While a new poll showed the Democrat leading his Republican opponent in New York's attorney general race and many voters yet undecided, both promised strong anti-corruption initiatives while also taking repeated swipes at each other in their first debate Friday.
The Quinnipiac poll showed state Sen. Eric Schneiderman leading Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan 43 to 32 percent. But 24 percent of those surveyed were undecided, and 39 percent of those who selected a candidate said they might change their minds by the Nov. 2 election.
"I have a three-pronged plan to clean up Albany and the corruption that lies there," said Donovan, noting he has prosecuted fraud cases.
His plan is to give the attorney general clear jurisdiction in corruption cases, require lawmakers to provide more details about the state money they steer to nonprofit groups and require those legislators to disclose their outside income.
With a staff of more than 600 lawyers, the attorney general's office defends the state in lawsuits, protects consumers, files civil suits, monitors charities and sometimes conducts investigations and prosecutions.
"Albany is a mess. I'm proud to have been recognized as a leader in the movement to reform Albany," Schneiderman said, citing the effort he led to oust fellow Sen. Hiram Monserrate. "I've been a reformer when it was lonely in Albany."
The state government has been rocked by corruption cases, most recently with former Comptroller Alan Hevesi admitting in court Thursday that he took almost $1 million in campaign donations, gifts, and sham consulting fees to a lobbyist friend in return for favoring an investment firm when he was in charge of the $130 billion pension fund for public employees.
Both Donovan and Schneiderman said that the law should change so state workers like Hevesi convicted of felonies lose their state pensions. Both also said they didn't have enough information to say whether Hevesi, who was investigated and prosecuted by current Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, should get the maximum sentence of four years in prison.
Schneiderman said his No. 1 change if elected would be expanding the office's public integrity branch to have staff assigned regionally where people could safety bring complaints against state or local officials. He praised Cuomo for having expanded that role, including a corruption case against state Sen. Pedro Espada, accused of misusing state grants for personal gain at his Bronx health clinics, allegations Espada denies.
Donovan said past attorneys general had different emphases, Eliot Spitzer getting a reputation as "sheriff of Wall Street," Cuomo investigating student loans. "I'm going to make my focus public corruption," he said, adding people were tired of seeing New York as the butt of jokes on "Saturday Night Live."
Donovan also questioned how Espada with Schneiderman's support became majority leader of the Senate Democrats.
Schneiderman replied that he recently endorsed Espada's election opponent. "He's not somebody who's ever been a political ally of mine," he said.
Both candidates condemned hate and bias crimes, including those against illegal aliens. Donovan said he has emphasized in Staten Island that they will never ask a crime victim or witness his or her immigration status.
Asked why the number of murders and rapes rose in his borough from 2004 to 2009, Donovan pointed out that those were raw numbers, and the population also grew during that period. He said on average, there have 14 murders per year for the past seven years, compared with 25 per year previously.
Schneiderman said while district attorneys take credit for reduced crime rates, it's a good question when crime increases.
Schneiderman denied the Donovan campaign's charge that he would be "a radical left-wing attorney general"; the Democrat said his positions are "essentially identical to Andrew Cuomo" and he is "in the political mainstream." Schneiderman also defended his previous remarks about the Rev. Al Sharpton's group House of Justice having "an annex" in Albany if he were to be elected attorney general. Schneiderman said he meant he would be "a voice to the voiceless."
Donovan denied the Schneiderman campaign's allegation that he would be soft on Wall Street crime. Though noting the financial industry provides three million jobs, he said as attorney general he would continue as he has as a prosecutor, pursuing corruption wherever it is and following the law "without fear or favor."
The WABC debate was live online and is scheduled to air on television Sunday at 11 a.m.
The Quinnipiac poll of likely voters has a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.