Barbara Underwood Approved as State Attorney General; First Woman to Hold Post

May 22, 2018 – The New York Legislature voted on Tuesday to confirm Barbara D. Underwood as the state attorney general, officially making her the first woman to hold the post and filling the sudden vacancy left by Eric T. Schneiderman’s resignation after he was accused of violence against several romantic partners.

Ms. Underwood, 73, was overwhelmingly approved by a joint session of the State Assembly and the State Senate, a week after she had effectively auditioned for the role in front of a bipartisan legislative panel here. At the time, Ms. Underwood, the acting attorney general, promised that she would not seek a four-year term in the November election.

But the symbolism of her appointment — in an age of #MeToo and renewed and reinvigorated calls for women’s equality in the workplace — was nonetheless deeply felt in Albany, particularly among female members of the Legislature.

“She’s broken glass ceilings before,” said State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who heads the Senate Democratic conference and is Albany’s sole female legislative leader. “And under these very difficult circumstances, I’m certainly happy that she will be breaking yet another glass ceiling.”

The appointment of Ms. Underwood capped a chapter in the staggering and sordid fall from grace of Mr. Schneiderman, a once-promising Democratic official, often hailed as a liberal bulwark against the conservative policies of President Trump, his frequent foil. On May 7, however, that groomed image collapsed after The New Yorker published an article with allegations that Mr. Schneiderman abused alcohol and drugs and choked and slapped four female romantic partners. He resigned within hours, and Ms. Underwood was soon installed, per a succession plan signed in March by Mr. Schneiderman.

Ms. Underwood’s confirmation comes as New York Democrats and Republicans are preparing to meet on Wednesday for their state conventions, and are expected to nominate candidates to succeed her. On the Democratic side, three women are seeking the job: New York City public advocate Letitia James; Leecia R. Eve, a former Clinton administration official, and Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and 2014 candidate for governor. Republicans have three men in the running: Manny Alicandro, a corporate lawyer who has previously worked for JPMorgan Chase; Keith Wofford, a Manhattan lawyer who declared his candidacy on Tuesday, and Thomas E. Humbach, the county attorney in Rockland County.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a second-term Democrat facing his own primary challenge from the actress Cynthia Nixon, waded into the attorney general’s race shortly after calling for Mr. Schneiderman’s resignation, saying he would conduct his own interviews with candidates. And on Tuesday, Mr. Cuomo endorsed Ms. James for election, calling her “a talented lawyer and a powerful advocate.”

The legislature’s actual action — required by the state constitution — was preordained and almost unanimous, but was accompanied by repeated testimonies in praise of Ms. Underwood, who had been serving as solicitor general before her elevation to New York’s top law enforcement position. In remarks in front of the legislative panel last week, Ms. Underwood cited an impressive résumé, including 20 appearances before the United States Supreme Court, a stint as a clerk for Thurgood Marshall and work in the Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys’ offices.

And on Tuesday, lawmakers again called Ms. Underwood supremely qualified for the job. “She’s competent, she’s capable, she has a stellar record,” said State Senator John J. Flanagan, the Long Island Republican who leads the Senate.

Ms. Underwood has taken over an office that has been shocked and rattled by the accusations against Mr. Schneiderman, who had been involved in dozens of battles with Mr. Trump, including one over Trump University, which resulted in a $25 million settlement paid to the state just after the 2016 election. More recently, Mr. Schneiderman had announced an effort to change state law to allow him to charge anyone pardoned by the president.

In her interview in Albany last week, Ms. Underwood said she intended to maintain an aggressive approach to Mr. Trump, saying, “The cause of justice and the rule of law have come increasingly under threat” during his administration. Citing the office’s efforts to fight both the president’s travel ban and his attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act, among other policies, she said, “And I assure you the work will continue, uninterrupted.”

Considering the glacial pace of many legal proceedings, however, Ms. Underwood’s successor will likely have more to say about how the state will approach Washington, where the landscape could change in November if Democrats flip the House of Representatives or Senate. New York is an overwhelmingly blue state, and whoever becomes the Democratic nominee will be the favorite in the general election, though Republicans have also seen an opportunity in Mr. Schneiderman’s demise to win their first statewide election since 2002.

For her part, Ms. Underwood has said she is not a politician but a lawyer. But she nonetheless seemed honored by her selection.

“I’ve served in many roles in government throughout my career,” she said, moments after the vote in the Assembly chamber. “But I believe this job, at this moment in history, is the most important job I have ever had.”

By Jesse McKinley, New York Times
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