The Pirro Factor

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y.-Jeanine Pirro’s choice may not make for a best-selling book-as Hillary’s Choice did in 2000-but on the summer stage of New York politics, she’s playing the role of Hamlet.

The Westchester District Attorney is choosing between a tough campaign for the job of State Attorney General and a dramatic, perhaps kamikaze race for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, with a Fox News gig as the consolation prize.

And so the camera-friendly prosecutor spent last weekend on a beach in Rye, reading a book about the crucible of Presidential politics-Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, a searing account of the 1988 national campaign. It was an appropriate choice, because it’s clear that Mrs. Clinton’s future opponent, whether it is Ms. Pirro or somebody else, will have to deal with questions about the Senator’s Presidential prospects.

Does Ms. Pirro, with her glittering jewels and anchorwoman coiffeur, have What It Takes?

“That’ll be up to the people to say,” she told The Observer over a cup of coffee in her White Plains office on May 31. “I do believe in me.”

Ms. Pirro, who turns 54 on June 2, is the New York Republican Party’s brightest star. A prosecutor who made her name going after gruesome cases of domestic violence and child abuse, she is the top choice of state Republican leaders to take on Mrs. Clinton, despite the eagerness of lawyer Edward Cox, Richard Nixon’s son-in-law, to make the run. But Ms. Pirro, in some ways the perfect candidate against Mrs. Clinton, also has a glaring political liability: Her husband is a convicted felon. Last week, she announced that she wouldn’t seek re-election to her current job, and she said she will announce which statewide office she’ll be seeking in 2006-associates say the choice is between a U.S. Senate seat and the State Attorney General’s office-in the near future.

“If she wants to get elected, she has a better shot at Attorney General,” said the Reverend Al Sharpton, a self-described “unlikely friend” of Ms. Pirro who met her a decade ago when she prosecuted a white police officer for shooting a black man. But Mr. Sharpton noted that if Ms. Pirro wants a national stage, she’ll take on Mrs. Clinton. “The right wing will deify her just for challenging Hillary,” Mr. Sharpton said.

A run for State Attorney General would mean combat with whoever emerges from a messy Democratic primary that already includes Andrew Cuomo and Mark Green. But that prospect, while formidable, looks like an easy lift compared with the odds of defeating Mrs. Clinton. The Senator’s strong poll numbers aside, no challenger has defeated a sitting New York Democratic Senator since decades before direct elections to the Senate began in 1914, and the state tilts more heavily Democratic each year. Senate Republicans have a harder time: Senators Kenneth Keating, Jacob Javits and Alfonse D’Amato all lost re-election bids in the second half of the last century.

On paper, Ms. Pirro has the credentials of suburban Republicans who win in Democratic states: Like Governor George Pataki, she favors abortion rights. She has pushed for hate-crimes laws that protect gays and lesbians. More recently, she has allied her office with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s environmental group Riverkeeper. And unlike Mr. Pataki, she is fierce and charismatic, a lock-’em-up prosecutor whose 2004 memoir-cum-policy-rant was called To Punish and Protect.

“I do believe she could win that [Senate] race,” said the state Republican chairman, Steven Minarik.

State Republican officials and Ms. Pirro’s backers have also said Ms. Pirro is the national Republican Party’s first choice, pointing to a telephone conversation between Ms. Pirro and Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman.

But a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, poured cold water on that contention. “We are not involved in that primary,” the official said, referring to the jostling between Ms. Pirro and Mr. Cox.

And Ms. Pirro’s allies on the social left are imploring her to stay out of the Senate race and say that they’ll jump ship if she runs against Mrs. Clinton.

“Jeanine Pirro is 100 percent pro-choice and has a tremendous record to run on. Jeanine’s success as Westchester D.A. gives her the experience to be a great Attorney General,” said Kelli Conlin, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice New York, in an e-mailed statement. “However, no one is more effective than Hillary Clinton in pushing an effective plan to improve women’s health by reducing the number of unintended pregnancies. We will do everything possible to re-elect Hillary to the U.S. Senate.”

A Millstone

And while Ms. Pirro’s had an enviable record as a prosecutor, she has a millstone around her neck: her husband, Al, a lawyer and lobbyist, and the father of their two children. Mr. Pirro first surfaced as a political liability after Ms. Pirro was briefly the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 1986. She was forced to withdraw after allegations that a carting company in which Mr. Pirro was a partner had ties to organized crime.

In 2000, Mr. Pirro, then a major player in Westchester real-estate law, was convicted and jailed for tax fraud for identifying the Pirros’ expensive cars and the gates outside their home as business expenses.

More recently, Ms. Pirro was forced to thump the desk indignantly in an interview with the Daily News, after a reporter asked her about a wiretap in which a reputed mobster, Greg DePalma, bragged of getting information about Ms. Pirro’s office, indirectly, from her husband.

Mr. Pirro recently filed a slander suit against another reputed mob associate and former client of Mr. Pirro, who allegedly was the source of Mr. DePalma’s claim.

“Is it any surprise that those in public office whose last names end in a vowel … the presumption is that there’s a connection,” said Ms. Pirro, who is of Lebanese descent but whose husband is Italian-American. “The only difference is, I put these people in jail for a living.”

Of her potential race against Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Pirro said simply: “It’s not about either of the husbands.”

