With a resume that includes years in the top echelons of New York State government, and a significant career as a lawyer focused on environmental issues, John Cahill is confident that his skill set will bring a new and greater level of effectiveness to the state attorney general’s office should voters elect him come November.
Cahill is the GOP attorney general nominee seeking to unseat Eric Schneiderman, and he’s eager to put to use the experience he gained as the right hand man for former Governor George Pataki, who served three terms as the state’s chief executive. The Bronx-born son of Irish immigrants from Longford and Cavan held a number of key positions in the Pataki administration, and maintains that his deep knowledge of state government would allow him to hit the ground running come January 1.
And though Cahill is aligned with the Republican Party, like all good Irish Americans he could have gone either way back in the 1960s thanks to Democratic President John F. Kennedy.
“Growing up at the time I did, and with my parents being Irish immigrants, the Kennedys were a huge part of our lives,” Cahill, 55, recalled during a recent interview with the Irish Voice.
“My mom had a picture of the president and Jackie in our family room. My dad didn’t always agree with the politics of the Democratic Party, but when it came to the Kennedys, they had a special place in Irish households.”
The Cahills typified the Irish experience during that time. James Cahill owned a bar in the Rockaways where he met his Irish wife Margaret. They married, moved to the Bronx and eventually Yonkers and had six children in six years. James Cahill also owned a bar in Manhattan called the Broadway Tavern on West 97th Street, and one of his sons, Jimmy, is a publican in New York.
While many of Cahill’s friends played sports while growing up, he had another hobby influenced by his heritage – Irish stepdancing.
“Yes, I was eight or nine years old. I went to the Margaret Pike school. She had a lot of students at that time,” Cahill said.
“I can still do a couple of steps because I made my daughters Irish dance when they were growing up.” (Cahill and his wife reside in Yonkers and have four college-age children; the eldest just graduated from his alma mater, Fordham University.)
A visit to Ireland when Cahill was 13, his first trip across the Atlantic, remains etched in his memory.
“I went with my dad, and he hadn’t been back in Longford in 30 years which wasn’t unusual in the 1970s,” Cahill said.
“My dad saw friends he grew up with and it was like the days hadn’t passed. You could see that the bonds between people who grew up there were very special regardless of distance.”
Cahill remains a frequent visitor to Ireland, traveling there several times a year for business and pleasure. “With lots of friends and about 30 first cousins there’s always a reason to go back,” he says.
Politics were always a topic of discussion around the Cahill dinner table, and a career in law seemed a natural progression of young John’s keen interest. But before that passion was solidified Cahill taught at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, and also mulled joining the priesthood after leaving Fordham with a degree in economics.
“But instead of that I went to law school,” he says. “I just find the concept of being an advocate for a client as being very important and very intriguing to me.”
Not long after Cahill finished up at Pace University of Law and took a job as an associate at Plunkett & Jaffe, he came across George Pataki. They were assigned to work on a case together and have been friends and business partners ever since – the two also founded the Pataki-Cahill Group, a specialized business development firm.
Pataki was elected to his first of three terms as New York governor in 1994 and Cahill eventually joined his team at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which he led as commissioner from 1997-2001. After that he was appointed as Pataki’s senior policy advisor, and from 2002 until the end of Pataki’s term in 2006 he served as the governor’s chief of staff.
“Honestly, it was an honor every day to walk to the capital and be part of government at that level, to have an opportunity to have an impact, hopefully in a positive way, on the lives of New Yorkers,” Cahill recalled of his days in Albany.
“We were involved in many transformational issues, particularly with regards to the environment and preserving a million acres of open space throughout the state.”
Cahill was also appointed by Pataki to lead the state’s efforts to rebuild Manhattan after 9/11. “I had a lot of assignments with regards to the redevelopment of the site, and it’s something I’m very proud to have been a part of. There were so many emotions, and it was extraordinary for all of us who were involved.”
Representing the Pataki administration at all levels of state government – and dealing with Congress as well – offered Cahill the chance to get involved in many public policy issues. The years of experience, Cahill says, will allow him to serve New York as attorney general in a way the incumbent Schneiderman isn’t able to.
“I’ve dealt with the state legislature, I’ve dealt with Congress, I learned a lot about how to reach resolutions and how to move an agenda forward. And those are important skills that I plan on bringing to the job,” Cahill said.
“Having a knowledge of how Albany works, how government works, what it can and can’t do, combined with my background as a lawyer in both the private and public sector, I certainly understand the role and responsibility of the attorney general’s office. I have the background that could bring much benefit to the office.”
Schneiderman, currently in his first term, hasn’t worked hard enough for New Yorkers, Cahill feels.
“I don’t think he’s been an advocate for the people of the state of New York in the way an attorney general should be,” Cahill says, citing tuition tax credits as only one example of how he plans to use the AG’s office as a force for change.
“Parochial schools are closing all around the state which is detrimental to the communities that rely on them and will also overburden our already overburdened public schools,” Cahill maintains.
With significant support in Albany, the tax credit issue has nonetheless been mired in politics, and “the attorney general has been totally absent on the issue of education,” Cahill adds.
“This is why we need someone in the office who understands the workings of the Assembly and why it hasn’t come to a vote, and to put pressure on the assembly that would force a vote and give a lifeline to these schools.”
While Cahill is a firm believer in being “a steward of the land,” he also feels that the controversial process of hydrofracking, which Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to rule on, should be allowed to proceed in limited circumstances.
“There are places in the state which have done manufacturing and industrial processes for a long time where we can extract this natural gas which would be a boon for the upstate economy,” Cahill feels.
“And let me tell you, the people upstate are hurting. We have been hemorrhaging jobs there. I believe if we do fracking correctly we can provide jobs and cheaper energy.”
Cahill says that if elected, he would be a strong supporter of immigrant rights in the state. Being a son of immigrants, he adds, has definitely informed his position.
“I support the federal DREAM Act, and I support the New York DREAM Act,” he says.
“As the son of immigrants I understand the struggles that immigrant families have to go through to provide for their children. And ultimately we will all reap the benefits. I’m not going to discriminate against children.”
Cahill is hoping to put to good use his old Irish dancing skills he learned as a child on Election Day, November 4.
“I’d definitely like to do an Irish victory jig,” he laughs.