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Interviews in Albany for interim AG job

Acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood was among several

Acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood was among several candidates who interviewed for the attorney general position on an interim basis. Credit: NYAG Press Office

ALBANY — Several candidates interviewed with legislators Tuesday to fill the unexpired term of former Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, including the person who currently holds the job, Barbara Underwood, who promised not seek election to a four-year term.

Underwood, who took over as acting attorney general after Schneiderman resigned in disgrace last week, said she merely sought to finish Schneiderman’s term, which ends Dec. 31.

“I’m not a politician,” Underwood told the panel.

Members of the 12-person legislative panel seemed to welcome that message. Appointing someone “who will run the attorney general’s office and not be campaigning, that’s important to me,” said Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury), in a sentiment shared by others.

At the same time, the electoral race for the attorney general’s job may be starting to take shape. New York City Public Advocate Tish James announced Tuesday that she would hold a political announcement on Wednesday — on what will be the second day of interviews by the legislative panel.

James is seen by some of her supporters, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, as a leading electoral candidate. She dropped out of contention for the interim appointment when it became clear that Cuomo and many legislators didn’t want the interim attorney general to run for election to a full term.

Also on Tuesday, Rep. Kathleen Rice, the former Nassau County district attorney, withdrew from contention. The reason, she said, was that under state law, she can’t run for attorney general while also running for re-election to Congress.

Underwood and several other candidates who were interviewed Tuesday said they would continue to pursue Schneiderman’s agenda: suing the Trump administration over policy changes related to the environment, immigrants, net neutrality and other issues.

“These are not political” issues Underwood said. “There are laws about pollution, there are laws about internet access, and what we are doing is simply enforcing the law.”

Assemb. Thomas Abinanti (D-Tarrytown), Assemb. Daniel O’Donnell (D-Manhattan) and former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman said that, if they were appointed interim attorney general, they would also consider running for a full term in the fall. Some said they might simultaneously seek re-election to their Assembly seats.

Abinanti told the panel about his decades as an attorney and legislator in local and state government, emphasizing that he was qualified to run a big state agency and defend the government and the law. But he said the office could be more.

“I think the attorney general’s office is the first line against corruption,” Abinanti said.

O’Donnell stressed the need to keep the attorney general’s office independent of politics. He spoke about his legislative career, saying he had worked hard to protect women, minorities, and gay, lesbian and transgender people.

Holtzman said she would continue to serve as an advocate for poor people, immigrants and victims of discrimination.

“To the extent that the administration in Washington is trampling on people’s constitutional rights or other rights, then the attorney general has to be alert to that,” Holtzman said. “You can’t just say, well, we never did it before.”

Holtzman continued: “That kind of innovation and creativity and courage will be the mark of a great attorney general, and I would hope to have those characteristics.”

Another candidate, prominent attorney Lloyd Constantine, said he wouldn’t seek a full term but instead would offer himself as an experienced hand in handling an office in crisis. He was a top aide to Gov. Eliot Spitzer during and after Spitzer’s resignation in 2007 after a prostitution scandal.

“The reason I am here is I care incredibly for this office,” Constantine said. He said he was best qualified to help what he called a “traumatized office.”

The public interviews are scheduled to resume Wednesday.

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