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Eric Schneiderman makes his mark as state AG

Democratic New York Attorney General candidate Eric Schneiderman

Democratic New York Attorney General candidate Eric Schneiderman makes his primary victory speech in New York early Wednesday morning. (Sept. 15, 2010) Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was a Democratic state senator for Manhattan's Upper West Side in 2002 when Republicans targeted him and redrew district lines to include a large, Hispanic section of the Bronx in his district.

Schneiderman fought back, learning Spanish in the few months between the spring and the November election.

He went on to defeat former city councilman Guillermo Linares in the primary and then Bienvenido Toribio to win election to a third term with 87 percent of the vote. Eventually, Schneiderman rose to deputy minority leader in the Senate.

"He was as well prepared a floor leader as I ever saw in the Senate," said former Gov. David A. Paterson, then the Senate minority leader.

Tackling Spanish foreshadowed Schneiderman's ability to survey the political playing field, adapt to a situation and devise a strategy to get a result. In much the same way, he got ahead of the political curve last year in leading a campaign against prescription drug abuse.

Last month, Schneiderman, in his second year in office, achieved a key legislative victory when the State Legislature reached an agreement with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and passed a bill to overhaul the state's prescription-tracking system to prevent addicts and others from going from doctor to doctor, pharmacy to pharmacy to stockpile narcotics.

"This is an epidemic and it's something we can do something about," the attorney general said. "It requires a different law enforcement approach than drugs that start out as illegal drugs."

For much of his 12 years in the State Senate, Schneiderman was a Democrat in a chamber controlled by Republicans. His sometimes brash approach and his aggressive efforts to wrest control of the Senate from the Republicans didn't endear him to the other side of the aisle and even to some in his own party.

"Sometimes people felt he took a point of view and didn't necessarily want to compromise -- but then again that could be said about many of us," said state Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City).

Today, Schneiderman is in a position to influence national and state policy decisions on Wall Street regulations, tax policy, gun control, reproductive rights and other issues in ways he couldn't on the Senate floor.

 

Big role for New York AG

Being the state's chief law enforcement officer is important in any state, but the post carries an outsized role in New York, where the financial services industry plays an outsized role as well. President Barack Obama's appointment of Schneiderman in January as co-chairman of a task force to investigate mortgage-backed securities and the housing bubble acknowledged what many people already knew: The office has become a national one.

"Companies aren't going to want to settle if the settlement doesn't include New York," said Avi Schick, a lawyer under former Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. "That prominence is a tool that allows an attorney general to achieve his vision."

But with the national profile comes risks, said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan).

"If they are seen to accomplish a lot and to do good things, it will greatly broaden his stature," Nadler said. "If it's seen not to do anything, it won't."

Schneiderman's most recent predecessors as attorney general -- Spitzer and Cuomo -- mastered the language of popular outrage. Schneiderman's voice doesn't boom: Instead, he is described as a savvy tactician and master of detail who enjoys the give-and-take of debate without losing his cool, or his passion.

Schneiderman appears younger than his 57 years and his aides say he looks for a gym every time he's on the road and watches what he eats. He also does yoga.

The son of Irwin Schneiderman, who practiced corporate law, and Abigail Heyward, who worked in the film industry, he grew up on the Upper West Side, graduated from Trinity School and received a bachelor's degree in 1977 from Amherst College, where he majored in English and Asian studies.

An interest in the criminal justice system led him to the Berkshire House of Corrections in Massachusetts, where he worked as a deputy sheriff for two years, helping launch a drug and alcohol treatment program.

Harvard Law School came next, followed by a clerkship for a federal judge appointed by president Richard Nixon -- Judge Richard Owen at the U.S. Southern District of New York in Manhattan. Schneiderman then became a partner at the law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart in Manhattan in 1994, where his clients included investment banks that packaged the kinds of mortgage-backed securities that played a central role in the financial meltdown in 2008.

He also saw the downside of the financial services industry watching his father serve as counsel to Drexel Burnham Lambert -- the Wall Street junk bond powerhouse that collapsed in the late 1980s amid scandal and criminal charges.

In 1990, Schneiderman married Jennifer Cunningham, who would later become an influential lobbyist for the labor union 1199/SEIU and was an adviser to Cuomo when he ran for attorney general. They have a daughter, Catherine, 19. The marriage lasted six years, though the split was amicable enough that Cunningham helped with Schneiderman's attorney general campaign.

Schneiderman said his corporate law work helped him learn how Wall Street firms operated. "I'm at something of an advantage in dealing with the banks because I used to represent them for the American Stock Exchange," he said.

 

Represented Urban League

He eventually was put in charge of all the firm's public interest work. In one case he represented the New York Urban League, then headed by Dennis Walcott, now the New York City schools chancellor, in a suit against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The suit challenged a subway fare hike on the grounds that it disproportionately affected minorities.

"Eric. . . really worked very hard to fight on behalf of the residents of New York City," Walcott said.

The Urban League lost that case, but Schneiderman continued to get deeper into social issues he cared about, setting up a program to get lawyers to volunteer to help community groups during the crack epidemic and defending abortion-rights advocates.

