It was a Friday night in February at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, and Eric Schneiderman should have been pleased with himself.
The New York State attorney general had just had one of the most important weeks of his career: The previous day, he and other state attorneys general had announced a settlement with big banks over bad mortgage foreclosure practices — a deal that Schneiderman had blocked for months before forcing a change to allow further claims against the banks.
And then there was the announcement made at the State of the Union a few weeks earlier that Schneiderman would co-chair a multi-agency task force to investigate the mortgage crisis, a move that gave the onetime state senator a public profile for the first time in his life.
But all this newfound prominence wasn’t resting easy with Schneiderman.
“I really in many ways am a very private person,” he said, sitting in a basement room after an address to Central’s wealthy and prominent congregation. It had taken 10 minutes to extricate Schneiderman from the crowd of well-wishers that swarmed him after his speech. “It’s a little odd to become more and more well known,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m uncomfortable with it. It’s new. I’m getting used to it.”
Schneiderman has won big victories before. But though he has been in the public eye since he was elected to the State Senate in 1998, the progressive Jewish Democrat from Manhattan’s Upper West Side has always been more or less a background player, and something of a cipher.
An ambitious politician, he is uncomfortable talking about himself. Though he dated a television star, he never shows up on the gossip pages. And while he is a highly visible Jew who speaks in public about how his religion informs his politics, in private he is reluctant to give details on how he came to Judaism relatively late in life.
Schneiderman, 57, is a conventional-looking middle-aged lawyer with buzzed, graying hair and a sharp widow’s peak. His biography reads like any Wall Street hotshot’s: son of a prominent securities attorney; graduated Trinity School in Manhattan; attended preppy Amherst College, then Harvard Law. But instead of making it in business, Schneiderman fell under the sway of Jerry Nadler, the longtime Upper West Side congressman who is now perhaps the most powerful Democratic kingmaker in New York City.
The two met in 1987, when Nadler was a state assemblyman and Schneiderman a staffer for Mel Miller, then the assembly’s Democratic majority leader. Schneiderman had formed a committee to raise money to win the Republican-dominated Senate for the Democrats, an unpopular cause even among the Democratic leadership, which was entrenched in the Albany status quo.
“I was very impressed with that,” Nadler remembered. “Especially because he was on the staff of someone who was not particularly sympathetic with that goal.”
The campaign would become a crusade that Schneiderman would fight and ultimately win two decades later. But first Schneiderman went into private practice, though he remained in touch with Nadler. Schneiderman joined the Community Free Democrats, Nadler’s Upper West Side club, and began hanging around with the slightly older Nadler and the slightly younger Scott Stringer, now Manhattan borough president, who took Nadler’s assembly seat in 1993, when Nadler went to Congress.
Those intermediary years were times of personal discovery for Schneiderman. In a recent interview with the Forward, Schneiderman said that his parents had not been religious Jews. In fact, the Forward reported in 1998 that Schneiderman’s mother had converted to Christianity and that Schneiderman himself was baptized at St. George’s Cathedral, an Episcopal church on 16th Street. But now, at least in public, Schneiderman describes Judaism as a driving force in his political philosophy.
“The Constitution of the State of New York doesn’t really define the role of the attorney general,” Schneiderman noted in his February 10 address at Central. “I do have to serve as the state’s lawyer and defend the state, but in areas of pursuit of justice, or affirmative litigation areas, the constitution does not tell me what my mission is or what the scope of my duty is… In the absence of constitutional authority I have chosen to look to another set of books to tell me what the goals of my office should be,” he said, meaning the Hebrew scripture. “Books in which we are directed to seek justice and justice alone.”
Asked afterward how Judaism wound up being so central to his life, Schneiderman was vague. “It really was as an adult that I started to get engaged,” he said. “I think it was really more just a determination I made over time, and I read a lot.” He would not cite specific books that had impacted his thinking.
Schneiderman joined Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in the mid-1990s, then a fast-growing Upper West Side synagogue known for its progressive politics. Nadler is also a member.
By 1998, when Schneiderman decided to leave private practice for public office, he had both Nadler and Stringer supporting his State Senate run. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch remembers taking him to visit senior centers.