Schneiderman and Cahill Blast Each Other In Fiery Attorney General Debate

Schneiderman and Cahill Blast Each Other In Fiery Attorney General Debate

Schneiderman and Cahill Blast Each Other In Fiery Attorney General Debate
October 31, 2014

The fireworks were decidedly on display last night, as incumbent Attorney General Eric Schneiderman squared off against his Republican challenger, John Cahill, in their one and only debate at Hilbert College, just south of Buffalo.

Whereas Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his GOP opponent Rob Astorino mostly played it safe and were relatively low-key in last week’s gubernatorial debate, Schneiderman and Cahill did not bother to disguise the contempt they have for one another and traded body blows in the form of rapid-fire accusations and obscure details of law enforcement that sometimes left the crowd a little dizzy.

Schneiderman led off an opening statement in which he defended his record. “I have worked every day to see that ordinary working New Yorkers know that there’s an officer in place who’s going to defend their rights, no matter who I’m up against,” he said. “I took on the banks that brought down the American economy and have recovered more money for the state than any attorney general in history. We’ve brought $4 billion back for New York and New Yorkers. It’s helping thousands of people stay in their homes. We’ve taken on drug gangs and broken up twenty major rings, confiscated drugs, gotten guns off the streets and provided bulletproof vests for police officers. … And I’ve taken on the culture of corruption across the state, bringing more public corruption cases than the office ever has. Fifty now, including members of my own party.”

Cahill immediately responded with allegations that Schneiderman has let scandalous behavior by fellow public officials slide in order to win support for a future run for higher office. “I’m running for attorney general for one simple reason: to be a public servant that serves the interest of the state of New York,” he said. “And you know, the attorney general has an important role in being an independent voice for integrity in state government. And when politics overrides that office, bad things happen: things like not standing up when there’s interference in your office in political corruption; like standing next to the Assembly when there’s sexual harassment of young women in the workplace; or standing idly by when Mayor de Blasio attacks charter schools in New York City; or having your political consultants run roughshod over your office.”

Cahill’s opening remarks set the tone for a markedly combative debate. Within minutes, he slammed Schneiderman as being out of touch with voters in Upstate and Western New York. “The simple reason that people don’t know the attorney general is that he hasn’t traveled the state,” Cahill said, referring to Schneiderman’s low name recognition with voters despite his having served in statewide office for nearly four years. “You can’t stay in the Upper West Side of Manhattan or in your office in lower Manhattan and know what’s going on and know what the concerns and issues are that face New Yorkers.”

Cahill then stabbed even deeper. “When it comes to domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, [Schneiderman] sided with Shelly Silver and attempts to quiet sexual harassment in the workplace,” Cahill said, referring to the case of former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who resigned last year after being accused of sexually harassing female staff members.

“A little equal time here…” Schneiderman complained.

“You’ve had plenty of time,” Cahill retorted.

That exchange got Schneiderman’s gander up, and he promptly called Cahill’s insinuation “repugnant” and hit the theme he would return to over and over: that Cahill has no positive vision for running the attorney general’s office, and is running a campaign predicated wholly on negative attacks.

At times, the two candidates became so testy that members of the audience broke out in guffaws. On one occasion, Cahill came back to his theme that Schneiderman has compromised enforcing laws against public corruption in order to curry favor with politicians when he presumably runs for higher office. “As Eliot Spitzer once said, AG doesn’t stand for attorney general. It stands for aspiring governor,” Cahill said.

“I appreciate your aggressiveness here,” Schneiderman snarked back.

“It’s not aggressiveness!” Cahill insisted. “It’s passion about the job and the role of the attorney general.”

And on it went. On the subject of the Moreland Commission, Cahill accused Schneiderman of being oblivious to the alleged obstruction stemming from the Cuomo administration, while Schneiderman said that if Cahill knew anything about law enforcement, he would know that attorneys general don’t publicly comment while an investigation is ongoing. Firing back, Schneiderman accused Cahill of lobbying Albany on behalf of energy company clients, a charge Cahill denied. “If I had a conversation with a person that had no business before the state … if I sat down with a person to say, ‘How’s your wife and kids?’ Is that lobbying? No.” Schneiderman scoffed at Cahill’s explanation, dismissing it as mere semantics.

The combination of legal details and open hostility made for an alternately fun and mystifying night. By the end, the debate had clearly defined how the candidates wish to be perceived: Schneiderman as a diligent fighter for the rights of ordinary New Yorkers, and Cahill as a defender of the law who won’t cravenly sit back as politicians corrupt Albany and harass their own employees.

“My opponent has run a wholly negative campaign,” Schneiderman concluded. “I can’t answer every lie and misstatement he has made, but I am still waiting for the detailed list of policies and proposals, like the ones I put out four years ago, that would tell people something about what you’re going to do.”

“Eric Schneiderman ran four years ago on two major points: he was going to clean up corruption in Albany, and he was going to hold people accountable for the biggest financial fraud this country has ever seen,” Cahill responded. “Well, Albany hasn’t changed. And to this day, not one person, not one person is in jail for the biggest financial fraud in the history of our country.”

Both candidates had their backers in the Swan Auditorium last night, separated down the aisle. But mirroring the public polling indicating that Schneiderman is significantly ahead in the race, the attorney general’s supporters drowned out Cahill’s.

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Chris Thompson