NEW YORK — If there were any question whether New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman could withstand the accusations by four women of physical abuse, he answered it quickly: Three hours after the allegations surfaced on Monday, Schneiderman announced his resignation.
His departure, however, opened an array of new questions, about topics ranging from the fate of Schneiderman’s many legal challenges to President Donald Trump, the possibility of a criminal prosecution of Schneiderman and the race to succeed him as the state’s top law enforcement officer.
The last question took on particular significance given the prominent — and now, many said, ironic — role that Schneiderman occupied in New York and national politics, as a staunch and outspoken advocate for women’s rights and supporter of the #MeToo movement.
According to the accusations published in The New Yorker, Schneiderman slapped, choked or spat on at least four women with whom he had been romantically involved, two of whom spoke on the record. The horrific accusations included alcohol-fueled rages, racist remarks, prescription drug abuse and threats — including to kill the women or use his power as the state’s top law enforcement officer against them if they defied him.
As various names were floated as possible replacements — either in an interim capacity or as a candidate for a new four-year term in the general election in November — there was growing sentiment among leading Democrats in New York that a woman should get the job.
“I think a qualified woman would be great, especially in this time,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday at an unrelated news conference.
For now, a woman will lead the office: State Solicitor General Barbara D. Underwood will assume Schneiderman’s position until the state Assembly and state Senate choose a successor by a joint ballot.
In a statement, Underwood called the office’s work “critically important.” “Our office has never been stronger,” she said.
Underwood, a graduate of Harvard and Georgetown, has argued 20 cases before the Supreme Court and served as a clerk for former Justice Thurgood Marshall. She is the first woman to occupy the office.
Zachary W. Carter, New York City’s corporation counsel, called Underwood, who worked as his assistant when he was the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, “brilliant,” adding that “her North Star has always been doing the right thing under all circumstances.”
The Assembly Democrats met in a private conference Tuesday morning. Afterward, two sources with knowledge of the group’s discussions said it had not discussed specific names. But they suggested that the members seemed to agree they would like to see a woman fill the role and possibly a woman of color.
Carl E. Heastie, the Assembly speaker, who as leader of that chamber’s Democrats is likely to play an outsize role in the Legislature’s selection process, said “diversity does matter.”
The list of possible contenders to succeed Schneiderman is long and growing. Almost immediately after the allegations were first published, political observers began floating names.
They included Kathleen Rice, a U.S. representative from Long Island who unsuccessfully challenged Schneiderman in the 2010 Democratic primary; Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney from Manhattan; Alphonso David, Cuomo's chief counsel; Michael Gianaris, a state senator from Queens and chief political strategist for the Democratic conference; Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law School professor who ran for governor in 2014; Letitia James, the New York City public advocate; Carrie H. Cohen, a former federal prosecutor who handled the trial of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver; Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y.; and Benjamin Lawsky, formerly the state’s top financial regulator.
None except Teachout has publicly expressed interest and it is unclear whether they would also seek to run in the general election in November. Teachout said Tuesday that she was “seriously considering running.”
James declined to comment when reached by phone. A spokesman for Maloney also declined to comment. But a source familiar with his thinking said Maloney was “very seriously exploring” a run in November.
While Schneiderman’s resignation signals the probable end of a career that many had seen as gaining quick national prominence — he had emerged as something of a liberal darling, filing more than 100 legal or administrative actions against the Trump administration and congressional Republicans — the legal fallout is most likely only beginning.
A spokesman for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said Vance’s office had opened an investigation into the allegations in The New Yorker article. Schneiderman had, at the direction of Cuomo, himself been probing Vance’s office over questions about its handling of groping allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein in 2015. A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office did not immediately comment on whether that review would continue.
Separately, Cuomo also said he would direct a district attorney, or possibly multiple ones, to investigate the allegations, which took place in a number of counties and thus could fall under multiple jurisdictions.
“I want to make sure the district attorneys have no conflicts whatsoever with the attorney general’s office, either institutionally or personally,” he said. When asked if Vance should recuse himself, Cuomo said “it’s an issue that we have to look at.”