"I just realized that my heart wasn't in my billable clients anymore and I really wanted to do public service and public interest work and that led me to run for the State Senate," Schneiderman said.

As a state senator, Schneiderman angered Republicans by aggressively pushing to win control of the Senate for Democrats, a move that lay at the root of the redistricting in 2002 that forced him into that primary.

"I was definitely there to challenge authority, not to go along and get along," Schneiderman said. "As I reflect back on it, there were some good relationships even with people on the other side of the aisle who may have not liked me challenging them. We earned a certain amount of mutual respect."

Former Sen. Michael Balboni, a Republican from East Williston, recalled that Schneiderman wore a pin that said "We need change" ahead of the 2000 election.

"He was seen as the young buck," Balboni said. "Coming in, he grabs the reins of the Senate campaign committee and was trying to take over the majority."

When the Senate Republicans held on to their majority, some wore buttons at the start of the 2001 legislative session that said, "36 + no change. Thanks Senator Schneiderman," a reference to the number of Republican senators.

 

Competitor, not enemy

Balboni became friends with Schneiderman and later endorsed him for attorney general. "I never really saw him as an enemy; I saw him as a competitor," Balboni said. "He definitely was the partisan, but he could also let that down and just be funny."

Paterson said Schneiderman talked him into running for Senate minority leader in a 2002 coup that ousted state Sen. Martin Connor. Schneiderman told him the party needed to be more focused on winning the majority and not making side deals with Republicans.

"He sort of said, 'In the greater scheme of life, are you just going to stay here and keep on losing or do you want to try something different?' " Paterson said.

Paterson remembers a contentious debate on the Senate floor in 2007 when Schneiderman again put his Spanish language skills to good use.

State Sen. Ruben Diaz (D-Bronx), a conservative Democrat who is among New York's most animated and outspoken legislators, was angry with his liberal friend. Diaz shouted at Schneiderman in Spanish and pounded his desk with his fist.

"All of a sudden . . . [Schneiderman] shifts into Spanish," Paterson said. " . . . [He] absolutely stunned everyone in the chamber."

The message, Paterson said, was "to let Diaz know, 'If you think you're going to speak Spanish and leave everybody in the dust here, you're not going to leave me in the dust. I'm ready to debate this issue in any language you want.' "

When Paterson became lieutenant governor in 2007, state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) -- not Schneiderman -- became the new minority leader. Paterson said that some senators might have felt that Smith was more approachable.

Shortly afterward, Paterson ran into Schneiderman at a restaurant taking freshman Democratic senators to dinner.

"You'd think he'd be somewhere sulking," Paterson said. "He realized he needed to have better communication with his colleagues in the Senate, and here he is . . . taking all the new members to dinner."

Paterson said resilience and willingness to learn from mistakes were key factors in propelling Schneiderman toward his 2010 election as attorney general.

 

Defining his office

Much of the work of an attorney general is handling routine corruption and fraud cases. But others have imprinted their personalities on the office. Robert Abrams was known for championing consumer and civil rights. Dennis Vacco focused more on law and order. Spitzer blazed a trail as the "Sheriff of Wall Street" by going after major financial firms for unethical practices.

Cuomo got student loan companies to abandon what he alleged were deceptive and predatory practices, and got AIG executives to return some of the millions of dollars of bonuses they received after being bailed out by taxpayers.

"With Eliot it really was a case of establishing the primacy of the office or the office being equivalent with other major regulators and national regulators, and I think Andrew continued that and built on that," Schick said. "Eric is probably, in temperament, somewhat lower key than his predecessors. But as with everything, I think his predecessors were judged on their results and Eric's going to be judged the same way."

The Obama task force is a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission and state law enforcement and is focused on mortgage-backed securities -- bundled mortgages that were sliced into pieces and sold to investors.

The task force was announced shortly after a $25 billion nationwide settlement was completed with the five largest mortgage banks to end abusive foreclosure practices, an issue that heightened Schneiderman's profile.

While attorneys general across the nation were negotiating a settlement, Schneiderman held out for a deal that didn't let the companies off so easily. The strategy paid off and companies didn't get the wide immunity from prosecution they had sought.

If his experience has made the opaque world of mortgage securities clearer, it has also given him a nuanced view of the people in the industry.

"I don't come at the investigation of mortgage-backed securities with the feeling I'm an outsider trying to rein in bad guys," Schneiderman said. "Most of them are good folks just trying to make money for themselves and their families. But there are always people who push the envelope too far."

The long-standing joke about the attorney general's job is that "AG" stands for "Almost Governor."

Certainly that was the case for the last two men to hold the job, but Schneiderman said he's completely focused on the job he has. "I may have another job someday but right now I can't imagine a better job than this," he said.

 

 

ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN

 

AGE: 57

BORN: Manhattan

EDUCATION: Amherst College ('77), Harvard Law School ('82)

EXPERIENCE: Deputy sheriff, Berkshire County, Mass., 1978-1979; clerk, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, 1982-1984; associate, Lord Day & Lord, Barrett Smith, 1984-1994; partner, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, 1994-2001; New York State senator, 1999-2010; New York State attorney general, 2011-present

FAMILY: Divorced. He and his ex-wife Jennifer Cunningham have a daughter, Catherine, 19

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