An Interview With Robert Abrams: New York’s Game Changer
David Miranda, host of the “Miranda Warnings” podcast, spoke to Robert Abrams about his years as New York State attorney general and about his recently published book, “The Luckiest Guy in the World,” a memoir that takes the reader through his three decades in politics. This is an edited version of the podcast. The full version can be listened to here.
Abrams was elected New York State attorney general, the first Democrat to win in 40 years, in 1978. He was known as a champion of civil and consumer rights and environmental causes. In 1992, he ran in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, defeating former Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, and Al Sharpton, but ultimately losing to incumbent Al D’Amato. After leaving the attorney general post, he went into private practice, but still served several state governors in various roles. In 2009, the Justice Building in the Empire State Plaza in Albany was renamed the Robert Abrams Building for Law and Justice.
Miranda: You transformed the office of attorney general. Talk a bit about how you changed the role.
Abrams: The original role of the attorney general was to defend the king of England after he established colonies in the New World. Each colony had a lawyer representing the interests of the sovereign. After the American Revolution, the elected governor of each state appointed a lawyer to represent the state. Decades later, in New York, the constitution was changed to have the attorney general elected by the Legislature, and then in 1847 changed again to have the attorney general elected by the people.
In the 1960s and ’70s, some attorneys general began their own investigations and my predecessor, Louis Lefkowitz, established civil rights, consumer and environmental bureaus.
I came to office as an activist and wanted to maximize the office for the people of the state. Let’s launch major lawsuits that could return significant amounts of money to consumers and compel companies to clean up toxic waste sites that poison the environment and endanger the public well-being. Let’s vigorously enforce antitrust laws exposing bid rigging and other monopolistic practices so New Yorkers can save hundreds of millions of dollars each year by having the opportunity to buy products with maximum choice at the lowest price resulting from free and open competition. I also thought it was important to strongly enforce civil rights laws in cutting-edge cases.
To do this vital work, we would need talented and dedicated lawyers and so I was committed to recruiting people on their merits. Even though I was elected, I didn’t want the patronage process to prevail. For the first time in the history of the office, I appointed a director of recruitment whose mandate was to professionally evaluate the resumes we received and to conduct ongoing training programs. We never inquired into people’s political affiliation and did not allow anyone working in the attorney general’s office to make contributions to my campaign. Our office became a magnet for outstanding lawyers, many of whom left higher-paying jobs in the private sector.
It happened that I was in office when Ronald Reagan was elected president and he believed in laissez-faire government. He believed in getting the government off the backs of the business community. And so, he put the consumer watchdogs to sleep, the environmental watchdogs to sleep. People couldn’t count on the federal government being involved in those important issues. So, as president of the National Association of Attorneys General, I reached out to other attorneys general, Republicans and Democrats, from small states and large states, and we worked together launching unprecedented multi-state investigations and prosecutions. I think we changed the office forever.
Miranda: As a result of the work that was done in the early ’80s, attorneys general around the country are now more influential. You had a fascinating start. You were elected to the state Assembly at the age of 27. By the age of 31, in 1970, you were elected Bronx borough president. You were a reformer. You didn’t come up through the political machine. How did you get involved, and how did you rise so quickly?
Abrams: Life is serendipitous. You can’t totally plan your life. I never dreamed that I would be an elected official.
It started in an interesting way. I went to Columbia College, and I took a government course with a very prominent professor, David B. Truman. He gave each student in the class an assignment to write about our congressional district. What are the boundaries? Who lives in the district? What’s the racial, ethnic, religious makeup? He also asked us to interview our representative. My congressman happened to be Charlie Buckley. He was the boss of the Bronx, a 30-year veteran of the House, the chairman of a major committee, Public Works. I tried to reach out to him by calling his district office in the Bronx but I discovered there was no district office. I called his office in Washington. I left a message the first time, the second time, the third time, and no one called me back. I had to submit the paper without interviewing my congressman.
I graduated and went on to law school at NYU, and while I was there Francis Adams, a former police commissioner, invited some NYU law students to his home and said, “Look, you are all going to become lawyers, but it’s not enough just to be a lawyer. You should be involved in your community. You should be involved in politics. You should try to be engaged in reform. You should try to improve your community and our society.”
A couple weeks after that reception, I got a phone call from the Bronx Pelham Reform Democratic Club in my Assembly district, and they said, “We heard you went to that reception. We’d love to get you involved in a campaign.” And they said, “We’re challenging Charlie Buckley in the primary.” I said, “Oh, that S-O-B, you got me.” I worked for the candidate who was running against Charlie Buckley and it all emanated from that.
Miranda: Would you please talk about your unsuccessful campaign to defeat U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato?
