Ferdinand Pecora, Banking Committee Counsel. Robert Moses, New York City Parks Commissioner. Sargent Shriver, Office of Economic Opportunity. Elizabeth Warren, Congressional Oversight Panel.
These are but a few names that should remind us of the potential transformative power that some of the more obscure government positions can hold. While our media trains us to obsesses over White House intrigue, public power -- i.e. power to shape society, culture, public opinion and policy -- is quite often wielded far away from Pennsylvania Avenue's palace dramas. So when the progressive movement is given the rare opportunity to put one of our own into one of these obscure-but-powerful positions, it is critical to carpe diem.
I write this because on September 14th, one of those opportunities has emerged in the form of Eric Schneiderman. A New York state senator with a stellar track record of movement organizing and progressive legislative achievement, he is suddenly on the verge of winning the Democratic nomination to become his state's Attorney General -- i.e. one of the most powerful economic and social justice policy positions in the entire country.
Among Schneiderman's claims to fame as a legislator are his seemingly impossible but wildly successful efforts to A) finally reform New York's abominably draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws and B) pass Ian's Law -- model state legislation that outlaws the most rapacious health insurance industry practices.
But while these achievements unto themselves are eminently laudable, to boil Schneiderman's career down to that of a mere legislator is to miss the larger story of the opportunity his candidacy presents.
This is a guy who has made his way in movement politics, serving as a top legal advisor to the Clean Money, Clean Elections campaign for public financing elections, and as the lead attorney for New York's Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) to preserve and expand public transportation. He is also a guy who has used his platform to push the Left to embrace the ideals and tactics of a true social movement. To really understand what that means - and why it exhibits real courage coming from a Democratic legislator - read Schneiderman's 2008 article in The Nation about how too much of the Left rejects what he calls "transformational politics" in favor of transactional incrementalism. Needless to say, it takes a lot of guts to be a sitting officeholder and write what he wrote.
I met Schneiderman in 2007, during my year-long reporting for my book, The Uprising. I was instantly impressed -- and I say that as someone who is, ahem, not often enthralled by politicians. I was impressed not because of the usual cliched skills political reporters fawn over (ie. charisma, well-spokenness, charm, etc.) -- I was taken by the rare existence of a person who has managed to be both a successful elected official and a hard-nosed, fearless movement leader willing to speak truth to establishment power.
Indeed, this comes out right away in the chapter about grassroots progressive organizing in the rough-and-tumble world of New York politics. Here's the key excerpt:
When I interviewed New York state senator Eric Schneiderman about the Working Families Party, he lamented that Democrats "basically killed off the ideological wing of our party" in order to win elections.
"Yet the Republican Party was the party where the ideological wing of the party grew, blossomed, and took control, and they've been kicking our ass ever since," he said. "Democrats still say, 'You don't want to vote against tax cuts, you don't want to be accused of being ideological.' Bullshit! Look who's been beating us! People with insane ideas. But they believe in them."
Where a typical tack-to-the-right Democrat might have sought to obscure this kind of honesty and courage in his/her first run for statewide office, Schneiderman has "proudly" doubled down, as the New York Times recently reported:
In a Democratic Primary, Trying to Stand Out as a Liberal
Bracing for what is expected to be a strong anti-Albany surge this fall, many Democratic candidates in New York have adopted the mantra of the middle, talking up pocketbook issues like jobs and taxes and focusing intently on moderate voters.
Then there is Eric T. Schneiderman, a state senator from the Upper West Side of Manhattan who is running for attorney general... Mr. Schneiderman is running a proudly liberal campaign that appears aimed at charging the race with a more ideological flavor.
He has emphasized his backing from public employees' unions, even as some other leading Democrats shun them. His advertisements sell his support for gun control and for reduced sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
For all of this, Schneiderman recently won the Times' much-coveted endorsement, with the paper's editorial board saying that "Schneiderman has courage, a strong voice and a deep commitment to ethical government" and has "demonstrated beyond a doubt his commitment to cleaner and more transparent government."
Now, let me guess -- you are thinking that, well, sure, the New York Attorney General position may be one of the most powerful policy positions in all of American government, but it's a Democratic primary, so anyone who wins would be a fine choice for the position.
Schneiderman's chief rival for the nomination is Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice - an anti-progressive avatar of conservadem-ism if there ever was one. Until 2005, she was a registered Republican, and before becoming DA, she was an assistant U.S. Attorney under GOP Attorney General John Ashcroft. As DA, the New York Times reports that Rice used her position to "express concerns about one of (the) most significant provisions" of Schneiderman's reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws: the provisions "giving judges the authority to send many of those charged with drug crimes to treatment programs instead of prison." At the time, Republican state senators specifically cited her opposition as a public reason to oppose the reform effort.
Again, though, this is not a mere run-of-the-mill choice between a solid liberal and an abominable conservadem (though it is that too). Schneiderman is much more than a solid liberal. He's a movement progressive - someone who actually understands what that term means and why it's so important for progressives to champion our movement in office.
To have the chance to put one of those movement progressives in a position as powerful as the New York Attorney General office (ie. the office that regulates Wall Street) is too rare to pass up. Let's not miss the chance while it's in front of us.