It’s always delightful to discover a candidate’s creative side. In an interview with 38-year-old Adam Schleifer over coffee in Armonk, we covered a lot of territory–including his acapella, choir and Glee Club participation at both Greeley High School and at Cornell University! But we also discussed in depth Schleifer’s most recent role as a no-nonsense, accomplished federal prosecutor in California and the issues he would prioritize and strengths he would bring to the table as Congresswoman Nita Lowey’s successor.
Growing Up in and Returning to Chappaqua
We met soon after a Chappaqua forum addressing controlling noise from Westchester County Airport, an issue important to both New and North Castle neighborhoods. No stranger to noise, spending his early years in Manhattan next door to New York Hospital, and sharing a room with a younger brother, Schleifer attended the forum “to learn about the flight path over New Castle” and consider ways to tackle the issue and affected residents’ unhappiness. “The questions are whether there’s more that can be done to have a curfew that’s more enforceable,” he noted, recognizing the noise caused by both private and commercial aviation and the need to “reasonably balance the infrastructure and commercial needs of the area with the livability of the area.”
Schleifer was in the second grade when his family moved from the city to a home near Kisco Park–a neighborhood he speaks of fondly. “It was like the Wonder Years… cul-de-sacs and streets branched off… I would ride my bike around, explore and get into minor trouble-but nothing too serious, thankfully,” he recalls. He also had a fantastic Greeley experience, remembering the sprawling campus and different buildings housing many school clubs. “It fit my sense of a really sophisticated, grown-up experience; it always struck me that if you went to Horace Greeley, you were prepared for the world.”
He also took full advantage of his years at Cornell, double-majoring in Government and Philosophy, singing acapella and playing baseball. Schleifer notes that he encourages others to embrace college as a time in life when “your entire job is to invest in yourself and learn as much as you can to develop the toolbox you can use to negotiate the rest of the world.”
Schleifer picked up a few more good tools at Columbia Law School, especially, he said, serving on Law Review and participating on a competitive international Moot Court team.
He was also a research and teaching assistant in Constitutional Law for Professor Michael Dorf, and also formed a close bond with other professors, including Professor Arthur Chaskalson, former Chief Justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court and member of Nelson Mandela’s defense team.
From Public Service to Private Practice and Back Again
After graduation, Schleifer spent two years as a federal law clerk, for both a Clinton-appointed pragmatic Democrat in the Southern District of New York, and, thereafter for a conservative appointee to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. As a result of working equally well with both, he realized that “it was the beginning of my sense that in government, in law, in policy and in politics, most of the time, there is a right answer to a question. The media can produce a a warped sense that everything is hyper-partisan.”
Schleifer then spent five years practicing commercial litigation with Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New York City, starting just weeks after Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy. “It was a tremendous time to start your career as a private attorney. The founder of the firm wasn’t sure if the western capitalist marketplace system would even be around in three months at that point.” But then Schleifer decided that he wanted to be in the public sector “partly out of an insight that banking and insurance were two sides of one financial coin,” and became a Special Associate Counsel for the New York State Department of Financial Services focusing on consumer protection issues.
Schleifer is most proud of having worked against a payday lending lead generator named Money Mutual, which was backed by “high finance” companies that collected and sold information about people intended to seduce certain communities–mostly of color and veterans–into agreeing to usurious payday loans via advertising by spokesman Montel Williams, who they trusted. Schleifer’s team removed those ads from the airwaves and “we shut down that practice as it existed in New York.” He also said that he did similar work with respect to the subprime auto lending industry as part of a team on the first-ever case brought by a state under the Dodd-Frank Act to enforce consumer protection spending laws. It was this type of work, he said, that inspired him to become an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Department of Justice.
As a federal prosecutor in California, Schleifer had the experience of being in court every day on behalf of the United States, eventually taking on more responsibilities regarding investigation, indictment and courtroom prosecution of crimes. He worked on everything from a prosecution of a motorcycle gang member dealing in large-scale distribution quantities of methamphetamine, to a gang’s conspiracy to traffic in illegal assault rifles and high-capacity handguns, to the murder of a federal agent by an international drug cartel, to “smog fraud,” where people were falsely certifying that their cars had passed emission standards.
Schleifer is particularly proud of his prosecutorial work on financial frauds, including a scheme by two Israeli brothers who took advantage of their own synagogue members and the immigrant community of the San Fernando Valley, essentially taking their money by claiming that they were expert investors. He worked on a similar matter where a Church member took control of a church primarily made up of elderly members, masterminding the multi-million dollar sale of the building and taking the money for himself. Schleifer noted that in many other areas of crime “we ask ourselves where the system may have “failed” someone, where someone who otherwise would have lived a life of honesty and rectitude was pushed by various circumstances to do things that were unfortunately anti-social and criminal, but in the fraud world, it is much more clear that many of these people are acting out of sheer avarice and laziness and vanity. I take this very seriously.”
Strengths and Priorities
“I have a record of achievement; I’m getting actual things done–like the Montel Williams case–but that’s just one example of actually working hard on behalf of New York borrowers to make New York markets more fair and to make the insurance and healthcare industries more fair and transparent,” Schleifer said of his qualifications, adding that his state and federal bipartisan experience sets him apart.
