On Aug. 10, when Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro awkwardly announced her plans to challenge Hillary Clinton in next year’s Senate race, the gears of a strategy to dismantle Ms. Pirro’s candidacy already were in motion. That very morning, NARAL Pro-Choice New York had struck one of the first blows, attacking what seemed to be a rightward shift in her stance on abortion.
“It’s a disturbing and desperate attempt to win over the far right of the Republican Party, and it won’t fool New Yorkers,” NARAL’s deputy director, Bob Jaffe, told The New York Times.
Overnight, the state Democratic Committee leapt into the scrum with uncharacteristic speed, cutting an Internet attack ad that circulated the next afternoon. The ad replayed Ms. Pirro’s torturous, 32-second search for page 10 of her speech. For a soundtrack, it featured the merry, mocking theme from Jeopardy, offset with Ms. Pirro’s own frantic mumblings. The whole thing ended with a punchy tag: “Without a script, she is speechless.”
The state Democratic Party and its allies in liberal interest groups haven’t been known lately for their swiftness and coordination. In the 2002 race for Governor and in this year’s Mayoral race, the formula has been a combination of party apathy and a series of desertions by groups like NARAL, which is supporting Mayor Michael Bloomberg this year.
But while Mrs. Clinton doesn’t exactly look like a party boss, this is Hillary’s party. And as the 2006 campaign opened, the sometimes-feuding elements of New York liberalism have sprung to her defense.
While Mrs. Clinton has avoided engaging personally with Ms. Pirro—her spokesman, Howard Wolfson, said the Senator is waiting for Republicans to “sort out their nominating process”—her close aides have been directing her defense.
Mr. Wolfson, a partner in the political consulting firm Glover Park Group, produced the Internet advertisement in his role as an advisor to the state party. NARAL is also a Glover Park client, although NARAL’s Mr. Jaffe said the Clintonites played no role in the group’s attack on Ms. Pirro.
Ms. Pirro’s spokesman, Michael McKeon, said he recognized Mr. Wolfson’s style in the Internet ad.
“It’s clearly directed by Howard,” he said. “You remember back in the Kerry-Bush debate, he produced some kind of video of Bush in which he ridiculed the President, and he created a little bit of buzz for a day.”
“I think have there been plenty of direct attacks on Jeanine from the Democrats and directed by people close to Hillary, and I think it’s clearly evidence that they are afraid of her,” Mr. Mc-Keon concluded.
But Mr. McKeon’s attempts to spin the bad news back—he labeled stories in the Daily News and on The Observer’s Politicker Web site as “smears” leaked by Clinton operatives—have done little to alleviate Ms. Pirro’s bad start.
And where some see collusion, others are quick to debunk the idea of an orchestrated backstage effort by the Clinton campaign to impugn Ms. Pirro.
“Is the press shop shocked that supporters of Clinton would lawfully distribute accurate information that exposes Pirro’s weaknesses?” asked Mark Green, the former Public Advocate and current State Attorney General candidate. “The issue is: Is it relevant and true? Something skuzzy about a person’s private life is not relevant and perhaps not true, but distributing public information is not only legitimate, but essential.”
Still, the sharpness of the defense waged by Mrs. Clinton’s allies is striking because the centralized power of the state party has waned steadily since the 1994 Governor’s race, when George Pataki ousted Democratic incumbent Mario Cuomo. The state committee’s finances reflect the fortunes of a party out of power in Albany: At the end of July, according to campaign-finance reports, the state party possessed a total balance of $180,827.93 across two accounts.
The state party’s rush to pummel Ms. Pirro for a 2006 race stands in stark contrast with the organization’s scant work to unseat Mr. Bloomberg in the looming elections. The state party has issued a meager trickle of press releases on the Mayoral campaign over the past few months, barely dipping its toe into the water of city politics.
According to the state committee’s Web site, the party hasn’t issued any releases on the Mayoral race this month, just a flurry of statements poking at Ms. Pirro. July saw one pair of statements on the Mayoral race, both repeating a quixotic demand for Mr. Bloomberg to debate the Democrats. Steeped in blandness (“Democrats have an excellent field of experienced candidates running for Mayor” reads a sample opener), the party’s battle cries against Mr. Bloomberg have yielded nothing nearly as eye-grabbing as the “Where’s page 10?” Internet ad.
The Hillary Machine
So is this a new Hillary machine, led by Mr. Wolfson and his Glover Park Group partners, including Mrs. Clinton’s former state director, Gigi Georges? Certainly, since their emergence from Mrs. Clinton’s 2001 campaign, the blunt, 38-year-old Mr. Wolfson and his partners have wired themselves deeply into the infrastructure of New York power, taking on clients that include the teachers’ union and City Comptroller William Thompson, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for Mayor in 2009 should Mr. Bloomberg be re-elected.
Just last year, the Glover Park Group was enlisted by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. to lead an eventually unsuccessful charge against a shift in the Nielsen television-ratings system. (Mr. Murdoch’s newspaper, the New York Post, has been almost as tough on Ms. Pirro as Mrs. Clinton’s allies have been.) And, if that’s not formidable enough, The New York Sun reported on Aug. 22 that the group’s complex lobbying ties extend all the way to the government of Turkey.
Critics of the firm say that Glover Park is busy packaging Mrs. Clinton on all fronts.
“When you have that significant a client in your roster, it’s hard to walk away from it, and that’s part of their marketing strategy for their internal business,” said Democratic political consultant and sometime rival Hank Sheinkopf. “They’re marketing themselves as working for Hillary. That’s how they get business.”
Admirers suggest that Glover Park is using skills forged in the crucible of the intense attention and enmity that surround Ms. Clinton.
“Knowing Howard, I would think that he would be absolutely scrupulous in keeping his activities as insulated and distinct from each other as possible,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College. “It’s difficult, because clearly there is overlap, but I think Howard would be conscious of avoiding the obvious questions of conflict of interest. He might argue, and legitimately, that there may be a confluence of interests between this.”
The firm also helped beat back Mr. Bloom-berg’s effort to do away with party primaries in a 2003 City Charter referendum.
Mr. Wolfson said that his work for other clients isn’t subordinate to his role in Ms. Clinton’s campaign. Though he declined to discuss the details of the attacks on Ms. Pirro, he said that his firm doesn’t require its clients to pledge allegiance to the Clinton cause.
“We have a broad and diverse set of clients here and in D.C., and we’re proud of the work that we do for each one of them,” he said.