It’s been 20 years since a Republican won an election for attorney general in New York State.
But John P. Cahill, who is expected to officially declare within the next two weeks his Republican candidacy for the state’s top legal post, remembers all too well the days when the GOP reigned supreme. As a top aide to George E. Pataki during the former governor’s 12 years in Albany, Cahill found himself at the center of a string of Republican victories.
Now, despite the financial and party enrollment advantages enjoyed by incumbent Democrat Eric T. Schneiderman, Cahill is attempting the revive the state GOP’s long exile from a statewide post.
“The term ‘people’s lawyer’ was one Louie Lefkowitz used to use all the time,” Cahill said during a swing through Buffalo on Friday, referring to the longtime former attorney general. “He’s there to serve the interests of the people.
“I would be there with no political agenda and not seeking some higher office,” he added.
The Yonkers resident, who now shares a law practice with Pataki, once served as one of Albany’s top behind-the-scenes figures. He was the governor’s powerful chief of staff from 2002 to 2006, and oversaw much of the state’s rebuilding efforts in lower Manhattan following the terrorist attacks of 2001.
His most visible role was as commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation from 1997 to 2001, where he now says he gained vast experience in enforcing the state’s environmental laws, as well as implementing a $1.75 billion environmental bond act approved by the voters in 1996.
Friday, he breezed through Buffalo in preparation for the May 14-15 Republican State Convention in Rye Brook, where he is expected to join a ticket headed by gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive. Cahill said he is ready to make a strong case for a challenge to Schneiderman because of what he considers a lack of action in key areas.
“I see the Attorney General’s Office and don’t see an impact it is capable of having,” he said.
Cahill listed three areas as his focus:
• Being “tough but fair” in dealing with business.
• Serving as an advocate for education.
• “Taking seriously” the responsibility of enforcing public integrity and rooting out official corruption.
A graduate of Fordham University and Pace University School of Law, Cahill says he will avoid former Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer’s “sheriff of Wall Street” approach to regulating business. He acknowledged the special role the New York attorney general holds in supervising many aspects of the financial industry, but says the focus should be on creating a level and fair playing field. He will not shy away from taking on business when needed, he said, but will not pursue it for political purposes.
“AG should stand for attorney general, not ‘aspiring governor,’” he said.
The candidate also said he would strictly interpret the state constitutional requirement to provide children with the best education possible. That means advocacy for all schools, he said, including charter schools and pushing for educational tax credits for private schools.
“The AG should weigh in because he’s entrusted with a constitutional duty,” he said. “Parents and children should have a right to choose their education.”
And Cahill said he believes Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Moreland Commission to Investigation Public Corruption would never have been necessary if the attorney general seriously pursued violations of public integrity.
He sees few results from the commission that Cuomo formed and then disbanded.
“It didn’t change anything; it was an opportunity unfulfilled,” he said. “We still have an underlying lack of confidence in government. That’s where the attorney general should step in.”
Cahill knows he faces a tough challenge in a state where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans. But he said he believes he can make the case to enough Democrats and unaffiliated voters to vote for him, and that a Republican can still win in New York.