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Legislature interviews Underwood, others as potential AG successor

Karen DeWitt

The state Legislature began interviewing candidates to replace Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who resigned over a domestic violence scandal.

Up first was the current acting attorney general, Barbara Underwood, who is the favorite to win the appointment.

“I think it’s an understatement to say that none of us expected to be sitting here today for this purpose,” Underwood told senators and Assembly members gathered Tuesday at a meeting room in the state Capitol complex. 

Underwood was New York’s solicitor general until May 8, when Schneiderman resigned after he was accused of assaulting four women in acts that included hitting, slapping and choking. Schneiderman denies the allegations.

Underwood, who said she was stunned by the “deeply disturbing” accusations, said she views herself as a competent caretaker who will provide continuity in the attorney general’s office. And she said she will pursue policies and cases now in motion, including more than 100 lawsuits that Schneiderman filed against President Donald Trump and his administration.     

But she made clear that she has no political ambitions and will not run for the attorney general’s post.

“I am not a politician,” Underwood said.

She said some people joke that the National Association of Attorneys General is actually the “National Association of Aspiring Governors.”

“There’s some truth to that,” Underwood said. “But I can assure you that’s not who I am.”

Underwood, speaking to reporters afterward, said she thinks the hundreds of attorneys who work in the AG’s office were reassured by her quick assumption of the post of acting attorney general, just one day after the accusations against Schneiderman were made public in the New Yorker magazine.

She said it’s been a busy week, and she considers it a great challenge during what she called an important time in the country.

“I’m not sleeping very much,” she said with a laugh. “I’m trying to do everything.”

Republicans who lead the state Senate favor Underwood, as does Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Several newspaper editorials have voiced support for her.

Although the state constitution says the Legislature appoints a successor when the attorney general’s post is vacant, in reality, the Democrats who lead the Assembly make the decision, because with more than 100 members, they have the largest faction in both houses.   

Assembly Codes Committee Chair Joe Lentol, the highest-ranking Assembly Democrat at the public interview, could not say whether Underwood would ultimately be chosen to fill the job. He said he and his colleagues take their constitutional duties seriously and are “unbowed” by the pressure.

“We believe that we have the constitutional power and right to do this,” Lentol said. “I think the framers of the constitution were smarter than we were, to allow us to provide the checks and balances against the executive branch that are necessary.”

There’s also a tight timetable for choosing a successor. On May 21, the state Republican and Democratic conventions begin. Several candidates who chose not to go through the Legislature’s appointment process are expected to compete for their party’s nomination to run for attorney general. They include Hudson Valley Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, New York City Public Advocate Tish James and Zephyr Teachout, who was a Democratic primary candidate for governor in 2014.

Lentol said he can’t commit to appointing the AG’s successor before the political conventions begin, saying it would be “difficult.” He said his committee will make its recommendation to the Assembly speaker, and then the full Legislature will have a chance to vote on it. 

Eleven others are asking to be named interim attorney general. Among those interviewed Tuesday were Assemblymembers Tom Abinanti and Danny O’Donnell, and former Congresswoman and New York City Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.