Updated: The leading contenders to be New York’s next attorney general

Then-Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice speaks at a press conference hosted by Eric Schneiderman in 2013.
Then-Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice speaks at a press conference hosted by Eric Schneiderman in 2013.
Bebeto Matthews/AP/REX/Shutterstock
Then-Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice speaks at a press conference hosted by Eric Schneiderman in 2013.

Updated: The leading contenders to be New York’s next attorney general

A guide to Eric Schneiderman's potential successors.
May 13, 2018

The behind-the-scenes scramble by several prominent New Yorkers to take the spot has already begun, and the scene is very different than it was a mere seven days ago.

Since the Assembly and state Senate would vote as one body in this case, the Democrats, with their large majority in the lower body, would be able to select the candidate of their choosing.  

Any successor would have to run for reelection in November, so other ambitious politicians could enter that race. But being the incumbent would confer an advantage on whomever is chosen. Several potential frontrunners have chosen not to put their name in for consideration by the state Legislature, choosing instead to explore a run in the fall. A bipartisan panel of legislators will interview candidates this week.

Whether the person picked wants to stay in the seat for a full term will undoubtedly be a key factor in who is ultimately selected. So too will be the preference of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who held the office himself and backed another candidate when Schneiderman first ran in 2010. Due to the nature of Schneiderman's exit, many are calling for a woman to replace him, while racial diversity could play a factor as well, although Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s commitment to diversity could be called into question. Only white men have ever been elected to the office.

Here’s a rundown of a few of the big-name potential candidates to replace Schneiderman and the advantages and disadvantages for Democratic legislators to choosing each of them.

The old guard

These longtime Assembly members are high on the list to succeed Schneiderman, in part because they are known entities. They could also be seen as placeholder candidates, especially 75-year-old Lentol.

Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell

O’Donnell submitted his name to the panel to be considered for the attorney general post. O’Donnell has a history of advocacy, as he was a public defender for the Legal Aid Society and then opened a public interest law firm before he was elected to the Assembly in 2002.

Pros: He’s well-vetted, has legal experience and would be the first openly gay state attorney general.

Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti

Abinanti is the other assemblyman who submitted his name for consideration by the panel. Before he was elected to the Assembly in 2010, Abinanti was a legislative counsel in Congress and a staff counsel for the Assembly.

Pros: He’s well-vetted and has legal experience.

Cons: He’s a white man and has low name recognition.

Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein

Weinstein, who was elected to the Assembly 1980, became the first woman to lead the Assembly’s powerful Ways and Means Committee late last year. She previously was the first woman to chair the Judiciary Committee. Weinstein said that she wasn’t interested in being considered for attorney general. However, while she said that she was “not looking for a change right now,” that doesn’t preclude a run for the position in the fall.

Pros: She’s a woman, she’s well-vetted and she has experience in law.

Cons: She has low name recognition around the state.

Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz

Dinowitz was elected to the Assembly since 1994. Before joining the Assembly, he served as an administrative law judge. Although he was on our initial list of potential contenders, his chance of being appointed is low, as he is on the panel to screen attorney general candidates.

Pros: He’s well-vetted and has legal experience.

Cons: He’s a white man with low name recognition.

Assemblyman Joe Lentol

Lentol was an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn before he was elected to the Assembly in 1972. Although his name was bandied about as a potential “placeholder” for the position soon after Schneiderman stepped down, he’s unlikely to be named the replacement attorney general – he’s chairing the panel to screen candidates.

Pros: He’s well-vetted, has experience as a prosecutor, could be a “caretaker” for the seat.

Cons: He’s a white man, he would not be in the office for long, and he has low name recognition.

The hungry

These candidates are known to have ambitions for the office and have the finances to back it up.

State Sen. Mike Gianaris

Gianaris, who once served as counsel to the speaker of the New York Assembly, reopened a state campaign committee in 2015 to pave the way for a state attorney general run. He has $2.2 million in that account. He also recently lost his post as deputy Senate minority leader when the Independent Democratic Conference and mainline Democrats reunited. Gianaris did not submit his name for consideration but could be a strong contender should he choose to run in the fall.

Pro: He’s a prominent figure in the state Legislature, where he has been a leader on a number of progressive causes, including disability rights.

Con: He’s a white man.

Rep. Kathleen Rice

Rice, a congresswoman on Long Island, narrowly lost to Schneiderman in the primary for attorney general in 2010 when she was Nassau County’s district attorney. She has expressed interest in the position. Although she isn’t putting her name in for consideration, she’s considered a strong contender for a primary run.