As far as what his priorities would be as Congressman, Schleifer noted that they have changed and evolved as he has engaged with people in the district. For example, local constituents are angry about the cap on state and local tax deductions: “that’s a cynical, unfair attack on blue states–that would be part of a broader repeal of the Trump tax bill,” he said. Schleifer added: “We need to make sure that at the higher levels, we have fiscally responsible, sustainable and fair marginal tax rates.
“I hope to accomplish many more than five things if I am elected… but I can say amongst the really important ones are gun legislation–universal background checks, it should be harder to possess a firearm than drive or lease a car, so that seems pretty common sense to me. There should be a ban on certain weapons of war, similar to some of the ones I took off the street in California.”
Schleifer is also committed to addressing climate change. “That may be number one because it is a matter of national security, international standing and intergenerational fairness. Everything else becomes a sort of arranging the deck chairs of the Titanic if we don’t have a healthy and habitable planet that we can leave to our children and our grandchildren.” He said that he would push very hard for a carbon tax “to disincentivize the production of additional greenhouse gases while also forcing companies that emit greenhouse gases to pay the full freight for the environmental cost that they impose.” He believes that green technology would benefit from the fair competition that would result, which would create more jobs, another one of his priorities.
Noting that gun control is the first step in addressing the rise in domestic terrorism and antisemitic violence, Schleifer adds that federal criminal laws–including the Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Prevention Act–already on the books are underutilized, but are now being more frequently used (as in the recent attack in Monsey). He wants to focus on “enforcing (these laws) in a tough way to stand up to the scourge of terror because in 2020, whether it is Jewish people or any other people, should not be attacked for exercising their First Amendment rights or for anything else–(such as) who they love, what skin color they have or freedom of religion. This is a shadow of barbarism that we cannot abide.”
Schleifer would also like to see a federal holiday on election day, at least every four years, and “we should be promoting both through interstate compact and through constitutional amendment” the abolition of the electoral college.
“It’s insane that in 2020, most of the country’s views are essentially irrelevant to the question of who becomes the president and that a few voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and maybe sometimes Nevada, Oregon, Washington or Arizona define our presidential conversation. Voters in Texas, whether they are blue or red, and voters in New York, whether they are blue or red should have a say in our presidency,” he said, adding that he would also push for things like a tax credit to incentivize voting and other methods to support fair and active voter participation.
Schleifer also has a personal connection and many views regarding the United States relationship with Israel, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors and the son of a woman who has devoted a large part of her life to supporting that relationship (Schleifer’s mother Harriett is President of American Jewish Committee). He recognizes the unfortunate politicization of the issue over the past four years, laying blame at both the feet of Congressional Republicans and the Israeli government.
“I think that we need to get back to the fundamental strategic reality, which is that the United States and Israel are close and mutually beneficial allies and that is not a question of partisanship, but a question of mutual interest. We should be mindful of the fact that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, which is a pretty rough neighborhood. They have been so for a long time in an area that is, to borrow from Martin Luther King, ‘suffers from the sweltering heat of injustice and oppression.’ Israel is in many ways the shining light of the region, and it is unfortunate that it has become popular to both hate Jews to hate Israel in some very ignorant and uninformed ways throughout the world and throughout all parts of the political spectrum.”
Schleifer points to the antisemitism demonstrated by left-wing politicians in Britain and France and right-wing would-be fascists in Germany as examples abroad, to both alt-righters chanting “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville and certain left-wing groups in the U.S. attacking our community.
Why Run for Congress?
Schleifer loved being a federal prosecutor, but when he was home for Yom Kippur last fall, his father had asked if he thought he would return to New York. That same day, Bet Torah Rabbi Aaron Brusso delivered a sermon on the troubling trend of “cancel culture”–noting how that on social media people are not engaging with each other as humans but rather are just trying to outdo one another. The sermon resonated with Schleifer, who while admittedly not particularly political and only a passive user of Twitter for news, felt despair over the state of the country and the president, who he calls the “bully/fraudster in chief.”
“I know how to take on bullies and fraudsters because that was my specialty for last the six years. Trump has done more to undermine our institution and our sense of constitutional governance than anyone, maybe ever, in our country,” Schleifer said. And he recalls that at the same time, he was reading More for Less by Andrew McAfee, which is about, as he calls it, the “four horsemen of the optimist: fair, efficient and vibrant capitalist markets, the resulting innovation, biological, technological, environmental advances, and free and informed citizenry with a responsive government. Schleifer thought “wouldn’t it be nice if our political leaders actually spent time thinking about real data and how to solve real problems.”
When he learned that Nita Lowey was not seeking re-election, Schleifer “felt like this problem was identifying itself to me. I felt that I had a record of concrete achievement at the state and federal level and that this was my home district and that I could make a real contribution.“
After a few weeks of discussion with his wife Nicole, who works in strategic communications, and discussions with stakeholders and individuals in his personal life and the world of politics, “I thought that I would come back home and give it a shot.”