The Patience of Schneiderman

ALBANY–It had been a long day.

State Senate Democratic leader John Sampson was finally debating the chapter amendment to an ethics bill that wouldn’t pass, and was wilting under a grilling from John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican. Unable, finally, to answer Flanagan’s question, Sampson deferred to the slender man on his left, who rapidly stood and buttoned his suit jacket, the first words falling out of his mouth before his eyes had moved from his desk to Flanagan’s perch across the chamber. Sampson’s savior was Eric Schneiderman.

After a crippling month-long stalemate in Senate, Schneiderman, 54, has emerged as a more central force. He is recognized by his colleagues and those watching the Senate as one of its brainiest members–education: Trinity, Amherst, Harvard Law–and he has settled into a role as political strategist, house legal geek and agitator for progressive legislation like a weatherization bill and drug law restructuring.

This week, Schneiderman was announced as leader of a panel charged deciding the fate of Senator Hiram Monserrate, a Queens Democrat who had just been convicted of misdemeanor assault for dragging his girlfriend to a hospital after what his lawyer convinced a judge was an accidental cutting of her face with a piece of glass.

“I think he’s the consigliore,” Senator Neil Breslin, an Albany County Democrat, said of Schneiderman. “I think he’s a policy wonk, and he’s someone that everyone acknowledges as a quiet leader within the conference.”

But Schneiderman, who is weighing a run for attorney general once Andrew Cuomo launches his almost certain campaign for governor, is also a man conflicted about where he is. The Monserrate case is just the latest in a string of embarrassing acts by some of the chamber’s members–the acts include nepotistic hiring, an uncontrollable “amigos” faction, an attack by a member on the car of a newspaper photographer, The Coup–that prompt a basic question: why would anybody with half a brain stay?

Schneiderman’s initial response is to excuse his colleagues. The Republicans had screwed things up badly when they got here, and the Democrats couldn’t get it together between the November election and a leadership vote in January so they had no transition, and besides, it’s “completely unrealistic for folks to think that we could turn this huge, battleship around in a couple of months.”

Schneiderman said that Sampson is hiring good people and is “a very smart, very deliberate, deliberate guy” and look, it hasn’t been all bad.

When pressed, repeatedly, about the fact that most of it has, in fact, been bad, Schneiderman said, “I think with a 32-seat majority, we’ve had a very, very rocky road. Have people done things that I didn’t like and in some cases were tremendously made me upset and angry? Sure. But we’re working our way through it and in the long run, this is a Democratic state.” (The Democrats occupy 32 of the chamber’s 62 seats, although one of the members, Monserrate, may not be long for the Senate, and at least three others are in the habit of using the party’s razor-thin margin of control to, effectively, hold the leadership hostage.)

Schneiderman, who represents the Upper West Side, has a background in law, and in political activism. He graduated Harvard Law in 1982, worked as a clerk in the U.S. Southern District before starting to practice privately at Kirkpatrick and Lockhart. He has served as lead counsel for the Straphangers Campaign for previous lawsuits, and has done other pro bono work. He used to be married to the powerful labor operative and consultant Jennifer Cunningham, with whom he has a 16-year-old daughter.

First elected to the Senate in 1998, Schneiderman has been an outspokenly partisan member of the Democratic conference since long before it was cool, relevant, or meant a damn. It was Schneiderman who, frustrated with the glacial political strategy of the former leader of the Senate Democrats, Marty Connor, orchestrated David Paterson’s 2002 push to oust him. He served as floor leader under Paterson, and was one of three or four to whom Paterson promised the reins of the conference when he became lieutenant governor.

Malcolm Smith ended up taking that prize, and Schneiderman was largely frozen in place. His colleagues say he was somewhat humbled by the loss, which was as much a product of  deals cut and promises broken as it was Schneiderman’s personality: the smartest guy in the room, the same way Eliot Spitzer was.

“You might be the smartest guy in the room and you might not be homecoming king,” said one person close to Schneiderman familiar with the dynamics of the Senate. “But the homecoming king is going to come to you when he’s facing a tough exam.”

While there are four Democratic factions in the chamber and three titular leaders, Sampson, a bulky lawyer from Brooklyn who is stingy with his words, is actually in charge. Schneiderman insists he’s happy to help in the cat herding, and just maybe put through some of the legislation he’s lusted for years. He’s not alone in this purgatory.

“Eric and I talk about this frequently, that we are just child-like in our enthusiasm to be part of a majority affecting policy,” Breslin, another person with frustrated ability, says. “It takes up a great deal of time. It’s brought about a renewal in some of us.”

“We are now still struggling to get our sea legs,” Senator Liz Krueger said. “And I don’t necessarily believe we will have the combination of members of the senate we need until after the 2010 election, where I believe we will have some additional Democrats and some different Democrats.”

In the meantime, there’s nothing to be done but wait. Krueger concedes that 2010 has all the chances to be as hellish as 2009. She’ll stick it out. Breslin says he will, too, even with the means and age to retire at will.

Schneiderman’s exit strategy is much more complicated. Political strategists say he would run statewide from a position of strength in a primary, building on a fund-raising base of Manhattan progressives (on Oct. 14, he held an event with Richard Ravitch at the Upper East Side home of Jill and Barry Lafer) and playing credibly for a large portion of the black vote for his work on drug-law restructuring. Others who might seek the Democratic nod are State Senator Jeff Klein, Assemblymen Richard Brodsky and Michael Gianaris, former insurance superintendent Eric DiNallo and Tom Suozzi, the Nassau County executive.

“Look, I don’t think this is the last job I’ll ever have, but right now I’m fully engaged,” Schneiderman said. “Everyone in New York State has an interest in seeing the governor doing well and succeeding and getting us through this horrendous fiscal crisis. I think it’s quite premature.” The Patience of Schneiderman