ALBANY — Preet Bharara announced he had been fired as the top federal prosecutor in New York in a tweet at 2:29 p.m. The first reply, within 60 seconds, came from New York City Public Advocate Tish James.
Her message: “Run, Preet, Run.”
Bharara, a 48-year-old former aide to U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, has followed in the footsteps of predecessors like Rudy Giuliani and Tom Dewey in creating as much of a political as a prosecutorial profile during his eight years as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Manhattan.
His high-profile investigations included probes into Wall Street and ongoing political corruption cases have touched the inner circles of the administrations of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and have felled both Republican and Democratic leaders of the New York State Legislature.
There has been talk in New York political circles for more than a year about the prospect of Preet the candidate — for a variety of offices. It subsided in November after Bharara met face-to-face at Trump Tower with the then-president-elect and informed reporters that he was told he could stay on.
But Bharara’s ouster has upended the political orthodoxy in the Empire State, given his high profile and his ongoing cases involving close associates of De Blasio and Cuomo.
“For him to continue working for this president would have been beneath him. He walked out with his head up high, and he should consider running for office. He should remain in public office; otherwise it would be a disservice to New Yorkers,” James told POLITICO. “He rises above the fray, he focuses on corruption, he’s a man of integrity, he’s independent, he’s brash and he takes no prisoners.”
She declined to suggest an office, but there’s already been speculation about several. Mayor is one — De Blasio is up for re-election this year, as are other elected officials in the Big Apple. And despite his Manhattan base, there’s a case to made for Bharara as a statewide candidate in 2018.
He lives in Westchester County, north of the city, has brought more public corruption cases against the state’s elected class than the city’s and has frequently commented on what he sees as the “show me the money culture” of the Capitol.
“How can you fix big problems and dream big things if corruption is a draining focus?” Bharara asked last year during a speech to the state’s Conference of Mayors in Albany. “You just want your state legislators to be on the level. That should not be too much to ask.”
His recent caseload has spanned the state. In September, Bharara unveiled charges against members of Cuomo’s inner circle — former SUNY Polytechnic Institute President Alain Kaloyeros and Joe Percoco, the governor’s political adviser and surrogate brother — as well as contractors in Buffalo and Syracuse. All have pleaded not guilty; another longtime Cuomo confidante, Todd Howe, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors.
Raging against corruption is a time-tested campaign theme in New York. Cuomo, then the attorney general, made it the central premise of his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. In 2014, law professor Zephyr Teachout launched a Democratic primary against Cuomo, saying the governor had interfered with the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. (Bharara’s office probed that episode, but found “insufficient evidence to prove a federal crime” by anyone on Cuomo’s team.)
Bharara has a record that has won praise from both Democrats and Republicans. Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, a Democrat from Manhattan, tweeted, “I don’t always agree with Preet Bharara but overall he’s been great, fighting corruption forcefully, independently, and responsibly.”
Phil Oliva, a former congressional candidate and aide to Republican Westchester County executive Rob Astorino — a once and possibly future gubernatorial candidate — urged Bharara to run in a primary against Cuomo or U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
“I tip my hat to you, sir. You’re a Democrat but you aggressively went after all corruption no matter what side of the aisle it emanated from,” Oliva tweeted. “You’d be the best statewide Democrat candidate since Moynihan.”
This respect has yet to translate into popular recognition, though. Steve Greenberg, a pollster for the Siena Research Institute and veteran of previous statewide political campaigns, said Bharara is still unknown to most New York voters and would face hurdles if he were to run.
“The last time Siena polled on him was in June and two-thirds of New Yorkers didn’t know who the heck he was,” Greenberg told POLITICO. “He certainly has advantages over other potential candidates, but he faces a lot of the same challenges other candidates face. He’s got to become known to the voters, he’s got to raise money and he’s got to put together a campaign organization. He’s been a prosecutor for the last nine years, and that’s very different than being a candidate.”
And does he even want it?
In conversations with people who know his thinking, there’s little to suggest that he sees himself in elected office. According to one source who speaks with the U.S. attorney regularly, this side of politics just simply doesn’t come up.
They say part of Bharara’s strength has been his direct, and at times cutting, descriptions of elected officials and the “culture of corruption” that rules political power centers.
“My gut says he has no interest in it,” the person said, who asked to speak on background to discuss the sensitive nature of the topic. The fact that he’s investigated so many offices is sign enough that he has no interest, the person said.
“He can’t run for governor. He’s investigated the governor. He can’t run for mayor. He’s investigated the mayor,” the person said, adding that the occupants of the state attorney general, and its two U.S. senators “aren’t going anywhere” either, adding a practical concern that suggests there’s simply not a place for him to run.
In a statement released Saturday afternoon, Bharara said that “serving my country as U.S. Attorney here for the past seven years will forever be the greatest honor of my professional life, no matter what else I do or how long I live. One hallmark of justice is absolute independence, and that was my touchstone every day that I served.”
In public, Bharara has been coy. During a forum last year organized by WAMC, Albany’s public radio station, Bharara parried the question of whether he would seek elective office when his tenure as a prosecutor concluded.
“Given that Bruce Springsteen is in town,” the noted Boss fan said, “I was not born to run.”
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