The Dragon Lady Runs for D.A.

Ex-judge Leslie Crocker Snyder wants to talk about everything except her law firm

On May 10, after a year spent in dress rehearsals, former Supreme Court justice Leslie Crocker Snyder presented herself to the voters at a gala fundraiser and campaign kickoff breakfast at the Sheraton New York on Seventh Avenue. There she was hailed by some 800 supporters, including former colleagues, defense lawyers, and officials from all of the city's police, fire, and court officers' unions who have endorsed her candidacy to be the next district attorney of New York County.

In her announcement speech, Snyder struck most of the high notes in a remarkably high-profile career: first woman to try a homicide case in New York City, co-author of the state's rape shield law, founder of the sex crimes bureau, and tenacious judge overseeing many trials of organized-crime figures and drug kingpins.

Snyder, who is 63, also went straight at her opponent, longtime incumbent D.A. Robert Morgenthau, who is 85. "New Yorkers deserve a D.A. who will bring the office into the 21st century," she said, a campaign theme that can't help but remind listeners that Morgenthau, a World War II veteran, was born early in the last century.

Working the street: Snyder greeting voters last week on the Upper East Side
photo: Marc Asnin
Working the street: Snyder greeting voters last week on the Upper East Side

She went on to thump Morgenthau for what she said was his failure to push for reforms of the Rockefeller drug laws that mandate lengthy prison sentences even for nonviolent offenders. The D.A., she said, had waited until just last year to announce his opposition to statutes "that have ruined so many lives and unfairly targeted African Americans and Latinos. He could have and should have been at the forefront of the battle."

Snyder also hammered Morgenthau for failing to cooperate with other prosecutors, saying he had "stood in the way of cooperation," an argument underscored by the presence of former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, who is chairing Snyder's campaign.

Actually, jurisdictional fights have been waged forever between the D.A.'s office on Hogan Place and the U.S. Attorney's office down the street at St. Andrews Plaza. And Snyder herself has spoken approvingly several times in the past about the Rockefeller drug laws. "I've never had a problem with them," she told Phil Donahue in a 2002 interview. But in a private poll Snyder commissioned shortly after retiring from the bench in late 2003 to evaluate her chances in a race, she had learned that the immensely popular Morgenthau was vulnerable on several levels, including his age, the drug laws, and his turf wars with other prosecutors.

To have a chance, the pollsters instructed, Snyder needed to "continue devising a negative message" about Morgenthau. "The age issue needs to be used carefully," they warned, lest it backfire with sympathetic voters. To win the race, the survey warned, Snyder would need a "tremendously well funded campaign" to overcome Morgenthau's built-in advantages.

The poll—conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland, the firm that advises Hillary Clinton—cautioned that the ex-judge carried her own potential negatives: Morgenthau could remind voters of Snyder's occasionally heated temperament (she once told a defendant convicted of murder that she wished she could personally give him the lethal injection) and that she is now employed at a law firm that represents tobacco companies among others.

Such polls go for about $30,000, according to experts, but Snyder, who paid for the survey herself, never disclosed the expense in her campaign filings, saying she didn't need to because it was only "exploratory." State election officials say disclosure is preferable but not mandatory. In any case, when Snyder was asked about the survey this month, she dismissed it as old and unimportant. "I don't need a poll to tell me what the issues are," she said.

Before and after her speech, Snyder, a peppy blonde who was trained in the rarefied halls of Bryn Mawr and Radcliffe, worked the ballroom's crowded tables, hugging and kissing like a veteran pol.

"I think she's courageous," said Alan Futerfas, an attorney who represented a reputed mob carter before Snyder. Indeed, while she was on the bench Snyder was the target of numerous death plots hatched by defendants, and she is still accompanied by a bodyguard in public.

In a business in which it is a badge of honor when the crooks start coming up with nicknames for you, Snyder had several. She was called "Dragon Lady," "Queen of Lockdown," "232" (for the prison term allotted one defendant unlucky enough to come before her), even "25 to Life"—a name stamped on glassine heroin packets below a likeness of the judge and one that Snyder so admired she used it as the title for her 2002 autobiography.

But if her law-and-order background put some off, there were others to counter it. Richard Emery, a lawyer who has represented police brutality victims, said he is backing Snyder because "it's just time for Morgy to go."

Ruth Messinger, the liberal ex-Manhattan borough president who was Snyder's classmate at Radcliffe, praised the judge as a pioneering feminist. (In Snyder's autobiography she pointedly mentioned that she was "not particularly friends" with Messinger and another famous liberal classmate, former congresswoman and city comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman. "We've talked about that," Messinger said.)

Age baiting and record fudging aside, Snyder's challenge—the first serious one to Morgenthau in his 30 years in the office—has already paid positive benefits to the body politic. It has spurred both candidates to speak out against the Rockefeller drug laws, and it has renewed discussion about the death penalty (Morgenthau's against it, Snyder's in favor, albeit, she quickly adds, "only for the worst kind of crimes"). Snyder has also forced Morgenthau's office to confront uncomfortable issues, such as its slow response to evidence indicating that two men may have been wrongfully convicted for a 1990 murder at the old Palladium nightclub.

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