By John Celock
New York lawmakers have begun the search for a new state attorney general with several candidates pointing to another as the most qualified.
A joint legislative committee on Tuesday launched two days of interviews with a dozen candidates to fill the remaining seven months on the term of former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D), who resigned last week following accusations of sexual misconduct. Candidates for the post outlined their own visions for the office but also noted support for acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood continuing in the job.
“Because I know Barbara so well and worked with her in developing extraordinary constitutional cases, if it is your will to select her I have no problem with that,” former U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-Brooklyn) said, noting that Underwood worked for her when Holtzman was Brooklyn’s district attorney.
Underwood received 90 minutes of questioning from lawmakers at the beginning of the hearing, with lawmakers probing her background in 12 years as the state’s solicitor general and her prior experience in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, along with her service as principal deputy U.S. solicitor general and six months as acting U.S. solicitor general.
Underwood touched on her experience in the state attorney general’s office and her prior experience in saying that it gave her the background to lead the office for seven months. Underwood noted that she would not seek election to a full term this year in the office.
“The fact that I will be not be distracted by any political activity will let me have the office move forward on all the great work it is doing,” Underwood told lawmakers.
Underwood said that she has spent the past week as acting attorney general focused on moving the office past Schneiderman’s sudden resignation and she has garnered support from the office staff. Underwood has gained support statewide for the legislative appointment including from legislative Republicans, influential clergy members and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). Cuomo first tapped Underwood for state solicitor general, when he was elected attorney general in 2006.
Underwood said that she would continue the cases launched by Schneiderman, including against the federal government, along with cases relating to consumer protection issues. She also noted that her background as serving as a top deputy in the office, gives her knowledge about the management of the office and the operations across divisions.
Underwood told lawmakers that she would not make any management changes in the office and that if the next elected attorney general offered her the solicitor general’s job she would consider staying on in that role.
Lawmakers also heard from Assemblymen Thomas Abinanti (D-Greenburgh) and Danny O’Donnell (D-Upper West Side), state judge Doris Ling-Cohen, Holtzman, former gubernatorial aide Lloyd Constantine and Port Authority Commissioner Leecia Eve.
Abinanti stressed his three decades in elective office and noted that he did not have plans to run for the attorney general’s office this year. He said that he would serve the seven-month term and run to regain his Westchester County Assembly seat. Abinanti faced questioning from lawmakers on his management experience, noting that he currently runs a small legislative office and the attorney general runs a 1700-person agency. Abinanti noted that previous attorneys general had not run large agencies before taking the job, including former Attorney General Oliver Koppell (D) being an assemblyman before he took office in 1994.
O’Donnell, the brother of comedian Rosie O’Donnell, found most of his interview focused on his four-year tenure as chairman of the Assembly Correction Committee. O’Donnell said that he spent much of the time touring the state’s prisons in order to gauge the conditions of the prison system and develop policy recommendations for the state Department of Correctional Services. O’Donnell moved over to the chairmanship of the Assembly Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development Committee last year.
Holtzman’s interview focused primarily on her four terms in Congress and two terms as Brooklyn district attorney, along with her four years as New York City comptroller. Holtzman was first elected to Congress in 1972, and her tenure included service on the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings and a stint as chairwoman of the Immigration Subcommittee. Holtzman left Congress in 1980 to unsuccessfully seek a U.S. Senate seat.
Holtzman was elected to the district attorney’s office in 1981, the first woman to be elected a chief prosecutor in New York City. Holtzman said that during her tenure as district attorney she stressed a need for prosecuting solid cases.
“As DA, I stressed that convictions are not the most important thing, justice was,” Holtzman said.
Holtzman also noted that she stressed hiring qualified people during her tenure as district attorney and in the comptroller’s office. She noted this included hiring Underwood and former U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter.
Holtzman, who said that she is considering a run for attorney general in this year’s election, said she would also use this for hiring in the attorney general’s office.
“If you think you know all the answers you’re wrong,” she said.