NEW YORK — The scramble to succeed disgraced former New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman — and assume one of the most prominent prosecutorial roles in national Democratic circles — is roiling New York's election-year politics.
A wide pool of potential contenders quickly emerged following Schneiderman’s surprise resignation Monday night amid abuse allegations, ranging from three members of the state’s congressional delegation to New York City Public Advocate Tish James. Schneiderman had played a key role among Democratic state attorney generals in challenging the Trump administration, and the question of who succeeds him will have implications for future City mayoral races — and possibly even this year’s gubernatorial primary.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has appointed an interim successor, Barbara Underwood.
James appeared to quickly gain momentum early this week. A well-known character on the New York City political stage, she's a former public defender with a law degree from Howard University. James worked as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, served as a Council Member representing parts of the borough and has been considered one of the top contenders in the race to become New York City's next mayor.
She also happens to be a woman of color at a time when public scrutiny over the lack of racial and gender diversity in positions of power is at an all-time high. So after the spectacular downfall of Schneiderman, James was suddenly rethinking her political future — and on Wednesday, reports surfaced that she had lined up the votes she needed in the Assembly.
But the picture has grown decidedly more complex.
Under New York state law, the next attorney general will be picked by the combined houses of the state Legislature — 150 members of the Assembly and 63 in the state Senate. Democrats have a comfortable majority in that combined body.
But Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, controls the decisive faction of Democratic votes and the elevation of James would be an advantageous move for him on the chess board of state politics.
Naming James as AG now would give her a leg up in the general election later this year. It could remove her name from the shortlist of mayoral candidates in 2021 and clear the way for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, both of whom are interested in the post.
"The more people talk about Tish, they're not so much talking about her qualifications but what it would mean for all the other political machinations for downstate," Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, told POLITICO. "Her ascension has more to do with men wanting particular jobs in other spheres than with her actually being in this particular job."
Heastie, a close ally of Diaz Jr., has strongly denied reports that Bronx legislators have already cut a deal to anoint James, saying he's focused on an open and transparent process that will consider all candidates equally.
He took to Twitter on Thursday morning to discount reports that he already had made a decision.
"Can people stop making up stories? We have not had any discussions about candidates or votes for AG. Reports to the contrary are inaccurate," Heastie tweeted. "There will be an open vetting process. Candidates interested are welcome to put their name forward and we will proceed according to law."
One lawmaker closely allied with Heastie suggested that James' opponents were painting her as the "insider candidate" in an effort to undermine her chances.
"This is a huge role and I can see a lot of different people who would have an interest in knocking her down," said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity. "There are plenty of candidates who would see her as serious competition because of everything she represents."
Complicating the picture is the woman who immediately took over for Schneiderman and is serving as acting attorney general. Barbara Underwood is a highly respected lawyer who is stepping into the role as the state's top law enforcement official at a tumultuous time. She clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and has argued 20 cases before the nation's highest court. But she is no politician. She already has announced that she would not run in the general election if she is appointed to fill the rest of Schneiderman's term, which expires at the end of the year.
While not endorsing her outright, Cuomo signaled Thursday afternoon that it might make sense to leave Underwood in the post until the new term begins.
"Well, she says that she would like to stay and she believes she is competent. I agree with her," Cuomo said. "The law says the Legislature shall fill the vacancy and it says the Legislature shall fill the vacancy by a joint vote of the Assembly and the Senate. It doesn't say the Legislature may, it says the Legislature shall. I don't believe there's a time frame to it."
Cuomo then repeated that the political season is nigh, and that the choice of the next attorney general will be best settled through the normal electoral process.
The chorus of voices calling for Underwood's interim appointment includes former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Republicans in the state Senate, the editorial boards of The New York Times, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday and the good-government group, Common Cause New York.
So that leaves Heastie and the members of his conference with a tough choice: Appoint the qualified woman from downstate, clear the field for a bunch of other men with political ambitions, or let the qualified woman already in office serve her time and let every interested candidate fight it out at the ballot box.
A decision is expected to emerge in the coming days as lawmakers begin a vetting process and interview those said to be interested in the post.
In the meantime, James is making calls.
Several sources, including people close to her, said she is strongly considering mounting an official campaign, making calls to legislators across the state and seeing how much support she has from Brooklyn to Buffalo.
"She and I had a brief conversation and we didn't really dig down into details," Council Speaker Corey Johnson told reporters this week. "I think she's considering it. Her name is of course out there, I think it's most appropriate at this moment for me to see what the process that is set up is and to figure out how it's going to proceed."
James has not yet had any conversations with Cuomo but she has been speaking with local lawmakers, both seeking their support and expressing her interest in the position.
Three members of the congressional delegation have been floated as potential attorney general candidates when the state holds its election later this year: Democratic Reps. Kathleen Rice, Sean Patrick Maloney and Hakeem Jeffries.
Cuomo, facing a primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, has been seeking to diversify the ticket and even considered naming James as his running mate. That fizzled when attempts to pressure Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul to run against Republican Rep. Chris Collins failed.
One Democratic strategist who has worked for Cuomo said he would be fine with James, who might help boost Cuomo among black voters — including black women.
"His priority will be to diversify the slate of state electeds, so he would very much like that," said the strategist, who asked not to be identified. "He's been concerned about having a slate of white men. This would very much solve that. They get along well, I could see them campaigning together and it would solve a lot of issues for him."