New York City Liberals Stare Down Cuomo

Avi Zenilman | September 15th, 2010

State Senator Eric Schneiderman

“I’m glad you all stayed up,” State Senator Eric Schneiderman told the cheering crowd at the Grand Hyatt. It was 1 a.m., the platters of cheese and curiously crunchy honeydew were no more, and all of his opponents in the five-way Democratic primary contest for Attorney General had finally conceded.

The ballroom was filled with some of the most powerful liberals in New York City. Naral Pro-Choice New York President Kelli Conklin introduced Schneiderman, Rep. Jerry Nadler and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn had been working the cameras for hours, and the crowd was filled with people wearing the purple t-shirts of SEIU 1199 — the most powerful union in the state. They all chanted “GUSTAVO! GUSTAVO! GUSTAVO!” when they found out that Gustavo Rivera had defeated State Senate Majority Leader, Pedro Espada, Jr.  They had all endorsed Schneiderman over Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, the former frontrunner and the presumed favorite of Andrew Cuomo. None of them were intimidated by the presumptive Governor, the so-called prince of darkness.

Schneiderman, however, had only praise for Cuomo, which he delivered after he complimented gay rights activists, the labor movement, reproductive rights organizations, the Dominicans in his district, Citizens Action, and a few other groups. The outspoken liberal said that “voters are looking for someone who will stand up to Wall Street,” and he pointed to Cuomo’s “unprecedent work” on that front. In the general election against Staten Island D.A. Dan Donovan, the promise to fight for the little guy — along with locking down the woman vote by painting him as anti-abortion as possible — will be much more salient than straightforward appeals to labor or gay rights.

It’s worth remembering, however, that Cuomo and Schneiderman are not close at all, and that Schneiderman built a incredibly potent progressive coalition that has pre-emptively expressed its disappointment with the soon-to-be Governor’s centrism and recent aversion to hard positions. The base is restless, and in the affable, savvy, Harvard-educated Schneiderman, they have their golden boy. Cuomo, obviously, knows how a press savvy Attorney General can use their subpeona power to push an agenda or hold rivals accountable, which is why he likely would have preferred Rice or trial lawyer Sean Coffey, moderates without their own power base in Albany.

Yet, as Schneiderman said, if he won the general election he would be ready to “step in on day one and continue the same aggressive progressive approach of Andrew Cuomo.”

It sounded like unequivocal support, but it was also a warning. “Everyone has to play by the same set of rules,” he said. No one, not even the governor, would be exempt from the long reach of the Attorney General’s office. In other words, Eric Scheiderman would continue the work of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo by making life difficult for Governor Andrew Cuomo.