About a month ago, I met an extremely liberal and political couple from upstate New York. I asked the wife whether she likes New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, expecting to hear something along the lines of “Yeah he’s great” or something like that, the way that traditional partisans act. I had spent a bit of time at New York City Democratic events, and most people there respect Schneiderman because of his work getting that task force on financial fraud announced. I thought I’d hear something similar. Instead she said, “Oh is he the guy who is sending my husband scary letters about his nonprofit?”
Schneiderman it turns out is involved in a jurisdictional dispute with Governor Andrew Cuomo over law enforcement around nonprofits, and is sending out what were probably innocuous but scary sounding letters to people with small nonprofits about governance. This couple was scared by that letter. And that’s all they know of Schneiderman.
Eric Schneiderman has a few more years before he’s up for reelection, this is poll from March isn’t that big a deal. But for a blue state Attorney General in a blue state, this is not good news.
“Both Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and Attorney General EricSchneiderman remain a mystery to more than half the voters. DiNapoli has 25-23 percent favorability rating with 52 percent having no opinion, and Schneiderman has a 21-23 percent favorability rating with 55 percent having no opinion,” Greenberg said. “However, when asked how Schneidermanand DiNapoli are doing in their jobs, voters are far more negative. Schneiderman has a negative 30-43 percent job performance rating, and DiNapoli‟s has a negative 26-45 percent rating.”
The bottom line here is that voters don’t know anything about Schneiderman, but when pressed, they aren’t happy with him. And this isn’t an environmental constraint – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is very popular. Even the state Assembly and state Senate are more popular than Schneiderman.
Polling isn’t always a meaningful way to think about how a political official is doing, and this polling shows not that New Yorkers are deeply happy or deeply angry with Schneiderman, but that they just don’t know who he is and that because of that he hasn’t met expectations.
This is a dramatic contrast to the last two AGs – Spitzer, who redefined the office with energy and brilliance, and Cuomo, who used it effectively as a stepping stone to the Governor’s mansion with savvy PR that masked his cover-up of Wall Street criminality. Those two were more prepared for this office than Schneiderman, so perhaps he’ll learn. We’ll see.
Schneiderman’s main effort in office has been the mortgage settlement negotiation. While he’s done some reasonable things on that front, such as his intervention in the Bank of America/Bank of New York settlement, by and large his position at the State of the Union and the financial fraud task force has not panned out. The tip-off that the financial fraud task force wasn’t going well was that the extremely knowledgeable Congressman Brad Miller was passed over for the coordinating job. Now it turns out that the task force, after three months, has accomplished the grand feat of posting that job public.
The basic calculation behind the deal was that relationships with the White House were valuable, he could get more resources to go after big banks, and that liberal organizing groups would rejoice. By one calculation, that seemed like a sweet spot, especially considering the need to support Obama’s reelection in 2012.. Politically, the support of those liberal groups didn’t really help – there was no penetration of the broad mass of the public, as the polling shows.
The legal strategy hasn’t really worked out. Schneiderman has been in office for more than a year. There have been no handcuffs or indictments on anyone involved in the financial crisis or the foreclosure crisis. An attorney general that doesn’t indict or prosecute isn’t worth paying attention to – and so voters aren’t. Of course, this is just his first year. He can turn it around. Bill Clinton, after a disastrous initial Presidency, fired a lot of his staff in the White House and brought in a more seasoned, professional team that righted the ship.
The New York Attorney General office is one of the most powerful offices in the entire country. Schneiderman is acting like legislator, but the job is more like a cop. The clients of the New York AG are the people of New York, not Moveon, not Barack Obama, and not Shaun Donovan. Schneiderman’s first year in office is over, and he has in fact not used power aggressively or creatively.
Is this the kind of Attorney General he will be for the rest of his term? Is his political team up to the task of building power in a state where Cuomo is ready to knife him at any point? Are they able to generate the kind of public posture necessary to wage the high profile attacks on financial villains? Is this legal team adequate? In April of 2011, Schneiderman’s office issued subpoenas of the Baum law firm, the foreclosure mill later revealed as having employees dress up as homeless people for Halloween. The US Attorney Preet Bharara cut a deal with this same firm, a fine with no admission of wrongdoing. Schneiderman’s office recently concluded its actions… with a fine and no admission of wrongdoing.
What would have been useful and dramatic was was handcuffs, what happened was pedestrian. It’s not, therefore surprising, that New Yorkers don’t know Schneiderman. Why should they? How is he relevant to their lives? Right now, he isn’t. If he wanted a different posture, he could recruit fearless prosecutors, reorganize his strategy and bring in more talent. The more likely possibility is continuation on his path, and if that happens, it will gradually become clear that he’s yet another transactional bureaucratic politician. That would be sad, especially after such a great start.