WASHINGTON ― It’s difficult to read the abuse accusations against Eric Schneiderman without thinking of the job he held: The people’s attorney.
The man responsible for championing the most vulnerable New Yorkers is the same man now accused of calling a woman of color his “brown slave,” telling her she should get breast implants, choking her until she couldn’t breathe. The same man who publicly backed the Me Too movement allegedly wielded his powerful position as a threat in private, reportedly telling a woman: “I am the law.”
The Democrat, who resigned Tuesday after the allegations surfaced in a New Yorker article the day before, has denied abusing the women, saying the actions were consensual.
The position of attorney general, a state’s chief law enforcement officer, is extraordinarily influential, touching everything from policing amid the opioid epidemic to environmental and consumer protections. It can also serve as a pipeline to higher office, like a governorship. And right now, men hold the vast majority of these jobs: Only 12 of the 56 state and territory attorneys general are women; most are white.
Campaigns are underway to make state attorneys general better reflect the populations they serve. Democrats have had at least 11 female candidates run for AG in 2018, including those who lost in a primary. Republicans currently have four. The Democratic Attorneys General Association launched the “1881 initiative″ last fall with the goal of ensuring that half of elected Democratic state attorneys general are women by the end of 2022. The initiative is focused on recruitment and training, and is named for the year when two women in separate states ran for the office despite not being able to vote.
“Women tend to look at the job more as protecting the most vulnerable in our community,” Ellen Rosenblum, the attorney general of Oregon who is co-chairing the initiative, told HuffPost. “Not to any way diminish the guys, because I think many of them do as well.”
The Republican Attorneys General Association is “always searching for strong and compelling candidates who will defend the rule of law and who have the experience to do the job,” spokesman Zack Roday said. “Female candidates are frequently the leading candidates for attorney general, not because they are female, but because they are the best person for the job. That is our focus.”
Tatewin Means, a former Oglala Sioux Tribe attorney general, faces a tough road running as a Democrat in a red state, South Dakota. But she’s taking on the challenge because she’s unhappy “with the status quo, with the usual course of business in the justice system and law enforcement,” she said. One of her areas of interest is addressing the overrepresentation of American Indian youth in the state’s justice system.
Means sees herself as relatable to South Dakotans because of the obstacles she’s had to personally conquer.
“With this field predominantly white male, there’s a certain sense of privilege attached to that,” Means said. “How can they possibly relate to average citizens that have to overcome those kinds of barriers?”
Erika Harold, the Republican nominee for Illinois attorney general, initially decided to become an attorney because of an experience she had in ninth grade, when she was subject to “severe racial and sexual harassment,” including slurs and a death threat, she said. Harold, a former Miss America, wants to reform the process of reporting harassment in the state legislature so victims don’t have to be afraid of retaliation.
“We absolutely need more diversity in the people who hold these positions,” she said. “With the advent of the #MeToo movement, we’re seeing how what we need is not only reform of the law but reform of our culture.”
Dana Nessel, a Democrat who has worked on everything from high-profile same-sex rights cases to investigating and prosecuting shootings by police officers, is running for attorney general in Michigan. Last November, Nessel, who would be the state’s first openly gay AG, published a tongue-in-cheek campaign ad: “Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting?”
“The reality is that judges, sheriffs, prosecutors and attorneys general need to look more like the populations they represent,” Nessel told HuffPost. As for that ad, she is “now trying to move on to another P word, which is policy.”
The cohort of women already went up one this week, when Barbara Underwood, a Democrat, took over as acting attorney general after Schneiderman resigned. Her position is temporary, but she’s the first woman to ever hold that job in the state, after hundreds of years of men. It’s very possible a woman could end up with the permanent position.
“It’s very hard to lose a colleague under any circumstances, but it’s not a surprise, in that we’re now hardened to the reality of what’s going on in our country… with respect to the way women are treated,” Oregon Attorney General Rosenblum said. “It absolutely must stop, and women in positions like mine are in a position to do something about it.”