platform wasn't the right look for people."
Dinallo will certainly emerge from primary season on Sept. 15 with his reputation and his integrity intact. Whether he emerges with much else is another question.
Despite having won endorsements from the Daily News and Crain's, any conventional analysis of the race would suggest that he's at a significant competitive disadvantage as a retail candidate: he lacks State Senator Eric Schneiderman's institutional backing from unions and liberal advocacy groups, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice's TV presence and status as the only woman in the race, Sean Coffey's biographical specs and personal fortune, and even Richard Brodsky's name recognition.
What he has going for him, from a process perspective, is the fact that the vast majority of Democratic voters still don't know who they're going to vote for.
"The question of any candidate having a 'base' or a 'coalition,' that's mythical right now," he said. "Something about this political cycle favors non-politicians, outsiders who have never run for office before but who have qualifications for the job."
It's a departure, for sure.