John Cahill
John Cahill ()

Virtually unknown, underfunded and trailing badly in the polls, Attorney General candidate John Cahill nevertheless trudges ahead with the one-step-at-a-time perseverance of a marathon man.

But then, he is a marathon man.

The 55-year-old Republican candidate is a triathlete, a competitor with the grit and endurance to swim 2.4 miles, then bicycle 112 miles, then run 26.2 miles, and train for those three events while practicing environmental law at Chadbourne & Parke and chasing Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in what the polls suggest is a very steep, uphill race.

A recent survey by Siena Research Institute indicates that Schneiderman is heading into the pivotal months of the campaign with a commanding 54-to-27 percent advantage among likely voters, 80 percent of whom either don’t know who Cahill is or don’t know enough about him to form an opinion.

Add to that the fact that Schneiderman has about $8 million to spend on his re-election effort, compared to Cahill’s $1 million, and the challenge seems daunting.

Yet, Cahill appears undaunted and clings to the conviction that the one-term incumbent is ripe for picking.

His campaign to date has focused on one theme: After 3 1/2 years in statewide office, following several years as an ostensibly high profile state senator, Schneiderman remains a mystery to most voters.

According to a Siena poll released Aug. 11, 59 percent of voters fall into the “don’t know/no opinion” column when it comes to Schneiderman. Even among members of his own party, Schneiderman is largely a stranger, according to the Siena poll, with 58 percent of Democrats in the dark about the attorney general.

Cahill says those numbers betray an AWOL attorney general who has done nothing memorable to earn re-election.

He accuses Schneiderman of sitting on the sidelines while New York City politicians attack charter schools, turning a blind eye to the Southern Tier’s economic needs by impeding the growth of hydrofracking, lacking the backbone to take on his former colleagues in the Legislature and, above all, neglecting to protect the so-called Moreland Commission from political pressure.

Silent on Moreland

The defunct Moreland Commission, and recent reports that the anti-corruption panel appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and staffed with Schneiderman-approved lawyers was largely neutered by the governor’s office, has dominated Cahill’s campaign theme in recent weeks.

Cuomo created the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption through Executive Order No. 106 on July 2, 2013 to pressure the Legislature to enact his ethics reform initiatives. The unique executive order used two separate subdivisions of the Executive Law to endow the panel with extraordinarily broad jurisdiction.

Under Section 6 of the Executive Law, the governor created the the commission, which by law has authority only to investigate the executive branch and its agencies—not the Legislature.

To get at the Legislature, the Cuomo Administration invoked Section 63(8) of the Executive Law. Under that provision, the 23 lawyers on the 25-member panel were deputized as assistant attorneys general, with Schneiderman’s approval.

Section 63 gave the commission the authority it needed to delve into the inner workings of the Legislature, as well as the power to subpoena lawmakers and their private sector employers, which in many cases were law firms.

But the executive order also vested the three commission chairs—Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, Milton Williams Jr. of Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard and Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick—with veto power over any subpoenas. No subpoena could be issued without the unanimous consent of Rice, Williams and Fitzpatrick, all of whom were appointed by Cuomo.

Several months after the commission was created, the Legislature gave in to Cuomo’s demands and passed some of his ethics reforms; in exchange the governor defunded the panel. Subsequently, Southern District U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara criticized what he suggested was a premature dismantling of the commission and issued his own subpoenas in an ongoing investigation.

Most recently, an investigation by The New York Times, expanding on other media reports, indicated that the Cuomo Administration attempted to micromanage the commission, despite assurances that the panel would be independent, and interfered with its investigation by discouraging the issuance of subpoenas that could potentially reflect poorly on the governor and his allies.

Despite the fact that nearly all of the commissioners were his deputies, Schneiderman has been largely silent about the alleged interference with their work. Cahill suggests that’s proof of the incumbent’s hands-off/go-along-to-get-along posture, and unbefitting an office that is supposed to be independent of the executive chamber.

“He wasted the best opportunity any attorney general ever had to investigate corruption in Albany,” Cahill said. “Why did he not take this opportunity that he was given under the Executive Order to really pursue corruption. This is beyond silence. This is obfuscation. Why did he not use his powers, why did he not protect his deputies if there was political interference when he claimed he was an independent authority?”

