ALBANY — The abrupt resignation of state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman stunned the state’s political world as a two-track scramble to replace him began to take shape Tuesday.
State legislators huddled behind closed doors for hours and weighed exercising their power to appoint someone to fill a vacancy in the attorney general’s office.
They didn’t act immediately, but Senate and Assembly leaders were expected to announce late Tuesday a vetting process for screening would-be candidates.
Meanwhile, the names of more than a dozen potential candidates were floated by political leaders, who predicted a wide open Democratic primary in September — regardless of whether the Legislature appoints someone this month.
“This is moving on two tracks,” said Nassau County Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs. “One is what the Legislature does and the second is there will be a primary.”
On the other side of the aisle, Republicans sought to discourage moves to immediate fill the vacancy while raising the possibility of widening their scope of candidates.
Late Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appointed Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas as a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that Schneiderman physically abused four women.
Schneiderman announced his resignation, effective at 5 p.m. Tuesday, in a statement Monday night, less than three hours after The New Yorker magazine published an article in which four women accused him of choking, slapping and threatening them.
He denied the allegations initially, saying some of the alleged actions happened during consensual “role playing.” When he resigned later, he said the allegations would not allow him to continue to effectively serve in office.
It was a swift and stunning downfall for a two-term Democrat who gained a national profile for fighting the administration of Republican President Donald Trump on multiple legal fronts and being a vocal champion of the #MeToo anti-sexual harassment movement.
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Former allies in some women’s groups reacted angrily Tuesday.
“You can’t be both a leader on progressive issues and a violent abuser of women,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women.
Two of the four accusers who came forward, identified as Michelle Manning Barish and Tanya Selvaratnam, said they went on the record with The New Yorker because they wanted to protect other women.
On Tuesday, Barish exchanged Twitter messages with Rose McGowan, who was one of the first actresses to accuse Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault.
McGowan wrote: “Thank you for your service and sacrifice.”
Barish replied: “Because you, my sister, @rosemcgowan because of your bravery to speak truth to power and face your perpetrator, you have given so many women the strength to use their own voices.”
The Schneiderman story also shocked longtime political players who had worked alongside and against him during his eight years as attorney general and 12 years as a state senator.
“Been here 32 years and you think you’ve seen everything and you wake up one morning and everything changes,” said State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport).
At least two district attorneys — Cyrus Vance Jr. in Manhattan and Timothy Sini in Suffolk County — have said they planned to investigate Schneiderman.
Simultaneously, state legislators were grappling with whether to appoint a new attorney general.
A joint vote of the Assembly and Senate, with a combined 213 seats, would be required to appoint a replacement for Schneiderman. Assembly Democrats are the largest single bloc of lawmakers, with 104. Together with the 31 Senate Democrats, the party has 135 votes. Though the Senate Democrats will get input, Assembly Democrats would need only a few of their colleagues’ votes to win a majority and, therefore, have outsized influence on the decision.
Following a two-hour closed door conference, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said Democrats didn’t discuss specific names, but talked about process.
“There’s not been a determination about what’s going to happen,” he said.
However, Heastie said the law “is pretty definitive that the Legislature should act” to fill such a vacancy when it occurs during a legislative session. Assembly Democrats effectively have appointed statewide officials to fill vacancies on three occasions over the past 25 years — most recently in 2007 when lawmakers replaced disgraced ex-Comptroller Alan Hevesi with Thomas P. DiNapoli, a Great Neck Plaza resident.
Flanagan said he and Heastie discussed establishing committees to vet potential attorney general candidates.
“We do have statutory and constitutional obligations, but I don’t think anyone should be hand-picked,” Flanagan said. Like other party members, he suggested state Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) be considered for the post. Right now, Manny Alicandro, a corporate lawyer from Brooklyn, is the lone announced GOP hopeful.
Flanagan suggested that Barbara Underwood, the state solicitor general who took over the daily operations of the attorney general’s office when Schneiderman resigned, should keep the spot until voters elect someone new in November.
Cuomo, speaking at an unrelated news conference Tuesday, suggested Democrats should not act before the state party convention in Uniondale from May 23-24.
The wait also could give Cuomo more say about the Democratic ticket.
“You have a Democratic convention in two weeks, and everybody is going to have an opinion,” Cuomo said. “They could wait for the Democratic convention.”
A handful of names have started circulating as a possible replacements, including Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), who lost a 2010 attorney general primary to Schneiderman.
“She is interested and she is giving it very strong and serious consideration,” Jacobs said about Rice, a former Nassau County district attorney.
Others include New York City Public Advocate Letitia James; state Sens. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) and Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach); Assemb. Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx) and Daniel O’Donnell (D-Manhattan), the brother of actress Rosie O’Donnell.
Assemb. Helene Weinstein (D-Brooklyn), who had been considered a strong contender, took her name out of the running.
Also, 2014 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout declared on Twitter Tuesday she intends to run in a primary.
Some politicians also suggested Preet Bharara, a former U.S. attorney, but others suggested that might be far-fetched because he prosecuted numerous state legislators on corruption charges.