Lagging in the polls, embattled attorney general candidate stays in race
Dressed in a white pants suit, wearing a sash that read “Pirro for Attorney General,” and walking in three-inch heels, Jeanine Pirro was clearly enjoying herself as she marched in her first gay pride march this past June.
“I think that it is very,” Pirro said until the potato chip she was eating obscured her words. “I think that it is very exciting, a terrific parade.”
Pirro broke off to dash to the side of Fifth Avenue to greet yet another ecstatic supporter. As is the case with most elected officials who march, many in the crowd seemed to not know her, but some did and they cheered wildly.
“She should have run against Hillary, she’d get my vote,” said an African-American man referring to New York’s junior U.S. Senator. One man was impressed with her footwear. “You walk in those heels girl,” he yelled out.
Others were responding to Pirro’s enthusiastic waves and greetings when they waved or hollered back. Her high energy never flagged as she marched from the 54th Street to 23rd Street. When she was not rushing to greet a supporter, Pirro was dancing to music coming from a van in front of her contingent.
At the parade’s reviewing stand just above 23rd Street, the announcer said “I am honored, I am honored to welcome her today” and then added “I want everybody to notice the heels. That puts her in the drag queen category.”
The former Westchester County district attorney laughed loudly, said “My mother is going to kill me,” turned to a nearby reporter and said, still laughing, “Don’t write that down,” and finally said of drag queens “They have that right, they have that right.”
Pirro is the first Republican candidate for statewide office to march in the city’s pride parade and she may be the first non-drag queen to wear three-inch heels while doing it.
She is also the first candidate for statewide office from any political party to run television ads in which her support for the gay community is stated explicitly. Her backing for the queer community is longstanding.
“From the time I ran for judge, the first time I ran for DA, I have always worked with the gay and lesbian community,” she said during a September interview at her White Plains campaign headquarters. “I have always sought their support.”
As head of the state district attorneys association, Pirro was part of a broad coalition that championed New York’s hate crimes law and rejected efforts in the Republican-controlled state Senate to pass the law without sexual orientation as a protected class.
“I fought for that and I am proud of having fought for that,” she said. “I have fought discrimination and hatred against gays. I have been stalwart in that fight.”
When that law passed in 2000 with sexual orientation included, but no explicit protections for transgender people, Pirro was among the small number of district attorneys who said they viewed the law as covering them.
Pirro may alienate lesbian and gay voters with her position on gay marriage. She opposes it and said she supports civil unions that afford all the rights of marriage instead.
“I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman,” she said. “I’m a traditionalist. It’s really as simple as that. However, the protections, the privileges, should be there.”
Pirro opposes efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage and she would not support an effort to put such a ban in New York’s state constitution. If gay marriage becomes the law here, Pirro will do her job.
“Make no mistake, if it does become the law of this state, I will fight to defend it,” she said.
Pirro is struggling in the attorney general’s race with polls consistently showing her lagging behind Andrew Cuomo, her Democratic opponent, by at least 20 points. She has also been beset by mainstream press stories detailing her supposed gaffes. While most have been inconsequential, the most recent revelation, that Pirro discussed bugging a family boat to catch her husband, who she suspected of adultery, may be fatal. Prior to that bombshell, Pirro said her campaign was going well.
“It’s non-stop, it’s twenty-four, seven,” she said before the bugging stories appeared. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to meet a lot of different people, to see this state and how beautiful it is… My message is resonating with people. They like what I’m talking about.”
Pirro’s first prosecutor job came in 1978. In 1990, she was elected to a county judgeship in Westchester, the first woman to hold such a position in that county, and in 1993 she won her first of three terms as Westchester’s district attorney, the first woman in that job. Pirro is probably best known for her pursuit of child molesters and those who victimize women.
In her campaign for state attorney general, Pirro is emphasizing her law enforcement experience and the tough image that she earned as a district attorney. She supports the death penalty, ending the statute of limitations for certain violent crimes, and civil confinement for “sexually violent predators.”
Civil confinement would mean that such offenders could be detained after completing their prison sentences. They would receive regular reviews to determine if they remain a threat. Sixteen states have civil confinement laws and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such arrangements are constitutional.
“I fought for it long before it was a front burner issue,” she said. “We have got to recognize that there are certain of these sex offenders who are so predisposed to re-offend and commit sexually violent crimes that we have to have a mechanism in the law to confine them in a secure mental health facility.”
These views won Pirro the support of the state’s Conservative Party, but she cannot be branded as a conservative. In addition to her pro-gay positions, Pirro is pro-choice. Then she promises to get tough on environmental crime if elected.
“As a DA, we prosecuted over 800 or 900 environmental crimes with a conviction rate in the high 90s,” Pirro said. “I’m going to hold the EPA’s feet to the fire to make sure that we protect New Yorkers. It’s something I’ve done my whole career.”
Of significance for every New Yorker is Pirro’s promise to go after Medicaid cheats. This year the state will pay out $45 billion in Medicaid, the government-run health plan for the poor. The federal government, the state, and each of the state’s 62 counties pay those costs with the county contributions capped at 25 percent. Medicaid is a significant burden on the state’s taxpayers.
The New York Times estimated earlier this year that between 10 and 40 percent of that $45 billion goes to fraudulent payments. Even at the low end, that is still nearly $5 billion.
“There is only one way to bring down property taxes in New York without affecting services and that is by cutting back on the Medicaid fraud and the Medicaid cheats,” Pirro said.
Pirro said she had gone after Medicaid fraud during her time as the Westchester district attorney. She “took down a $12 million medical mill” in 2005.
“I’m a local DA,” Pirro said. “There are 285 or 300 people in the Medicaid fraud control unit in the attorney general’s office…If I can do that with minimal staff imagine what I can do statewide.”
Trailing in the polls, pilloried in the press, Pirro has roughly five weeks to turn her campaign around. Despite her recent reversals she has vowed not to drop out of the race, but reaching enough voters to win the office by November 7 is a tall order. Her message for the lesbian and gay community is clear.
“I will fight for the gay community and the lesbian community whenever there is discrimination,” she said. “That’s who I am. I have always fought for the underdog.”