The Schneiderman camp noted that the attorney general’s jurisdiction is constrained by law, and usually a referral from another agency is required before the AG can take action. Cahill countered that the attorney general has all the power he needs to stand up for his own deputies if their work is obstructed.

In any case, Schneiderman has been asking Cuomo’s office for a standing referral on public integrity matters since 2010, to no avail.

Schneiderman’s campaign contends the incumbent has used his powers creatively and effectively to combat official misconduct.

“No attorney general in New York State history has been as aggressive in cracking down on public corruption as Attorney General Schneiderman, who has in less than four years prosecuted 40 politicians, government employees and nonprofit officials who abused the public trust—including legislators from his own party,” according to campaign spokesman Peter Ajemian.

Ajemian added: “He’s done all this despite the absence of original jurisdiction covering public corruption—a statutory weakness he’s fought to change—and helped overcome that constraint through an innovative and unprecedented partnership with the state comptroller. All of which leaves one to ask, simply: where on earth has John Cahill been on any of these issues?”

Schneiderman’s people say they are completely unconcerned that many New Yorkers don’t seem to know about him, and contend that prior attorneys general at this point in their careers were relatively unknown as well.

And they suggest that it’s comical for Cahill to complain that 59 percent of voters are unfamiliar with Schneiderman when 80 percent don’t know Cahill.

Public Sector Veteran

Cahill, while a novice as a candidate, is a veteran of the public sector, mainly as a top advisor to Gov. George Pataki. The two men met in the mid-1980s, shortly after Cahill graduated from Pace University School of Law.

At the time, Pataki was an ambitious but obscure politician and a partner at Plunkett & Jaffe, where Cahill was a new associate. They worked on a few cases together and forged a friendship that would eventually bring Cahill to the upper echelon of state government.

John Cahill with former Gov. George Pataki NY Daily News

A few years after Pataki was elected governor, he named Cahill general counsel and then commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Pataki later picked Cahill as his chief of staff, entrusting him to coordinate the monumental tasks of rebuilding of the World Trade Center site and restoring lower Manhattan following the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Cahill and Pataki are now colleagues at Chadbourne, where Cahill is counsel with a concentration in environmental and energy matters, as well as a partners in the Pataki-Cahill Group, a business development firm.

“He has a tremendous sense of justice and I think it is extremely important that a prosecutor or attorney general representing the state has a sense of right and wrong and a sense of justice,” Pataki said in an interview. “He sees the job as not about himself, but about upholding the rights of the people of the state.”

The former governor said too many public officials lose sight of the fact that they are employed by and entrusted to serve the public rather their own selfish interests.

“In politics, tragically now, it seems that for so many people in public office it is not about the people they represent, it’s about them,” Pataki said. “I see that time and again with prosecutor offices, where it’s all about getting a headline that can advance your political career. John Cahill does not have that type of ego, and he has a tremendous sense of justice and right and wrong.”

Cahill’s participation in triathlons is indicative of his spirit and competitiveness, Pataki noted.

“It shows his tenacity,” he said. “If he is pursuing something, he is not going let something as minimal as excruciating pain get in the way. He is very competitive, and he, like me, dislikes losing. When you take that will to do the right thing and the desire to win, and combine it with a tremendous work ethic, it creates the potential for someone who would be an outstanding public servant.”

Cahill’s roots are in the Bronx, but he largely grew up in Yonkers, the son of a staunchly Republican Irish bar owner father and a mother who hung John F. Kennedy’s portrait in the family room.

“The Kennedys certainly got me interested in public service,” Cahill said. “Even though I am a Republican, I have a soft spot for John and Bobby Kennedy. They tried to change the world.”

After graduating from Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, Cahill enrolled at Fordham University. It was there that his political views gelled.

“I was an economics major in college and I was studying and understanding the power of the free market and the power of the individual,” Cahill said. “I believe the government should be using its strength and powers to be empowering people. I saw the Republican Party having a better message of opportunity rather than dependency.”

After Fordham, Cahill seriously considered becoming a Catholic priest. “Faith has always been an important part of my life,” he said.

Cahill spent a year teaching religion at Archbishop Stepinac, his alma mater, and loved it, all the while with the priesthood on his mind.

But he went to law school instead, intending to practice labor law. He joined Plunkett & Jaffe because it had an extensive labor practice, but at the time the firm needed someone to do environmental work. Environmental law became, and remains, his specialty.

