When a New York jury convicted ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on bribery charges last week, the biggest winner might have been Preet Bharara, even though he was nowhere near the courtroom.
As the top federal prosecutor in New York, it was Bharara who brought the case against the once powerful Democrat, and the verdict may have cemented his reputation as a crusading corruption fighter. Yet, even before the jury came back, Bharara was already weighing a run for the suddenly vacant spot of New York attorney general — possibly doing so as an independent, free of ties to Democrats and Republicans, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
“Running as an independent, that would be the first defining message of his campaign,” said William Cunningham, an aide to three former New York governors and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP. “Being attorney general is an easy fit for a former U.S. attorney.”
Bharara’s name was floated as possible attorney general almost instantly after Eric Schneiderman quit as New York state’s top cop on May 7, following allegations of abuse by four women. Bharara, 49, served almost eight years as U.S. attorney in New York, where he spearheaded an historic crackdown on insider trading and targeted corruption in state government, before he was summarily fired by President Donald Trump on March 11, 2017.
But Bharara remains in the spotlight, hosting a popular podcast about law, justice and politics, and maintaining a frequent presence on cable news. In addition to teaching at New York University School of Law, he’s writing a book for which he reportedly received an advance of more than $1 million from publishing house Alfred A. Knopf.
He enjoys his new life, according to the person familiar with his thinking, who requested anonymity because of not being authorized to speak for the former prosecutor.
“It’s flattering,” Bharara said on CNN last week about the talk of him running. “Other people have put the thought out there. I’m not putting it out there. And I’m happy doing what I’m doing now. ” But he refused to rule it out during the interview and during his weekly podcast called, “Stay Tuned with Preet.”
Schneiderman’s replacement will play a big role in challenges to Trump’s policies ranging from protection of the environment to safeguarding rights of undocumented immigrants. The office also enforces state laws regulating Wall Street, non-profits and charities. Barbara Underwood, a Democrat who served as state solicitor general, is temporarily heading the office pending an appointment to be made by the Democratic-controlled state legislature.
Bharara has prosecuted both Democrats and Republicans and been criticized by leaders in both political parties. He’s also made it a bit of a habit to troll Trump on Twitter, telling the president Oct. 31, 2017: “Keep up the tweeting. Seriously, keep it up,” in response to a series of Trump tweets that followed the indictment of his former campaign Chairman Paul Manafort.
Bharara, who appears regularly on CNN as a commentator, has the resume to campaign successfully as an independent, said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who helped pull off the last upset in an election for state attorney general when Eliot Spitzer won the office in 1998.
“He has a great argument to make as a candidate: ‘I’m the only one who’s taken on corruption and sent politicians to jail.”’ Sheinkopf said.
The election calendar would work to Bharara’s advantage. Major party candidates seeking a statewide nomination must collect petition signatures from June 5 to July 24. Independents have from July 10 to August 21, which would give Bharara time to know the competition and test how much voter-support he could attract.
Bharara was born in India. Indian-Americans have the highest median income of all Asian immigrant groups, and more than 200,000 live in New York City alone, according to a study by the Pew Foundation. Bharara’s entrepreneur younger brother, Vinnie, is among the wealthiest, having sold a company he co-founded to Amazon.com in 2010 for more than $500 million.
“It would be a great show of power by that group,” to get him elected, Sheinkopf said. “He just has to find the right people to organize the campaign and help him do it.”
Bharara made headlines as U.S. attorney for a legal offensive on insider trading that led to cases against dozens of traders, corporate executives and hedge-fund insiders, including the still-jailed Galleon Group co-founder Raj Rajaratnam.
In time, he was criticized for overreaching and being too eager to make headlines; more than a dozen convictions were tossed out following a 2014 appeals court decision modifying insider-trading law. But recent developments have offered a measure of vindication. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in part with the position initially taken by Bharara.
Aside from raising the millions of dollars needed for campaign advertising in one of the nation’s most expensive television markets, Bharara, as an independent, would need to pull together a statewide organization of paid staff and volunteers that could compete with get-out-the-vote efforts run by the Democratic and Republican Parties, particularly in a year when they’ll be running gubernatorial campaigns.
Bharara won’t say, for now, what he’s thinking.
“It’s a very important job, especially important now, when the rule of law is under attack,” he said on his podcast, in a not-so-veiled criticism of the president.
He added, “I’ve said many, many times, politics is not my cup of tea.”
In other words: “Stay Tuned.”