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Interim attorney general interviews end with diverse hopefuls

Barbara Underwood, right, takes the oath of office

Barbara Underwood, right, takes the oath of office at the State Capitol in Albany on May 7, becoming the state's acting attorney general after Eric T. Schneiderman resigned. Credit: AP

ALBANY — The second and final day of the legislature’s interviews with candidates for interim attorney general on Wednesday introduced a highly diverse set of candidates, some of whom argued against the appointment of acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood despite her seemingly growing political support.

A dozen candidates on Tuesday and Wednesday sought appointment to the post, to serve through the end of the year. Two-term Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman resigned last week after four women he dated accused him in a New Yorker article of abuse and assault.

The legislative committee — a bipartisan panel of 12 — interviewed several people who presented high-octane resumes and powerful personal stories. The legislature as a whole will appoint an interim attorney general. A decision will likely come late next week, after the state Democratic Committee holds its convention and nominates a candidate to run for a full term in the fall, said Assemb. Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), co-chairman of the interviewing panel.

Among the candidates who spoke on Wednesday were Michael D. Diederich Jr., a civil rights lawyer in Rockland County and retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves; Jennifer Stergion, a lawyer, ethicist and administrative law judge; Alex Zapesochny, a lawyer and health care entrepreneur; and Nicole Gueron, who was the deputy chief trial counsel to Andrew M. Cuomo when he was attorney general and a former assistant U.S. attorney based in Manhattan.

Still, Underwood, who interviewed with the panel on Tuesday and has the support of Cuomo and several of the interview committee members, looks like the interim candidate to beat. Panel members said they approved of the fact that she doesn’t plan to run for a four-year term.

“Why would anyone among the electeds want to stir controversy in their election year?” said George Arzt, a longtime Democratic consultant. “Underwood is the safe bet till the end of year.”

Some candidates disagreed.

“I’m not sure it’s a good idea for this office to be run by a self-proclaimed short-timer,” Gueron said. “That undercuts the power of the office . . . for what is not negligible period of time.”

Zapesochny, who said he was “unaffiliated with a political party,” agreed, saying, “I believe merely settling for a caretaker would miss an opportunity.”

Also on Wednesday, a Republican senator and a Democratic senator called on the Legislature to appoint Underwood the interim attorney general and for the state Democratic and Republican committees to cross-endorse her for a full term in November.

The letter from state Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore) and Sen. Tony Avella (D-Queens) was issued even though Underwood said she won’t run for a full term. She said that Cuomo had also made it clear in a conversation that he doesn’t want her to seek election, but rather be the interim attorney general until Dec. 31.

“Let’s take politics out of the equation once and for all and fill the office of New York’s Attorney General based on ability and merit,” Avella and Boyle stated. “Let’s allow Barbara Underwood to protect New Yorkers and the interests of New York State as our attorney general not just for the next six months but for years to come.”

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