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Campaign Postcard: On the Trail with AG Candidate Eric Dinallo

Thursday, July 15, 2010

WNYC

Come September, New York State Democrats will pick one of five candidates in their party's primary for Attorney General. WNYC's Bob Hennelly is checking in with all of the Attorney General wannabes and has this postcard from Eric Dinallo's campaign.

Everyone in the five-way Democratic Attorney General field has the same problem. How do all these equally well qualified -- but equally unknown -- competitors break out of the pack? It's not easy when all the candidates show up for a press conference -- and all have the same position.

At a recent press conference on a bill dealing with the "stop and frisk" practices of the New York Police Department, former state Insurance Superintendent Eric Dinallo tries to stand out, explaining why keeping a database on innocent New Yorkers is wrong.

"Like if we took away the Fourth Amendment then you could come into everyone's home -- I am sure we would find some cases of criminality, but that is not our system. If it butts against core Constitutional principles, even if it undermines people's belief in our civil liberties, that would be reason enough for the governor to sign the bill," he says.

Dinallo was a prosecutor in Robert Morgenthau's office -- but so were two other candidates. Dinallo was also one of Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's top lawyers. That put Dinallo in the lead of several high profile cases where he helped recover $1.4 billion for the public from the biggest players on Wall Street. He says Washington's failure to properly regulate the markets is still exacting a price on households across the state and nation. 

"Maybe it is better for the banks and the markets writ large, but for the average citizen it is still a hard slog," he says.

Dinallo has never been a candidate, but back in the spring, his dogged shoe leather strategy of visiting all 62 counties paid off. He won the straw poll at the Rural Democratic Conference in Niagara Falls. Now it is the endless gauntlet of forums -- from local community settings to the rarified air of law offices where the attorneys charge an hour what some people make a week. At 6 p.m. Dinallo and the rest of the Democratic field made their way to a midtown cocktail party -- a candidates' forum at the offices of a multi-national law firm. 

Most of Dinallo's resume is dominated by public service, but as a former managing director at Morgan Stanley, he is more than comfortable making his case in this venue 19 stories above street level.

"And no other candidate has the experience, has stood up to the health insurers, Wall Street and other large institutions as a public official as I have and that's sort of the vision I see for the office," he says.

When the structured part of the candidates' forum is over, reporters want to know about allegations another Attorney General candidate was involved in a hit-and-run car accident. Dinallo refuses to spin a rival's bad press day to his advantage.

"A lot of it comes down to the facts," he says, "and until you have facts it is probably a good idea for the chief legal officer for the state, or if you want to be, to just hold your opinion."

Reporters want controversy, or at least for somebody to dish on controversial personalities. So the assembled press move on to Dinallo's former boss, Spitzer. Will Spitzer make it on CNN, the candidate is asked.

"He was thoughtful and provocative as Attorney General," comes the response. "I hope he does it for a substantial amount of time."

Dinallo latches onto an actual question on policy like a lifeline. He says local governments and independent authorities need greater scrutiny. He says OTB's filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy should be a wake-up call. As AG he would push for more transparency for the multi-billion dollar municipal bond market.

"And now I think we need to make sure that there is adequate and fair rating of municipal bonds," he says, "because if they [the credit-rating agencies] make the same kind of mistakes that they made for the corporate side and on the structured side, you will see the creditworthiness of municipalities blow up."

The buffet is pretty well picked over and the ice is gone. For Dinallo the public day and night are over. What's left?

"I'll probably do some phone calls and do some cramming like anyone who studies for the continuing debates that are coming up," he says. "But as far as public appearances are concerned I think I am done."

Well, not quite. Someone approaches and introduces himself. A photographer asks if Dinallo would like a photo with the man and a couple of others.

"Sure," the candidate says.

It's a group shot, and maybe four votes.

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