Despite that assertion, some Republicans have been eager to draw a comparison between the scandal-tarnished Mr. Clinton and the formerly incarcerated Mr. Pirro.

“You want to talk about Al? Let’s talk about Bill,” said another Westchester Republican, Mark Edelman.

Similarly, several Democrats said they relished the notion of comparing Mr. Clinton-a popular figure in this Democratic state-with Mr. Pirro.

Mrs. Pirro said that she wouldn’t seek re-election this year in order to avoid the, well, Hillary-like situation of running for one office with an eye on another. But several Republicans said they believe Ms. Pirro backed out of a re-election campaign in part because, after a close re-election in 2001, her advisors were worried that the latest allegations about her husband might make it harder for her to win.

“If she’s not running this year because she’s worried about losing, because of the issues with her husband, how does she think they disappear by waiting for next year?” asked Brendan Quinn, a former executive director of the state Republican Party.

Ms. Pirro called that theory “hogwash” in a good-humored interview with The Observer, in which she also dodged the details of some pressing federal issues, like President Bush’s Social Security plan, Middle East politics and the Federal Marriage Amendment.

“When the time comes, we’ll discuss all of those issues, and you’ll know everything about me,” she said.

She was more forthcoming on some issues she has already touched on directly. She called the state’s Rockefeller-era drug laws “out of synch with our society,” and while she hasn’t been a figure in the current push for a wide repeal of the laws, she said she has worked to steer addicts toward treatment and away from prison.

She has a prosecutor’s fondness for the Patriot Act, the package of legal tools that Congress-with the support of Mrs. Clinton-gave police and prosecutors soon after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

“At the end of the day, I come down in favor of the Patriot Act, clear and simple,” she said.

Ms. Pirro would not go into detail on her support for abortion rights, but an official at an abortion-rights advocacy group said she has previously told advocates that she backs the right both to partial-birth abortion and to abortions for minors without parental consent.

“It’s part of who I am,” Ms. Pirro said of her support of abortion rights. “I have seen many things over the years that have brought me to this position of being pro-choice, [including] children who are unwanted and end up being abused, some of them being murdered.”

The state’s Conservative Party, sometimes a crucial power broker in statewide elections, has backed Ms. Pirro’s attempts to strengthen state laws on detaining sexual predators, but her stances on social issues-including support for gays and lesbians to be included in hate-crime legislation-could prove a stumbling point in a run for Senate. No Republican Senate or gubernatorial candidate has won statewide office without Conservative Party support since Javits’ last re-election, in 1974.

“It’s not something where you put your finger up and take a poll and decide where you stand,” she said of her views. “If I did that, I wouldn’t be who I am. People said in 1978, ‘Hey, these battered women-they like to be beaten, because the sex is better for them!’ Or ‘Keep children who are abused with their parents,’ or ‘Don’t worry about hate crimes, because the conservatives don’t like it.’”

A Major Leaguer

To the state’s Republican leaders, the details of policy are mere details at this point. At bottom, Ms. Pirro is a rare, charismatic political talent.

“There are some people you see playing minor-league ball and you say, ‘Wow, they’re going to star for the Yankees someday,’” said Kieran Mahoney, Ms. Pirro’s political consultant and a longtime advisor to Mr. Pataki. “That’s Jeanine Pirro.”

Beyond the bravado, for the beleaguered state party, Ms. Pirro offers a chance to show the national party that New York can still compete. For the political consultants who would manage her campaign, she’s a shot at the big time-Mrs. Clinton-and a likely hook into the 2008 Presidential race, when Republicans will be out to stop Mrs. Clinton if she does, in fact, run.

Whether Ms. Pirro can hack the almost unimaginable intensity of the scrutiny of a Senate race is anyone’s guess. Her allies point to her years of media experience. She is a press favorite in Westchester, a regular commentator on Fox News and an occasional guest on the Today show and Good Morning America.

But the room in which Ms. Pirro holds her usual press conferences in her White Plains office is only about the size of the master bedroom in a Manhattan apartment. One morning, the place was packed: six television cameras, and reporters from the Westchester Journal News, the Associated Press and The New York Times.

“Fifth floor, Jeanine’s one-millionth press conference,” the court officer in the lobby had said as he ushered a reporter through the metal detector downstairs. And the subject of the press conference was characteristically ghastly: Ms. Pirro was charging a 41-year-old woman with second-degree rape for bringing her 13-year-old daughter to White Plains to have sex with an older boy in a hotel. (The statutory-rape charges, however, pale in comparison to the crimes she details in her book, which is literally almost unreadable for its graphic violence.)

The reporters tried to tease information about the case out of Ms. Pirro, and she joked comfortably with them by name, adding that the mother had given the girl an irresistible tabloid instruction:

“What happens in White Plains stays in White Plains,” the mother allegedly said.

Ms. Pirro slipped out of the room with a smile, and an hour later ended an interview with her plans undisclosed. She is famously impulsive, and took even close allies by surprise when she announced that she wouldn’t seek re-election. Mr. Minarik said nervously that he believes her when she says that she hasn’t made up her mind this year.

A reporter took a last stab at understanding what would impel Ms. Pirro, with her strong chance at the Attorney General’s job, to make the long-shot Senate run.

“What would impel me? Or impale me?” she responded, laughing riotously.