I was Eric Schneiderman’s Labor Bureau chief for almost six years.
Our team did great work: We filed civil lawsuits against scofflaw employers and criminally prosecuted others who grossly abused their workers. We proposed laws to expand people’s rights; we issued reports to shed light on violations; we were tireless in our commitment to ensuring justice for vulnerable New Yorkers.
I left the office more than a year ago. Now that Schneiderman has resigned over allegations he abused former romantic partners, though, all anyone asks is, “Did you know?” Suddenly I am more popular than usual at my kids’ school: “When did you find out? Were there any signs?” No one has ever been so interested in my work.
It is not a great feeling to be the object of voyeuristic interest. The revelations about Schneiderman can make those of us associated with his administration feel a little awkward in public, slightly tainted by association. Our serious and high-minded endeavors are suddenly a punchline; imagine the lawyers handling Harvey Weinstein’s case describing their work at a cocktail party or family gathering?
I know most people will not lose the idealism that brought them to government in the first place, because I have been through this before: I also worked for years for former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in 2008 over reports he had hired prostitutes. Yes, it feels awful to learn the truth about a boss you felt proud to work for. But you do not go into public service if you do not believe in the mission, and not even revelations like this week’s can shake my faith that the work we did during those years mattered deeply.
To get it out of the way: No, I did not know. None of us knew. There were no signs, except for the baseline fact that anyone running for elective office is maybe a little off, sometimes in ways that greatly improve the world. But we did not know: We were too busy writing briefs and getting home late to our kids. We were too busy interviewing witnesses, reviewing documents, drafting bills — doing the work of the people.
It sounds corny, doesn’t it? But that is truly how most of us feel, whether we were protecting civil rights, preserving the environment, making sure consumers do not get cheated, or now, defending the country at large from a White House seemingly indifferent to the rule of law.
The first response for aides will be shock, disbelief and no small amount of fury, but the extent of the blow varies. Staffers who were deeply connected to Schneiderman experience a sense of betrayal that is personal, scarring. Some people moved to New York specifically to work for him; others left good jobs or turned down promising opportunities; some built their lives for a decade or more around his political career. These people will be emotionally devastated and professionally precarious. They do not know whether they will have a job next month or next week.
Other insiders may not be as personally connected to the elected official — I was not close with Schneiderman — so the betrayal is not quite to the bone. But the future is still in question, and people worry about almost-finished projects that could now become unfinished business, angry and resentful that one man’s personal failings could imperil everything the team has worked to build.
There has been something almost funereal about this week. Even though I no longer work for Schneiderman, I received a cascade of calls and emails from friends Monday night after the story broke. A college classmate I had not heard from in years. A long-ago neighbor. The support is encouraging. Less encouraging are the jokes and snarky emails: “Hey, you really know how to choose bosses.” With a smiley emoji.
After the initial shock wears off, aides try to understand, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible contrast between the person we knew and the person he turned out to be. Were there signs I missed? Is this just something that happens when people have power? Is it that the wrong kind of people are drawn to power? It is an endless regurgitation of the same unanswerable questions, a Groundhog Day of informal and ineffective group therapy and sometimes also drinks.
In the end, there can be no understanding — these are some of the great mysteries of the human soul — so the next step is to get practical and update the resume. Looking for a job is a little complicated. Last week, working for Schneiderman had cachet. Now, the credential that was once a feather in your cap feels instead like a piece of spinach stuck between your teeth, even though your accomplishments have not changed at all.
So, inevitably, what I found myself holding tight to when Spitzer resigned, and again this past week, was the work I did. That is what got me through it last time, and that is what will get everyone through it now. The accomplishments are real, no matter what.
I think back to my early days in government, when I was a line attorney directly handling cases. A greengrocer employee, who as a result of our investigation was able to work fewer hours for more money, told me with a shy smile, “Now I can take my kids to the park after school.” A bodega employee who was finally receiving minimum wage brought me a bag of clementines. “Que dios le bendiga,” he said, God bless you. (I checked with my boss to see whether I was allowed to keep the clementines; they were a gift, after all, and I was a government official.)
Throughout my career, I could see the people whose lives I was affecting, see their smiles, hear about their struggles and know my colleagues and I were improving their wages and working conditions. I did not do any of this for Eric Schneiderman. I did it for the workers and for justice. I did it on behalf of the people of the state of New York.
Most public servants are true believers. We choose to work for modest pay and little glory. When I used to send my mother news stories about our cases, she would get indignant: “Why doesn’t it mention your name? You did the case!”
That is how it works. The team does the work, and the elected official gets the credit. That is why this moment stings so acutely for behind-the-scenes staff — all credit went to Schneiderman alone, but will his discredit be shared by all?
My former colleagues are tough as nails. In the coming weeks, the news will be filled with Schneiderman and the parade of potential successors and questions about the future of “the resistance,” but the daily work will continue. As George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life.”
You will probably never hear the names of the lawyers who bring the cases, but they are tireless and brilliant; they believe in justice and fighting the hard fights and not giving up.
I was Labor Bureau chief in the New York State Attorney General’s Office for almost six years. I am proud of that still, and I always will be.