Running in the Shadow of Spitzer, Cuomo

Will New York's next attorney general embrace his predecessors or blaze her own path?
by | August 2010

Over the last 12 years, the New York Attorney General's Office has emerged as one of the most important jobs in state government, so it's no surprise there's a lively race this fall to determine who will be its next occupant.

With a large staff, plenty of independence and a prime perch in the nation's financial and media center, New York is the perfect place for the modern activist attorney general. Eliot Spitzer used the office as a springboard to become governor. Andrew Cuomo seems well on his way to doing the same this year. In the process, both became major players in national policy debates. Spitzer took on Wall Street; Cuomo honed in on student lenders and public employee pension management. So who is the next Spitzer or Cuomo?

The Democratic field has five credible candidates, led by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice. Rice isn't necessarily a typical New York Democrat. She's a former Republican, which helped her beat a longtime Republican incumbent in her relatively conservative Long Island jurisdiction. In office, she's developed a tough-on-crime reputation, especially because she's reluctant to offer plea bargains to drunk drivers. At only 45, Rice instantly would be a Democratic star if she wins.

One person who seems to want her to win is Cuomo. Multiple reports have indicated that his surrogates are working behind the scenes to make sure Rice prevails in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary. The thinking seems to be that a moderate, suburban woman is just what the Democratic ticket needs. So far, Cuomo hasn't offered a formal endorsement.

Still, even without an endorsement, the behind-the-scenes machinations have created something of a backlash. Among the possible backlash beneficiaries is state Sen. Eric Schneiderman, an unapologetic Manhattan liberal. Schneiderman, who had a background as a public interest lawyer before he entered the Senate, is backed by key unions. He has challenged Rice for not forcefully supporting an overhaul of New York's Rockefeller drug laws -- he was a lead sponsor of legislation that removed the mandatory minimum sentences from drug offenses. Other Democratic candidates include state Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, attorney Sean Coffey and Eric Dinallo, a former state insurance superintendent.

In New York, Democrats start with an edge -- Democrats currently hold every statewide office. Still, Republicans think Dan Donovan, their nominee, gives them a good chance to break through this year. Donovan, the Staten Island District Attorney, seems intent on shifting the office's focus closer to home. "The two previous attorney general administrations had their own priorities," says Virginia Lam, a spokesperson for Donovan's campaign, in an e-mail. "Dan's priority will be to root out public corruption in our state government." By focusing on Albany, Donovan's message may end up being that New York doesn't actually need another Spitzer or Cuomo.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |