Jeanine Pirro, the Republican candidate for New York State Attorney General, had just gotten through explaining to a reporter that her campaign is “going great,” when she was faced with a question that she probably hears more often than she’d like.
Asked, in an interview last Friday at her White Plains headquarters, whether she’s ever regretted her relationship with her husband Al, Ms. Pirro sighed deeply, leaned forward in her chair and narrowed her eyes.
“Lemme tell you something,” Ms. Pirro said in a low, rumbling voice. “I will not turn my back on my family. That’s not who Jeanine Pirro is. Period, end of story.”
One gets the impression that the former Westchester district attorney—who normally can’t go more than 10 minutes without uttering the words “sexual predator”—looms larger than life, expecially by her own reckoning.
This was supposed to be her big year, the moment when the brassy prosecutor catapulted herself off her snakeskin stilettos from the D.A.’s office, where she’s worked for 30 years, to the national stage. She has long been viewed as one of the Republican Party’s greatest hopes. But she has not had an easy time of it.
Her husband is one part of the problem: Her most visible press coverage in the past few weeks came after Mr. Pirro was caught driving 98 miles per hour on Interstate 95 and handed a speeding ticket. A lawyer who was convicted of federal tax fraud in 2000, the troubled Mr. Pirro seems to surface at all of the worst moments, just as his wife’s political lights are starting to brighten.
But the obstacles that stand between Ms. Pirro and the political success she so clearly craves extend beyond her marriage. After a long, over-hyped hemming-and-hawing period in early 2005, Ms. Pirro succumbed to the pleadings of party royalty and announced that she was running for the U.S. Senate against Hillary Clinton. Before the celebratory fanfare had petered out, she doomed her chances with a series of bumbles, most notably when she misplaced a page from her first campaign speech and was unable to ad lib, leading to an excruciating 32-second pause. From there, her high-profile support withered away, and she was pressured to drop out and announce a run for attorney general instead.
This campaign has been a decidedly lower-profile affair, and expectations for her performance at the polls are not high, to say the least. Not that one could discern as much from a conversation with her. From Ms. Pirro’s perspective, everything about her political standing at the moment is just grand.
“Our schedule is so booked and so … intense—ha, ha!—that I don’t know that we can get much more attention,” Ms. Pirro, 55, said, when asked whether she was satisfied with the level of focus that voters and the press have been giving to her campaign. “The media is another issue. But I’m happy with the attention I’m getting.” She paused. “I take that back—I’m not happy with the attention. I feel that the attention that I’m getting is appropriate, you know, for what we’re doing.”
She was seated in her office on a “dress-down” Friday, wearing an ivory-colored crepe dress with a bright green-and-pink floral print and peach T-strap pumps; her nails were French-manicured, her face coated with makeup and an all-season tan—as if ready for an evening-hour slot on Hannity and Colmes. (She appears regularly as a cable news commentator.)
In fact, Ms. Pirro is always primed for the cameras—she speaks as if there’s one trained on her at all times, with the calculated body language of someone who is comfortable nowhere but onstage. She has smoothed her delivery somewhat since her brief period as a candidate for the Senate, although not completely: One comes away with the sense that Ms. Pirro learned some of the basic rules of political candidacy (stay on message, etc.) only to wield them like a judge’s gavel.
Almost any question asked of her, for instance, is likely to trigger a diatribe about the sexual predators who “roam freely among us” (22,000 of them, apparently), and how “I’m gonna be their worst nightmare.” When asked how she feels about the comparative lack of fanfare surrounding her campaign at the moment, she said: “You know, this is a perfect fit for me,” before launching into her credentials as the first woman D.A. in the county. When asked if she thinks that her party has been doing all it can to support her, she said: “I know they’re very supportive of me,” before another detailed run-through of her legal career.
“I’ve prosecuted cases of children being immersed in scalding water and gotten convictions in those cases,” Ms. Pirro said in a booming voice, performing for an imaginary jury. “Children being shaken to death, children being beaten to death. You name it, I’ve done it.” Big pause. “I don’t know where I was going.” She looked at her two press aides. “Where were we going? You don’t know where we’re going!”
There was a time when one couldn’t miss Jeanine Pirro. Finding out what she’s been up to more recently, however, was another matter. While she has been focused on fund-raising and private events over the last few weeks—her campaign just reported that she raised an impressive $2.8 million in six months, more than her likely Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo—trying to schedule time with her, or even glimpse her at a campaign stop, began to resemble a fox hunt.
Phone calls to her office over a period of six weeks were not always returned; campaign events would be scheduled—in Buffalo or in Utica, for example—but details weren’t available or they’d mysteriously be cancelled. Days and weeks slipped by. (One reporter from another publication described similar frustrations.) It began to seem as if Ms. Pirro’s staff was trying to keep her hidden away.
