Solicitor General Barbara Underwood became New York’s Acting Attorney General on Tuesday, taking over for the disgraced Eric Schneiderman, who resigned after a New Yorker article detailed four women who accused him of numerous instances of physical violence. At the state Capitol, many were stunned at the rapid demise of the once popular Democratic Attorney General, and began maneuvering to name a successor.
Shock, disappointment and disgust were the most common words used by lawmakers to describe their reaction when they read the article detailing the accusations that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman hit, choked, threatened and belittled three women that he dated, and slapped another woman who refused his sexual advances. Schneiderman denies the allegations, saying he was engaged in consensual role playing.
Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, an Albany Democrat, was named the Chair of the Assembly Task Force on Women’s Issues just one week ago. She says she first heard the news when she arrived home around 8 o'clock Monday night. She said she immediately had to sit down.
“I was completely in shock,” said Fahy. “I’m still in shock today.”
Under the state constitution, the legislature picks a successor when there is a vacancy in the Attorney General’s office. The successor serves until the next statewide election, which occurs this coming November.
Assembly Democrats numerically have the most members of any of the factions in the legislature, and so it is up to them to pick the person to succeed Schneiderman.
Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chair Helene Weinstein has been mentioned as a possible successor, but she says she’s not interested.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie took a cautious approach, saying no decision has been made yet on exactly how to proceed. Several lawmakers said they think the legislature needs to appoint a woman to the job. Heastie says he’s open to that.
“I’ve always believed in diversity,” Heastie said following a private meeting with Assembly Democrats.
Governor Andrew Cuomo says the allegations against the former AG are “deeply disturbing” and he credits the women who came forward.
“I think these women were especially courageous,” said Cuomo, who said they were dealing with “the top law enforcement” official in New York State. “According to the article, they were threatened not to say anything, and they came forward anyway.”
Cuomo says he doesn’t plan to interfere with the legislature’s choice, but he says it should be an open process, with public interviews of candidates. And he says the Democratic state convention occurs in two weeks, so perhaps lawmakers should wait.
“The Democratic Party is not bound by the legislative process,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo controls the Democratic Party and presumably would have more control over the choice of the candidate.
The governor says there’s also no immediate need to have a new attorney general. He says Acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood, who he appointed, is competent and a “top quality person” and that the office is not “rudderless."
Assemblywoman Fahy says whoever Schneiderman’s successor is, they need to hit the ground running and take control of a number of important lawsuits that the former AG has filed, including more than 100 court actions against President Trump and his administration. Schneiderman was also trying to build criminal cases against former Trump associates Paul Manafort and Michel Flynn, in case the president pardoned them or Robert Mueller’s special investigation was halted.
“Whoever moves into this has to be as strong and as aggressive as possible,” Fahy said. “To really take on what is a national role.”
Already, potential candidates to run in either a Democratic primary or general election have expressed interest. Senator Mike Gianaris, who until recently was Deputy Democratic Leader, says his phone has been buzzing with texts and messages from people urging him to run.
“I’m flattered that people would think I could be trusted with that important position,” Gianaris said.
2014 gubernatorial Democratic Primary challenger Zephyr Teachout tweeted that she might be interested, saying that she is “seriously considering running for Attorney General.”
Other names mentioned include Congresswoman Kathleen Rice, who narrowly lost the Democratic Primary for attorney general to Schneiderman in 2010, and former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.