The office of New York attorney general is one of the most influential in the nation. Our sweeping laws protecting civil rights, consumers and the environment, combined with the authority to prosecute financial fraud, give the officeholder a lot of power.
But only if those muscles are flexed.
The most recent officeholders, Eliot Spitzer and Andrew M. Cuomo, built their reputations by aggressively regulating the financial industry and protecting consumers.
Unlike his predecessors, Democrat Eric T. Schneiderman of Manhattan hasn't put much up on the scoreboard. We were skeptical about his fit for this job four years ago, and his lackluster campaign for a second term has been as uninspiring as his tenure. The incumbent's lack of name recognition is not surprising.
Fortunately, his Republican challenger, John Cahill of Yonkers, has the professionalism and experience to return luster to this office. He has an ambitious agenda and a respected management style that are critical to attract a bipartisan team of top legal talent.
Cahill, 56, served in the administration of former Gov. George Pataki -- four years as the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, and another four as his chief of staff. Cahill has solid environmental credentials, especially on Long Island, where he recently was endorsed by the Long Island Environmental Voters Forum for his key role in implementing the 1993 Pine Barrens Protection Act.
In contrast, Schneiderman's office was absent when activists repeatedly asked him to stop encroachments in the protected area, including the storage of cars destroyed by Sandy that leaked motor fluids into a groundwater-protection area.
Schneiderman says the capstone of his first term was bringing billions of dollars to New York from the nationwide settlement of litigation against major financial institutions for their role in the 2008 financial meltdown. The complex negotiations between federal and state attorneys general could fill a book, and Schneiderman certainly got a lot of publicity for his combative position.
But Cahill joins critics on the left who are disappointed that Schneiderman didn't put any of the players responsible for the massive fraud in jail.
Schneiderman, 59, a former state senator, is smart and politically adroit. After two fatal shooting incidents on Long Island in 2011, he took the lead in establishing I-STOP, a registry designed to end the overprescribing of painkillers.
These limited achievements, however, don't compensate for his failure to lead.
Schneiderman never assembled a stellar staff of lawyers whose ideas he could have prioritized into a defining agenda. Instead, he relied on political operatives to be his managers, inevitably letting the concerns of their affiliations, particularly with labor unions, spur his actions.
The most obvious example is his smackdown of the lodgings website Airbnb, one of the more recognizable new businesses in the rapidly expanding Internet-based economy that allows peers to sell and buy services.
Airbnb shouldn't be allowed to facilitate illegal hotels, but Schneiderman's massive subpoena drop to obtain personal and financial data of Airbnb hosts was overkill and done at the behest of the hotel trade unions. Instead, the attorney general's office should lead a task force to eliminate outdated laws while drafting new regulations that would protect consumers and allow these business of the future to thrive.
Saying he will be a better watchdog of ethics violations by Albany lawmakers, Cahill is critical of Schneiderman for approving the use of taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment suit against a powerful Brooklyn assemblyman.
Cahill, who has successfully practiced law since he left state government, says he won't run for another public office. He just wants to be a very good attorney general. And that's just what New York needs.
Newsday endorses Cahill.