Schneiderman makes hay in Washington, where Cuomo isn’t

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On Tuesday morning, Eric Schneiderman convened a press conference to announce one of the biggest cases of his two-year tenure as New York's attorney general: a wide-ranging lawsuit against Bear Stearns and its parent company, J.P. Morgan, for misrepresenting the faulty mortgage loans packaged and sold during the financial crisis.

Schneiderman's ongoing investigation into the mortgage industry stands to be the kind of career-making move that made Eliot Spitzer a household name, and it's the first case brought under the aegis of the federal task force assembled by President Obama earlier this year and co-chaired by Schneiderman.

The case was brought by his office under New York's Martin Act, but the press conference was held in Washington, D.C.

This last part is key. Schneiderman has carved out a niche in Washington, where his far-reaching powers as New York's attorney general, combined with his responsibility to a left-leaning electorate, have made him a progressive champion for taking up neglected issues like campaign finance, and for nudging the administration to the left on how to settle claims related to the mortgage crisis.

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Washington, not coincidentally, is also a place Schneiderman can operate without setting foot on any of the turf claimed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who for now strictly avoids anything that might look like national posturing.

The governor and the attorney general have existed uneasily at times since both won higher office in 2010, but they're not equally inconvenienced by it. The prevailing dynamic is essentially one in which Cuomo decides what his areas of influence are going to be and Schneiderman focuses his energies on what's left.

In practice, as it turns out, that's left Schneiderman to pursue projects that are explicitly national in scope which Cuomo has little use for at the moment, like the mortgage-loan reparations and, for that matter, the re-election of Barack Obama.

Schneiderman prevailed in the 2010 Democratic primary despite Cuomo quietly favoring one (or all, really) of his rivals.

Cuomo eventually endorsed Schneiderman in the general election, but, after he won, the new attorney general immediately had to beat back an attempt to transfer some of his office's jurisdiction to the new Department of Financial Services, which combined the state's Insurance and Banking departments and is headed by Benjamin Lawksy, an aggressive former Southern District prosecutor and a trusted Cuomo lieutenant.

Lawsky's purview, even now, without those powers, looks a little like that of the attorney general, and Lawsky's groundbreaking, headline-hijacking complaint against the British bank Standard Chartered in August drew flattering comparisons to Spitzer's hard-charging attorney general days. 

Cuomo has occasionally boxed Schneiderman out on smaller issues, too. After Schneiderman made an aggressive push to target head shops for mislabeling the synthetic marijuana known as "bath salts," Cuomo's office issued its own Department of Health directive banning some of the ingredients. (Cuomo's announcement was followed by supportive statements from Senator Chuck Schumer and State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.)

When Schneiderman made an aggressive push to create a statewide prescription drug database, called I-STOP, he wound up having to share credit with the governor, who helped negotiate the bill's passage and ultimately signed it.

But in Washington, Schneiderman doesn't have to worry about any of that.

Despite the nation's highest approval rating and a sustained drumbeat about his prospects in 2016, Cuomo has conspicuously avoided making himself a player in Washington. He avoids any trips to the capital, and only attended the Democratic convention for a single day, addressing a New York delegation breakfast in his lone public appearance.

Schneiderman, on the other hand, has embraced his potential to affect national issues. When Obama named him a co-chair of the federal task force, during his State of the Union speech in January, the attorney general was conspicuously seated alongside the first lady.

And, though he hadn't held a press conference in the city since then, until this week, Schneiderman's efforts have certainly drawn notice around the capital. His request for tax information from politically active "social welfare" non-profits drew a written rebuke from Republicans Orrin Hatch and Dave Camp last month. Schneiderman, in turn, responded with a two-page letter outlining his view of "federalist principles," and re-asserting his prerogative to request certain tax information.

At yesterday's press conference, he appeared alongside Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer and Acting Assistant Attorney General Tony West, among others, to announce the action against J.P. Morgan.

The efforts in Washington sometimes translate to uncontested victories in the press back home. The New York Times put the J.P. Morgan suit on the front of its Business Section, and, a day later, the Times-Union put the story on the front page, and Schneiderman did a series of television interviews for YNN, NY1 and other affiliates back home.

Cuomo's office did not put out a public statement about the suit.