Editorial: Assembly Democrats placing politics over good of state, country

Editorial: Assembly Democrats placing politics over good of state, country

Would state Assembly Democrats select a replacement for disgraced Attorney General Eric Schneiderman based on politics rather than competency – at a time New York’s AG might become the last hope of bringing to justice Trump aides on violations of state law in the event the president pardons them?

Is the Pope Catholic? Does the sun rise in the east?

Signs of the Assembly Democrats’ willingness to sacrifice the defense of American democracy for cheap political gain began just hours after graphic and very credible reports of Schneiderman assaulting women forced him to resign.

The Democrats, who effectively have the power to pick Schneiderman’s replacement, began behind closed doors to push out the acting attorney general, Barbara Underwood, and install New York City’s public advocate, Letitia James.

Underwood is a former Yale Law School professor who served as counsel and chief assistant to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York, supervising a staff of more than 150 attorneys in Brooklyn and Central Islip.

She has argued 20 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. She clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

James is a Democrat who serves in the amorphous role of public advocate. Before that, she was a member of the New York City Council and worked as a public defender in the Legal Aid Society.

Underwood, but not James, is now among 16 people who filed applications to be considered by a panel created by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to determine who will serve out the remaining few months of Schneiderman’s term.

Underwood is better qualified than anyone Heastie would pick, is already serving as acting attorney general and is familiar with the office’s caseload as a member since 2007.

So why change now? One word – politics.

The selection of a replacement by the Assembly would give whoever is selected a large advantage at the Democrat’s May convention and in the general election in November.

The candidate would have a chance to serve in the public spotlight and run as an incumbent with all the advantages that provides.

And the person chosen would also have the state Assembly to thank for the good fortune.

A week ago, before Schneiderman resigned, there were no announced Republican candidates for the job. Since then two people have declared and several others are being considered by party leaders.

But the possibility that a Republican will win remains small.

New York is heavily Democratic, and no Republican has won a statewide contest since then-Gov. George Pataki in 2002.

So selecting a new acting attorney general gives Heastie and Assembly Democrats a great deal of power.

This is a frightening thought in a state known for its corruption.

In fact, as state Sen. Elaine Phillips correctly pointed out in 2016, more than 30 current and former state officeholders have been convicted, sanctioned or accused of wrongdoing in the past 10 years — more than any other state.

Heastie himself was elected speaker after the arrest of Sheldon Silver on federal corruption charges in a case led by then U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

Ironically, Silver was found guilty of political corruption a second time on Friday, amid Heastie’s machinations, after Silver’s first conviction was tossed out on a technicality. 

There is a precedent for the Assembly to choose a successor to Schneiderman – in the selection of state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

DiNapoli, a then state Assemblyman from Great Neck, was selected state comptroller by the Silver-led Assembly in 2007 after the resignation of Alan Hevesi, a former assemblyman from Queens, following his indictment for political corruption.

DiNapoli’s appointment was strongly opposed by then Gov. Elliot Spitzer, who rose to prominence as state attorney general and later resigned as governor following revelations of his involvement with prostitutes.

We don’t think you need to be a conspiracy theorist to see a trend here.

The resignation of Schneiderman, in fact, gives New York State a notable trifecta – the forced resignations of the three top people in the executive branch in the past 10 years. And the convictions of Silver and state Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who is awaiting a second trial, are a unique inside straight – the people holding the top five positions in the state resigning amid corruption charges.

A number of prominent Democrats are forgoing Heastie’s process but might run in the fall.

Among them are Bharara, former Nassau County District Attorney and current U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice and state Sen. Todd Kaminsky of Nassau County.

So the Democratic Party will have no shortage of strong candidates for the fall.

Add to that the important role the state attorney general’s office has assumed during the Mueller probe and the Assembly’s choice is clear – keep Underwood as the acting attorney general until voters can pick her successor in the fall.



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