Pros: She’s a woman and has relevant professional experience.

Cons: Her departure would leave a congressional seat open in a critical election year for Democrats.

The crusaders

Progressives on social media are championing the potential candidacies of these liberal leaders.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James

Almost as soon as news of Schneiderman’s resignation hit the Twitterverse, James’ name was whispered as a potential candidate to replace him. James has often been named as a possible 2021 mayoral candidate, and selecting her as attorney general would be a boon to Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., a potential mayoral candidate and an ally of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. James declined to run in this election cycle, but she is considered a frontrunner should she run in the fall.

Pros: She’s a woman, she’s a person of color, she has experience in law.

Cons: She has low name recognition around the state, may be too progressive for moderate legislators to stomach, may not fall in line with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Preet Bharara

Bharara, the Trump-fired former U.S. attorney for the Southern District-turned-podcast provocateur, has also been championed by progressives on Twitter as a successor to Schneiderman. However, he’s less popular with legislators in Albany – some of whom he has investigated for alleged corruption – than he is with the #resistance. Bharara has been approached about joining presumptive GOP gubernatorial nominee Marc Molinaro for a fusion ticket.

Pros: He’s a person of color, he has extremely relevant experience.

Cons: He’s a man, he may be too aggressive and he’s not well-liked in Albany.

Zephyr Teachout

Cuomo’s 2014 primary challenger is a professor at Fordham Law and another prominent critic of the governor. Teachout is clearly gearing up for a run, as she is already building campaign infrastructure with an “exploratory committee.”

Pros: She’s a woman, she has legal expertise.

Cons: She may be too progressive for moderate Democrats, would clash with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and she isn’t admitted to the bar in New York.

The safe picks

If these candidates were chosen or elected, it wouldn’t make any waves

Barbara Underwood

The current acting attorney general has indicated that she wants to stay put through the end of the year, which could offer some stability in an office recovering from political whiplash.

Pros: She’s the first female attorney general in the state and she is extremely qualified.

Cons: Her time in office has an expiration date.

Madeline Singas

The current Nassau County district attorney has made a name for herself as a reformer and she represents a politically crucial suburban county. She is not being considered by the Legislature as a replacement to Schneiderman. However, Cuomo named Singas the special prosecutor to investigate Schneiderman’s behavior, which could be the launch pad for a potential AG run in the fall.

Pros: She’s a woman with prosecutorial experience who represents a critical suburban county.

Cons: She has low name recognition and her departure would leave an important seat open for Democrats.

Alphonso David

Cuomo’s counsel and right hand man could fill Schneiderman’s post, which would put a staunch ally of the governor in a powerful position.

Pros: He’s a person of color, he has experience in law, he knows the governor’s agenda.

Cons: He’s a man, has low name recognition, and might be seen as too close to Cuomo.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul

At first, Hochul seemed like a natural fit, as Cuomo has been decidedly lukewarm about keeping Hochul on the ticket, and it’s too late for her to jump into the race against Rep. Chris Collins. Having her replace Schneiderman would free up Cuomo’s ticket without giving Hochul the shaft. However, Cuomo now seems to be emphasizing his commitment to  keeping Hochul on the ticket, and it’s unlikely she’ll be switching to the AG position.

Pros: She’s a woman with legal experience and some statewide name recognition.

Cons: She might be seen as too close to Cuomo.

The names on the list

Here are the names of candidates on the list: Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, former Spitzer advisor Lloyd Constantine, attorney Michael Diederich, Jr., attorney Nicole Gueron, former Brooklyn District Attorney and Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, Rockland County Attorney Thomas Humbach, state Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan, Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, attorney Mina Quinto Malik, former U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton counsel Leecia Eve, attorney Jennifer Stergion, Acting State Attorney General Barbara Underwood and attorney Alex Zapesochny.

The names formerly on the list

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, Jose Fernandez and David Yassky reportedly withdrew their names from consideration. Maloney may still run for the position in the fall.

Honorable mentions

Others who have been floated as potential candidates include: State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, state Department of Financial Services Superintendent Maria Vullo, former DFS Superintendent Ben Lawsky, former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, Assemblyman Sean Ryan, former federal prosecutor Carrie Cohen, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and former New York City Councilman Daniel Garodnick.

Grace Segers
is City & State’s digital reporter. She writes daily content on New York City and New York state politics.
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