‘Smart’ Hydofracking

As an environmentalist and lawyer, Cahill favors the expansion of “hydrofracking,” a controversial method of blasting natural gas out of shale formations with water and chemicals. He insists hydraulic fracturing can be done safely, and would greatly benefit the economy in the Southern Tier and the areas along the Marcellus Shale region.

“I would not allow fracking in the New York City watershed or any New York State watershed,” Cahill said. “I would not allow it in our state parks. But there are areas of the state that are appropriate for developing this natural resource, not only for the economic benefit it would bring to the Southern Tier but the structural change. It would bring back manufacturing jobs in a very significant way in the Southern Tier, the Mohawk Valley and areas like Buffalo that really need job opportunities and economic growth. I think it can be done smartly. It has to be done smartly. It has to be done in a way that protects our water systems.”

Cahill said Schneiderman has impeded hydrofracking by filing what he termed a “meritless” lawsuit seeking to stop the process before it even begins. Schneiderman’s office said it merely filed the action to ensure that all necessary environmental reviews are completed before any hydrofracking takes place.

The challenger is equally critical of the incumbent for failing to stand up to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on charter schools, which the mayor is seeking to curtail. Cahill said the attorney general should be fighting that effort and battling to uphold state laws and education policy largely rooted in the Pataki Administration.

“I really see it as an attack on the ability of children to get a quality education,” Cahill said. “I think the attorney general could have been very proactive in that discussion. In my view, education is a civil rights issue. The attorney general had an absolute obligation to stand up and protect children from the political interests seeking to close these charter schools.”

Ajemian, the Schneiderman campaign spokesman, responded: “If Mr. Cahill wants this race to be about education, voters should consider his record, not his words: Cahill fought against equitable public school funding in the Pataki Administration and oversaw a budget that proposed massive funding cuts to public schools and SUNY.”

‘Loves a Challenge’

Cahill and his wife, Kim, have four children, including twins in college. They met when they were 15 and their first date was his freshman dance at Archbishop Stepinac.

The Cahills, who dated for 12 years, including a stint when John was seriously considering leaving the relationship to become a priest, are about to celebrate their 28th wedding anniversary. Kim said her husband’s commitment to triathlons reveals volumes about his personality.

“He loves a challenge,” Kim Cahill said in a recent interview, adding that her husband had gotten up at 5 a.m. that day and completed a three-hour workout before heading to the office. “He has only two gears—go, and go harder. He puts everything he has in it, and it’s the same with his family and his job. He is the hardest working person I know. He just puts everything he has into whatever he does.”

Kim Cahill said her husband’s underdog campaign is part and parcel of his loves-a-challenge/won’t-back-down personality.

“He loves this state, and I think he sees an opportunity to make a difference,” she said.

Cahill, acknowledging the Albany joke that “AG” stands for “aspiring governor”—two of the last three, Cuomo and Eliot Spitzer, used the office as a stepping stone to the executive mansion—said his political goals end at the attorney general’s office.

“I served in government for 12 years and understand the importance of government, and the role it can play to empower the lives of the citizens,” Cahill said. “I have worked with attorneys general and seen how they can be helpful and detrimental to the lives of New Yorkers. I believe I have unique qualifications to run for attorney general, having practiced law in the private sector, having practiced law in the public sector and having served in various roles in government I think I would bring a fresh and different approach to the office and realizing that the first responsibility of the attorney general is to be the lawyer for the people of the state of New York.”

Pataki, who was at least as much an underdog as Cahill when he upset Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994, said his advice to his partner is to “work hard, meet as many people as you can, have a message that regular New Yorkers can relate to.”

Cahill said he is following that guidance, campaigning in all parts of the state and mindful that upstate is crucial for any Republican candidate. The state is heavily Democratic, but the Democratic base is largely New York City-based.

Conventional political wisdom is that no Republican can win in New York State without carrying most of upstate. Cahill said the vast region beyond the Tappan Zee Bridge is, for him, the land of opportunity.

“One of the things I have noticed in traveling the state and talking about the race is nobody knows who the current attorney general is, particularly in upstate New York,” Cahill said. “I think when people see what is happening in Albany and consider the role of the attorney general in the Moreland Commission, and his total disinterest in the issue, I think it is going to be a compelling story about why we need a change. I think this can be a real competitive race.”