Then finally, on July 15, she was scheduled to appear at a fund-raising breakfast on South Beach, Staten Island. By 10:30 a.m., when the event was due to begin, the spacious Vanderbilt ballroom overlooking a red sand beach was about 60 percent full, with groups of older women, local elected officials and a contingent of pink-cheeked boys from the Young Republicans of Staten Island milling around.
By 10:55 a.m., there was still no sign of the guest of honor. (“There must be traffic,” said one of her staffers nervously.) Some of the attendees started attacking the platters of fruit that were laid out on the tables.
Then a murmur rippled through the room, and two volunteers bolted out the front door. Ms. Pirro swept into the lobby with a small cluster of people around her. She had extra-white teeth and wore a cinched-in jacket and skirt that showed off the kind of compact body one might expect on a Pilates-obsessed starlet. Her calf muscles protruded like two tennis balls.
“You look gorgeous!” one woman said, jumping up to take Ms. Pirro’s hands. “I’ve been here since 9:30 this morning.” Ms. Pirro gave her a hug.
“Hi! How are you!” Ms. Pirro said, grabbing different sets of hands. “I love your mother! I love Staten Island! I’m gonna march the boardwalk—I gotta change my shoes.” She was wearing—what else?—pointy, pink snakeskin stilettos.
She took a seat at a table with Vincent Ignizio, the Richmond County Republican Committee chairman; Andrew Lanza, a City Council member; and Vito Fossella, a Congressman from the 13th District, among others. After a few minutes spent tucking into plates of eggs, potatoes, sausage and bacon, Ms. Pirro was introduced by Mr. Fossella, who had slicked-back hair and biceps that were bursting out of his turquoise polo shirt.
“Staten Island, and especially South Beach, 30 years ago—frankly, it was a pit,” Mr. Fossella said, explaining that the boardwalk had once been replete with sexual predators. “In a way, what we did here, Jeanine Pirro did in Westchester County.”
Ms. Pirro bounded out of her seat, yanked the microphone free and launched into her routine. “She was 12 years old …. He was a sexual predator …. He took her to the woods and he sexually degraded her,” she began ominously.
Her delivery was part Martin Luther King Jr. and part Nancy Grace—with a touch of Geraldo thrown in. She had her feet planted firmly a few inches apart and was swiveling back and forth at the waist, one hand clutching the mike, the other jabbing the air in front of her. “Did you know that the sex-offender average is 140 times in their lifetime?!” she boomed, to gasps of horror. “They will be afraid that an experienced prosecutor has them in her sights!” She had harsh words for MySpace.com, the online networking site (and a “breeding ground for pedophiles”), as well as for polluters and Medicaid fraud.
After a standing ovation, she bustled out of the room for a quick trip in a gray Ford Explorer to the boardwalk beach festival, where she marched up to beachgoers, rhinestone-trinket vendors, truck drivers and cops. (She’d changed into brown platform sandals, which were more practical, she repeatedly pointed out.)
“Meet Jeanine Pirro, the next attorney general!” shouted Mr. Ignizio, the county chairman, who was part of her swelling entourage.
Ms. Pirro proceeded to demonstrate that grim, robotic determination that makes campaigning seem like an almost inhuman exercise—when one must shake hands and kiss babies with a big, Teflon smile when it’s 90 degrees and humid and blindingly bright out. Inexplicably, Ms. Pirro did not sweat. She ditched her shoes on the boardwalk and hustled onto the beach, where an elaborate sand-sculpture contest was underway.
“I love you! You kick ass, babe!” said a large woman in a daisy-print bathing suit. Ms. Pirro posed for a picture.
She stopped in front of a couple pushing a baby stroller. “We’re gonna do everything we can to fight sexual predators,” Ms. Pirro said, nodding towards the infant. “I’ve been a judge and a prosecutor.”
“Are you running for Governor?” someone called out as she breezed by.
“We’ve seen you on Fox News!” said someone else.
The five Young Republicans hovered a respectful distance behind, wearing “Vote for Pirro” T-shirts, handing out flyers. Then, almost before one could say the words “funnel cake,” Ms. Pirro was heading back to her car and on to a motorcycle rally in Tappan, N.Y. There were jokes about how she could possibly mount a Harley in her tight little skirt.
Thoughts of Albert Pirro, or anyone else who might stand in her way, were long banished, and one got the sense that there’s very little Ms. Pirro won’t do in service of her political ambitions. Although apparently there are limits, even for her.
The day before, at the end of the interview in her headquarters, The Observer had asked whether it would be possible to snap a photograph of the candidate in her office. Ms. Pirro looked stricken, broke into a half-smile, half-grimace, and started twitching her head from side to side. “Do you have a jacket?” she said, looking around at her aides. “Does somebody have a jacket here? I’m not comfortable in this …. I’m never—I’m not seen like this. And I’m just …. If somebody had a blazer, I’d put it on, but I don’t wanna do it. I’m always out in a suit, so I’m not comfortable.”