Opinion & Blogs

Let the people select New York’s next attorney general

The New York State Capitol in Albany, Jan. 17, 2018. (Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times)

We in New York are very lucky to be one of 43 states that democratically elect our attorney general.

As the state’s chief law enforcement officer, the position is a crucial part of the balance of political power in Albany, and whoever holds it is tasked with representing the state while maintaining an independence from the government that it is part of. 

As someone with so much investment in the public trust, it only makes sense that the public gets to choose every four years who they think is best for such a job.

Not surprisingly, our leaders in the state Legislature would rather they be the ones who make the selection. And that’s what they are aiming to do.

Since two-term incumbent Attorney General Eric Schneiderman suddenly resigned two weeks ago just hours after The New Yorker published an article featuring four women accusing him of physical abuse, lawmakers have been scrambling to appoint a successor as soon as possible.

However, there happens to be an election this fall where the attorney general spot was going to be on the ballot anyway. Voters will have their chance to select Schneiderman’s replacement in five short months. Until then, New York’s solicitor general and acting attorney general, Barbara Underwood, is more than capable of leading the operations of the office without any interruptions that may have been caused by Schneiderman’s sudden exit.

Underwood has already announced that she doesn’t intend running to win a term of her own in November — and that’s her decision to make — but she also said that she would like to remain the interim until the end of the year to ensure the office still runs smoothly.

She should be allowed to do that, and the people should be allowed to freely choose our next permanent attorney general. 
Instead, in pure Albany fashion, the Legislature will shun the public’s voice and fill the vacancy themselves based on their own political opportunism.

It will essentially be the Democrats — led by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie — who select the next attorney general because of their numerical majority in a combination of both the state Assembly and Senate.

That means they could very well fill the position with one of their own kind. Selecting a fellow Democratic assemblyman or senator would conveniently put a career politician friendly to a legislative system known for its corruption scandals in one of the most high-profile law enforcement jobs in the nation.

Recent events would suggest that would not be a wise move. After all, Eric Schneiderman was a state senator for seven years before being elected attorney general in 2010. His critics at the time hounded that he was too enmeshed in the Albany culture and too much the political insider to do the job effectively.

Gee. Imagine that.

Not only would the Legislature be able to handpick one of their own comrades or some other New York government veteran, but their selection could very well be the attorney general long after the November election. Given that New York’s political incumbency re-election rate is consistently above 90 percent, it’s highly probable that whoever the Legislature picks would be given the money and resources necessary to squash any kind of competition this year, and the years to come. 

We’ve seen this before. In 2007, the Legislature picked a 20-year veteran of the Assembly, Tom DiNapoli, to replace state Comptroller Alan Hevesi, himself a 20-year veteran of the Assembly who had pleaded guilty to defrauding the government and would later go to jail. 

As comptroller, DiNapoli has done many good things for the state. But he has come nowhere close to losing re-election to the seat he was appointed to 11 years ago. 

To be an incumbent in New York means to almost be invincible. 

That’s why lawmakers should keep their hands off the attorney general’s office and let the democratic process play out in those five short months. Let Barbara Underwood do her job, and give those who want her job their fair chance to relay their message to the voters. 

It’s the ugly political system of New York that gave us Schneiderman to begin with. We’re not about to allow the same system to give us another career politician who abuses their office and betrays their constituents. The role of attorney general is too important to risk it. 

Luke Parsnow is a digital producer at CNY Central (WSTM NBC 3/ WTVH CBS 5/ WSTM CW6) and an award-winning columnist at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” online and follow his updates on Twitter.

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