Not long ago, Jeanine Pirro, the Westchester County district attorney, was swatting down any talk of a Senate bid, brushing aside questions about whether she’d challenge Hillary Clinton in 2006. As recently as April, her friends were reporting she’d ruled out a run, saying she considered it a “suicide mission.”
All that changed on May 23, when Pirro announced that she will seek a statewide office next year rather than a fourth term as D.A. this fall. The Republican leader has three possible seats to seek. Will she stay on the law-and-order route and run for the attorney general’s office being vacated by Eliot Spitzer? Or will she set her sights on Albany if George Pataki calls it quits? Or will she end the GOP’s hunt for a credible challenger to Senator Clinton?
Could it really be Jeanine versus Hillary next year?
Only, it appears, if the price is right. If Clinton isn’t unbeatable, she’s at least looking that way in the polls, with a clear majority of surveyed voters already saying she’s got their support. Just what would make it worthwhile for Pirro to wage an uphill campaign against New York’s popular junior senator?
“The promise of a job,” Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf says, venturing a guess. “But it’d have to be a pretty damn good job.” Maybe a spot on the federal bench would do—she has already served as a county judge. Maybe her own TV show.
Pirro has done little to stem such speculation, declining to return a phone call from the Voice for this article. Last week, in a press conference at her office, she left open the idea of a Pirro/Clinton matchup, saying she never backs away from a fight. She did hint at what her friends see as the real prize, however, acknowledging the appeal of the A.G. position for someone, like herself, with “law enforcement in my blood.”
Clinton’s camp, meanwhile, is staying out of the speculation game. The senator’s advisers refused to size up Pirro as a potential challenger, citing the number of names circulating to date. “We’ll let the Republicans deal with the process of fielding a candidate on their own,” is how one adviser put it. Indeed, amid all the conjecture over a noncommittal Pirro, Republican Edward Cox—a Manhattan attorney and the late president Nixon’s son-in-law—quietly filed papers last week to set up an exploratory committee for a U.S. Senate bid.
The intense focus on Pirro has lasted for months now, as state GOP leaders have tried to encourage her to take on Clinton. The 53-year-old D.A. is a favored pick among those looking to draft a female candidate for the race (see “Code Pink,” May 11-17). And she’s one of the strongest rumored contenders, male or female, yet. She’s sharp, articulate, a proven commodity. Because of her stint as a TV commentator, Pirro has a name that extends beyond the tony suburbs.
“She’s an established playa,” quips Mark Finkelstein, of the Tompkins County Republican Committee. “I’d call her a Republican star.”
Republican analyst Michael Edelman, who has known Pirro for 32 years, says she’s “been receiving a lot of requests” to take on Hillary Clinton. The push has come not only from Pataki, but also from Karl Rove. This month, a White House delegation reportedly met with state GOP leaders to discuss having Pirro go against Clinton, even though the latest poll data show the senator besting the D.A., 62 to 27 percent.
Those who know Pirro say she doesn’t seem like a willing sacrificial lamb. Edelman doubts that any job or perk would sway the feisty prosecutor if she doesn’t believe she can win. “The only reason to run is to win,” he says, “and to win a position you really want to have.”
Which explains why most observers bet Pirro will go for attorney general. It just makes sense, given her record and national reputation as an innovator of Internet stings to catch would-be child molesters.
This is not to say Pirro couldn’t give Clinton a good fight. But Republicans admit that any GOP candidate will rank as underdog. At least with Pirro, they would have a challenger who could dampen Clinton’s broad popularity.
Then again, there’s the question of her husband, Albert, and his legal problems, including his prison term for tax evasion. This month, allegations surfaced that he had leaked sensitive information about one of his wife’s ongoing criminal cases to a reputed mobster—allegations Pirro has denied.
Will it curb her prospects? Not if her opponent is Clinton, Edelman argues. “Excuse me? Lying to a grand jury? Monica Lewinsky? Whitewater?” he notes, illustrating how Hillary wouldn’t get far by talking up the shady husband. Besides, he adds, “These days we elect people for their own records.”
Yet other Republicans aren’t so sure. They expect the city’s tabloids to make Pirro’s husband an issue no matter what, thus doing the dirty work for Clinton. If the charges of leaking prove to have legs, watch out.
“If I were her,” says one prominent GOP consultant, “I’d take my gig at Fox News and get out of the game now.”