Schneiderman Gets Used to the Spotlight

Telling Personal Story Comes Hard to Fast-Rising Leader

He’s Not Shy Now: Eric Schneiderman celebrates his election as state attorney general, November 2, 2010.
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He’s Not Shy Now: Eric Schneiderman celebrates his election as state attorney general, November 2, 2010.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published February 19, 2012, issue of February 24, 2012.
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And though one Democratic opponent had a letter supporting his candidacy from a B’nai Jeshurun rabbi, Schneiderman won handily. Once in Albany, he took over the party committee tasked with orchestrating the Democratic push to win Senate seats in 2000.

“He went way beyond what had been done previously,” Nadler said of Schneiderman’s 2000 efforts. “It was the first modern, real campaign we’ve seen for the Senate Democrats.”

After moderate success in that election, Schneiderman quarterbacked then-State Senator David Paterson’s effort to unseat longtime Senate minority leader Marty Connor, seen as an important step in changing the culture of the Democratic Party in the Senate. Schneiderman hoped to succeed Paterson when he left the Senate to serve as lieutenant governor under Eliot Spitzer, but he lacked support among his fellow members, and by the time Democrats actually won the majority in the Senate in 2008, he was more or less on his way out.

Though he had been mentioned as a potential attorney general candidate as early as 2002, Schneiderman considered running for Manhattan district attorney before deciding to take a shot at the attorney general seat in 2010.

Throughout the campaign, Schneiderman’s private life was barely noted, save a few scant details. Schneiderman copped to having tried marijuana and cocaine as a young man. It was known that his ex-wife, a lobbyist and Andrew Cuomo adviser named Jennifer Cunningham, was involved in his campaign. And it was known that he had been involved with actress Michelle Clunie from the Showtime drama “Queer as Folk” — the two had their first date at a Dominican restaurant in Schneiderman’s district — though Clunie campaigned for one of his Democratic opponents.

“He has his public life and his private life, and he tries to maintain a separation between the two,” said Avi Schick, a partner at the law firm SNR Denton who worked with Schneiderman in private practice and was the director of his transition team. “He doesn’t pepper his speeches with personal anecdotes. That’s not his style.”

Since Schneiderman’s inauguration in January 2011, fights over how to handle litigation over the financial crisis have dominated his public profile. From the start, Schneiderman was at odds with his own party over how to handle litigation stemming from the 2008 financial crisis. Top officials in the Obama administration hoped for a quick settlement to a major lawsuit brought by state attorneys general over bad foreclosure practices. But Schneiderman didn’t want to sign, arguing that the terms of the settlement gave banks broad immunity that ultimately let them off the hook.

His refusal to play ball brought down the wrath of his colleagues. Iowa’s attorney general accused him of seeking to “undermine” the settlement; the secretary of Housing and Urban Development spoke out against him in The New York Times. Schneiderman seemed outflanked.

And then, in early November, the White House called.

Two months later, Schneiderman was sitting behind Michelle Obama during the State of the Union address as the president named him co-chair of a new multi-agency task force to investigate the mortgage crisis.

He signed the foreclosure deal soon after. The newly reformed settlement does offer banks some protection from future lawsuits, and some critics have noted that the payments to individual homeowners will be no more than a few thousand dollars. But the immunity is far narrower than would have been provided in the original settlement, leaving a window for further lawsuits.

The shift had the appearance of a quid pro quo. But Schneiderman said that both developments stemmed from his success in negotiating the immunities. And that success, Schneiderman said, stemmed from a broader shift in public opinion, tied closely to the blossoming of the anti-corporate Occupy Wall Street movement.

“To me, the Occupy movement was just the most visible and flamboyant part of a truly grassroots outcry for accountability and for one set of rules for everyone,” Schneiderman told the Forward. “There was this sense that we had lost that essential American belief that ours is a system in which no matter how powerful or rich you are, or what public office you hold, you’re still held accountable under the law, and I view Occupy as just one aspect of a much broader swing in broader sentiment.”

Schneiderman’s New York offices are catty-corner to Zuccotti Park, the downtown square where Occupy protesters set up camp in mid-September. His office window overlooks Broadway and afforded a perfect view of the demonstrations. “We’d be like, oh, 5:00, here come the drums,” Schneiderman said.

Whatever the cause, Schneiderman’s victory in the foreclosure negotiations paves the way for further investigations and prosecutions by the joint task force.

“We got off track in America,” Schneiderman told the Central audience. “I believe honestly in the last few months we have set things right.”

In a little more than a year, Schneiderman, the lone holdout, had been transformed from a lowly state senator to a nationally prominent progressive standard-bearer, broadly seen as pushing Obama and the Democrats to take on Wall Street.

But that strict division between his personal and professional lives could grow harder to maintain as Schneiderman’s profile grows.

“I ran for this wonderful office, it’s the best job I can imagine having, and I don’t for a minute take it for granted,” Schneiderman said. “Starting to get more recognition I guess is a good thing, but it takes some getting used to.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis


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