Preet Bharara is seeing all the texts, phone calls and DMs urging him to run for New York attorney general, including from some top operatives and Democratic donors. He’s hearing it from people coming up to him on the street.
And though Bharara is leaning against making a play for the job, according to three people close to him, the onetime powerhouse U.S. attorney fired by Donald Trump pointedly hasn’t said no, either. He wants to see how the next few weeks play out.
Among the people who’ve reached out, the sources said, are Mike Bloomberg consigliere Howard Wolfson and independent-minded GOP consultant John Weaver, along with a host of top Democratic operatives, donors and fundraisers.
“He’s the Eliot Ness that we need today,” said Weaver, who confirmed that he reached out to Bharara despite not previously knowing him. “I understand that he wouldn’t want to campaign, and it be distasteful. [But] in this case, it would be a crusade. And crusades are never distasteful.”
The pleas are partly a response to the sainted status that Bharara has achieved since he forced President Donald Trump to fire him last year by refusing to resign. But they’re also a sign of dissatisfaction with how the field of candidates for the plum law enforcement post is shaping up. The key qualifications are less about legal skills and more about who can navigate muddy New York politics compounded by the backroom machinations of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Then there’s the acknowledgment, mostly in quiet conversations among New York political insiders, that for an office with such a staggering portfolio, the list of announced and potential candidates doesn’t quite represent the best of New York City’s world-class roster of legal talent. In addition to rooting out corruption on Wall Street and in Albany, the New York AG’s office has taken the lead in suing the Trump administration on multiple fronts.
“It’s never going to be a complete universe,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) when asked last week if she felt the candidates already in discussion were the best New York has to offer.
“I don’t think we should pick an attorney general specifically to go after Trump,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), when asked last week if he thought the candidates currently in the field were ready to take on the president.
The candidate with the early momentum is Letitia James, currently New York City’s Public Advocate, who declared her candidacy on Wednesday and is backed by several unions and members of the New York City Council. James is believed to have the blessing of Cuomo and the powerful speaker of the State Assembly, Carl Heastie.
Other Democrats are considering bids, including Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), State Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Queens), Leecia Eve, a Verizon executive and Zephyr Teachout, a law professor who challenged Cuomo in a 2014 primary and ran for Congress in 2016.
Engel’s view is troubling to people eager to see the office continue being a leader in the fight, despite Eric Schneiderman’s resignation in disgrace after being exposed for hitting multiple women.
The New York attorney general office is particularly important because it has jurisdiction over Trump Tower and many other Trump properties. Schneiderman had also been pushing to be a backstop on potential federal pardons from Trump.
“You need a smart, forward thinking lawyer who has got a steel backbone and is really not afraid of what comes at him when doing the right thing,” said Gurbir Grewal, the New Jersey attorney general. “Now it’s important to have somebody particularly who’s got the background that someone like Preet has — being a prosecutor, having stood up for victims, having been in the fight before.”
Bharara has been paying attention to the maneuvering to replace Schneiderman, the sources close to him said. He’s made no plans or had any serious conversations about running himself, though he’s heard the speculation that he could run either in the Democratic primary or as an independent in the general election.
In the 14 months since he was fired, Bharara has been a regular on CNN, and done some podcasting and teaching. But he’s plainly been missing the fight — he’s joked that he wishes he still had subpoena power — and for a man who’s always loved the spotlight, being on the sidelines is frustrating, people who’ve talked to him say.
But he’s also authentically averse to the glad-handing and horse-trading of politics. And for all his aspirations, he’s never wanted an office he’d have to run for.
Asked in a POLITICO “Off Message” podcast in September if politics was in his future, he said flatly, “no,” and that anyone who believed he’d been setting himself up for a run was wrong.
There might just be something poetic to this situation, though: a campaign that seems to be calling out for an independent voice, on the grounds of a mission against Trump and the system rather than the usual political stepping stone, contrasted with the disgust at Schneiderman’s behavior. The campaign would unfold in so short an amount of time that it would enable him to avoid most of the sucking up to county chairs, fundraising and other downsides of politics.
Bharara made his name bringing cases against Wall Street executives and corrupt politicians, and since last year has become one of the most identifiable critics of the president, often focusing on what he says is Trump’s dangerous disregard for the rule of law.
To get on the ballot, he’d have to start collecting voter signatures by July. Between now and then, he can see who actually gets in and who doesn’t, and what sort of turmoil is kicked up at a state Democratic convention next week on Long Island.
Bharara didn’t return an email asking him for comment on his plans.
If he runs, Bharara would have to overcome the insular, largely machine-run world of New York politics. But if he ran and won, it could set up a clash with his long-running rival, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
For people unhappy with the state’s status quo or just looking for a good show, that’s exciting.
“If Cuomo were to think that Preet might be attorney general, it would be like kryptonite to Superman and would have the same effect on legislators on both sides of the aisle,” said Curtis Sliwa, a New York City talk radio host and activist who said he reached out to Bharara to offer him the Reform Party ballot line, which he controls.
Sliwa hasn’t heard back.
Not everyone shares Sliwa’s enthusiasm, and several sources said they think the whole episode is a media tease.
“Trolling, not running,” texted one Democratic operative. They note the complexities of running for office in New York and Bharara’s past statements on the subject — including on his podcast last week in which he said the AG post is a “very important job” but that “politics is not my cup of tea.”
It’s unclear whether Bharara, as a first-time candidate, could assemble an organization or enough raise money, said Siena College pollster Steve Greenberg. Bharara is worth seven figures that he gained from the sale of Diapers.com, founded by his brother, Vinit, to Amazon. While there are limits on direct contributions, Vinit’s net worth is considerably higher.
“He brings advantages: he has a great resume, he has a record of achievement as a law enforcement official. He is more well-known than any of the other potential candidates are likely to be on the front of the campaign,” said Greenberg.
But Grenberg cautioned, “I don’t think Preet Bharara or virtually anybody else can win statewide office on a minor party line. It hasn’t happened in New York for 48 years.”
Bharara does have an informal political apparatus that he can tap: the network fund-raisers, operatives and strategies who, like Bharara, have worked for Sen. Chuck Schumer over the years. Several political figures told POLITICO that they’d heard from Schumer hands in the last few days about keeping their powder dry.
Schumer is a reliable cheerleader for his alumni, but has been largely staying out of state political fights of late. Bharara and Schumer haven’t spoken about a potential race, a Schumer spokesman said. The senator himself, speaking this week in Troy, said, “I’m not going to be involved in the choice of the successor.”
The one thing a Bharara candidacy would do is bring some excitement to what was shaping up to be a footnote of an election. Blair Horner, a longtime government reform advocate and executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, doesn’t endorse candidates but said Bharara would be “considered the big dog.”
“He’s clearly cast a big shadow over the race where it was going to be a snoozer,” Horner said. “Given the, as he described it, cauldron of corruption at the state Capitol — I think the public wants the place to get cleaned up and he could certainly argue he fits the bill.”