Abrams: I wound up in a very close race on election night against D’Amato, an incumbent whose fundraising and saturation of the airwaves was overwhelming. I lost by 1% with over 6 million votes cast. It was a handful of votes that really was the margin of difference, but I’m an optimist. You don’t dwell on setbacks. You’ve got to move forward. You put it behind you and you go forward and try to live your life, still trying to be productive. And that’s what I did.
Miranda: Let me ask you, is there an elected leader in New York today that you would call a “Bob Abrams” type political leader? Is there someone that you feel embodies what you had?
Abrams: I had my own role models. I admired Bobby Kennedy. I saw him as a man who was capable of change. He wasn’t sensitive to civil rights issues at first, but he shifted and became a passionate voice for the underdog. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy was so eloquent that night, trying to keep calm in the community, showing sensitivity. I was in law school when President Kennedy got elected; a handsome man, eloquent, inspiring young people to participate in the building of our country.
I think the current holder of the attorney general’s office, Tish James, is a trailblazer, the first African American woman elected to statewide office in New York. And she’s maintained the great tradition of that office, keeping it as a leader among attorneys general around the country. During the Trump era, we saw the curtailment of people’s rights, a cutback in environmental enforcement, a cutback in consumer enforcement and civil rights protection, and Tish James brought lawsuits to fight against that. She’s shown a lot of guts, a lot of independence, and she’s also shown it in terms of standing up against the governor.
Comptroller Tom DiNapoli is also a great role model. He’s competent, honest, decent, independent and hard working. He’s a first-rate public official.
Miranda: I know you’re a big Yankees fan. When you were Bronx borough president in 1970, the Yankees were thinking about leaving the Bronx, and you had a role in keeping them there. Tell us about how you kept the Yankees in the Bronx when they were thinking about going to New Jersey.
Abrams: I ran in a primary against the party bosses, against the machine for the Democratic nomination for Bronx borough president. And I won. And I kept reading in the newspaper that the Yankees were making threats that they might leave, and we had the backdrop of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants leaving years before, and the football Giants were threatening to leave. And I said to myself, oh my God, I’m going to become the borough president of the Bronx, and the Yankees, this world class institution, is going to leave . . . I can’t have that be my legacy.
So, after I won the nomination, I called up Michael Burke, the president of the Yankees, and I said, “Mr. Burke, my name is Robert Abrams. I hope you don’t feel this is audacious of me, but I just won the primary and I’m going to be elected to borough president because the Bronx is overwhelmingly Democratic. I’ve been reading the papers and I just want to know, is it true that the Yankees are thinking about leaving the Bronx?”
He said, “Yeah, yeah, we’ve got a lot of problems here and the mayor’s not taking care of us.” I said, “Can I come down to see you and talk about this?” And he said, “Sure.” So, I met with him and heard all the grievances about how the stadium was deteriorating, how people who were coming to the stadium weren’t feeling secure, how they needed more police protection, how they needed better road access, how they needed parking spaces. And he was telling me that he complained to the mayor, but nothing was ever done.
I said, “Look Mr. Burke, please, please, don’t do anything precipitous. I’m going to be your ally. I’m going to fight for you.” And I went down to see the mayor [John Lindsay] after the election, and I said, “I’m here to talk about the Yankees.” And I laid out all the reasons why we had to do everything possible to keep the Yankees. They were an economic generator. They were a source of prestige for the city and the Bronx. It would be devastating to the Bronx if the Yankees left. And I said, “Mr. Mayor, you owe me one. I bolted the party ticket – rejected the Democratic nominee Mario Proccocino and endorsed you on the liberal party line.” So I made this whole case. And by the end of the meeting, he said, “What you say makes a lot of sense.” And I put a proposition on the table. I said, “So look, Mr. Mayor, the city gave a commitment to Queens to build a new stadium for the Mets. They put $24 million in the budget to build a stadium. And I think the Bronx deserves no less. Put $24 million in the budget so that we can rehabilitate Yankee Stadium and do what’s necessary to give confidence to the Yankees that there’s a future here as their home.”
Negotiations followed and the stadium was rehabilitated, and the Yankees stayed and, obviously, they are still the most extraordinary sports franchise in the world.
Miranda: Can one person have an impact in bringing about change? What is your message to young people today who may be disillusioned?
Abrams: Margaret Mead, the great sociologist and anthropologist, said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I found that in my work with communities, a small group of dedicated people can make a difference and I found in my campaigns as well, that a small group of dedicated people can bring about an unexpected upset.
My message to young people today is you can’t drop out; you’ve got to roll up your sleeves, get involved, be on the front lines, run for the school board, work on the staff of a not-for-profit – seek public office, because we need your idealism, we need your energy, we need your commitment to make this a better world.
David Miranda is a former president of NYSBA and now serves as general counsel.