Spoiling for a Catfight


It didn’t take long for the grrrowling to get started. No sooner had Jeanine Pirro revealed her plans to challenge Senator Hillary Clinton last week than the contest turned into a catfight. Press accounts seized upon the, uh, woman-on-woman action, casting the 2006 Senate race between the Westchester district attorney and New York’s junior senator as an “all-female face-off” with at least one lady “baring her claws.” Headlines trumpeted the “War of the Roses” and articles hyped similarities between these “fighting femmes,” from their cheating spouses to their pearl-bedecked styles.

By the time Pirro made her candidacy official on August 10, the New York Times editorial page was bemoaning the catfight theme, reminding us that the prospect of two women running against each other “should be very stale news” in this supposedly forward-thinking state. Yet over in the Metro section, columnist Peter Applebome was delighting in the Desperate Housewives plotlines to come.

All this, and the 54-year-old D.A. has yet to win the Republican nomination.

Says Marie Wilson, of the Manhattan- based White House Project Education Fund, which studies how the media portray female candidates, “Everyone is braced for the meeoww.”

Neither campaign seems eager to play the feisty feline; advisers for Pirro and Clinton declined to return phone calls from the Voice for this story. But folks who back the candidates have noted the media’s fixation.

Republican analyst Michael Edelman, a Pirro friend for three decades, sounds an indignant note, calling the portrayal “unjustified.” It’s not as if these women were former beauty queens, he says; rather, they’re smart, accomplished professionals. “You wouldn’t call two guys running against each other a dog fight,” he adds. So what gives?

Other GOPers are excited their candidate is getting ink of any kind. Broome County GOP leader Anthony Capozzi, one of 46 county chairs who sent Pirro a letter urging her to take on Clinton earlier this summer, finds all the hype “fabulous.” Pirro is dominating the front pages of major dailies, he says, while her counterparts in the Republican primary struggle to get noticed. Only Edward Cox—a Manhattan attorney and President Nixon’s son-in-law—has attracted any real publicity. “There’s a ton of focus on the female thing, but it’s not bad,” Capozzi says. “When you have two dynamic women fighting for the same office, it makes for an interesting race.”

Pirro, so far, has been sticking to her message—that she’s running to replace a senator who’d rather be a president. “When Hillary first came to New York and said she wanted to be a New Yorker, she asked us to put out a welcome mat and New York did,” Pirro has said repeatedly, in appearances during a three-day tour across the state. “But now she wants to use New York as a doormat to the White House.”

The attack has left Clinton backers unfazed, as has the attention Pirro has grabbed. Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf says the media’s catfight frame reflects about the only thing reporters can say about Pirro’s embryonic bid, since she can’t rival the senator’s national renown, statewide popularity, or record of achievement.

“That’s the only news there is here—’It’s two women,’ ” Sheinkopf adds, wryly. “What else is there about her, really?”

In many ways, the race against Hillary Clinton was a feline face-off waiting to happen—the only thing missing was a female opponent. Whenever a woman finds herself running against another woman for the same office, says Wilson, of the White House Project, “it’s presented as a catfight.”

Since the late 1990s, Wilson’s organization has studied countless races involving female candidates, and has discovered two distinct trends. When a woman faces a man, reporters and editors tend to focus on what she calls “hairdos and hemlines.” They paint women in a more personal, less substantive way, with commentary gravitating toward the frosted hair, the signature heels, or the lime-green suit.

“It’s not because the press is misogynistic,” Wilson explains. “It’s because reporters are reporting on what’s different about the candidates.” With two women, though, it’s another matter. “Our narrative for women coming at each other is stereotypical,” she says—and that stereotype is the catfight.

Pat Schroeder, the former U.S. representative who became the first woman on Capitol Hill in the 1970s, faced four female challengers over the years. All too often, there was the talk “of hemlines, earrings, and screeching ladies,” she says. Reporters played up hand gestures or facial expressions, painting the politicians as if scratching at each other, claws bared.

“You’d carry on a logical debate, but you’d read about it later and say, ‘Was I there?’ ” relays Schroeder, who now heads the Association of American Publishers, in D.C. and Manhattan. “But what are you going to do? Put out a press release and say, ‘We weren’t screeching’?”

The stereotypes persist because there aren’t enough women squaring off—or running, period. These days, the United States ranks 61st in the world in women’s political representation. While more women are turning to politics, the all-female lineup remains unusual. Last year, among hundreds of U.S. congressional races, only 11 involved two women.

New York Republicans, it seems, have been happy to boost those numbers. Pirro is the favored pick among those looking to pit a female candidate (see “Code Pink,” May 11–18) against Clinton. Those women who tend to cast their ballots for a female candidate would have an alternative if Pirro’s name were to appear along with Clinton’s—both women, after all, are ambitious lawyers and working mothers with wayward husbands. “Certain women
voters say, ‘I want to see a woman in the Senate, so I’m voting for Hillary,’ ” says Edelman, the Republican analyst. “Mrs. Clinton would not have the benefit of their automatic vote.” Indeed, the senator dropped some 13 points in the polls after Pirro announced her candidacy—among women she fell from 75 percent to 51 percent, with 21 percent now saying they’re undecided.

But the notion that women voters focus more on gender than men voters isn’t borne out in election figures, says Ruth Mandel, of the Center on American Women in Politics, at Rutgers University. Typically, incumbency and party ideology trump everything for men or women. When the gender gap has come into play, it has tended to benefit incumbent Democratic women, like Clinton.

Pirro has already bumped into her fair share of problems. At the campaign kickoff in Manhattan, she suffered the embarrassment of losing page 10 of her script—a major gaffe replayed endlessly on TV and the Web. Then reporters tested her grasp of national issues: You say you want to make President Bush’s tax cuts permanent, they demanded, so how much would that increase the federal deficit? You say you’re pro-choice, but when do you think life begins? You say you support the war on terror, yet what would you do about the troops in Iraq?

Pirro, for the most part, struggled to answer. “It’s my first day on the campaign,” she pleaded.

And then there is Pirro’s greatest liability to date—her husband, Albert. The Albany lobbyist comes with serious baggage, including a prison term for tax evasion and an out-of-wedlock child. Last spring, allegations surfaced that he had leaked sensitive information about one of his wife’s criminal cases to a reputed mobster—claims Pirro has denied. Reporters have hounded her at every campaign stop. Why wasn’t her husband by her side? What’s his role in the campaign? Will he serve as a top fundraiser, as he has for other GOP candidates over the years?

Such scrutiny is sure to continue. But smiling politely in Manhattan, Pirro offered her answer: “I am a strong, independent woman, with a record that I’m proud of, and I will be running this campaign on my own.”

Just wait: The grrrowling could get louder yet.