According to someone close to Pirro, the White House political office began calling as early as last March to try to persuade her to get in the Senate race. Pirro, though certainly flattered, was initially cool to the idea. By the start of last summer, she had already spent several months stalking the ramparts, Hamlet-like, trying to decide which office to run for. At one point she even seriously considered running for governor.
Her indecisiveness was chronicled at every turn by the press. So, well before her disastrous announcement in August, she was looking not foolish exactly, but vain and ambitious. “A lot of people started throwing things at her,” says Mike Long, head of the New York State Conservative Party. “They were telling her, ‘Run for governor. Run for senator.’ And she went through this period of trying to decide which office to run for.”
Long believes it was the wrong way to handle it. “You don’t say, ‘I’m running statewide, but I’m not sure for which office.’ You don’t run for the sake of running. You run for a particular office because you believe you can accomplish something in that office.”
Of course, Pirro wasn’t the only New York Republican with problems. The GOP’s troubles have been mounting throughout George Pataki’s third term. Republicans still appear to control huge swaths of the state, but their apparent dominance is more and more a Potemkin village. Pataki, weakened and often ineffectual, is spending much of his time and energy on a quixotic presidential run. He’s “checked out,” as more than one Republican operative put it. Meanwhile, the party that Alfonse D’Amato presided over is practically broke and in danger of losing its identity to rich (Bill Weld) and superrich (Tom Golisano) political sportsmen and wing nuts (senatorial candidate John Spencer) of various species.
Pirro’s decision-making process was further muddled at the beginning of June by a difficult personal issue. Her 83-year-old mother was diagnosed with cancer, and Pirro was, according to an aide, preoccupied with helping her deal with the illness and the various treatment options. Kieran Mahoney, Pirro’s friend and principal political adviser for fifteen years, says that despite the fits and starts, Pirro still announced her candidacy fourteen months before the election, plenty of time to run a successful campaign. The expectation was that Pirro would spend at least $30 million on her campaign, which would have resulted in a significant payday for Mahoney.
“Early on, the press created the false expectation of an imminent announcement,” says Mahoney, whom many insiders blame for the debacle. “A lot of people who know Jeanine have a tendency to talk to the Fourth Estate without knowing what they’re talking about. She had conversations with people that they overinterpreted.”
The pressure was really amped up in the middle of June when New York State Republican chairman Steve Minarik sent a letter to Pirro signed by 46 of the state’s 62 Republican county chairmen calling on her to run for the Senate. There was talk of a “dream ticket.” The leadership was positively giddy. “Phone calls were made to the county chairmen telling them to get onboard or else,” says someone close to Cox, who was obviously angered by this attempt to manipulate the process. This question of how candidates should be chosen is an issue that has roiled the Republicans. Both gubernatorial hopeful Randy Daniels and former Yonkers mayor John Spencer bitterly complained to me about what they believe has been an attempt by the leadership to force candidates on the party without due process.
“There’s been this top-down mentality,” says Senate candidate Spencer. “The leadership has said, ‘Here’s who we’re going to nominate for this office,’ and it doesn’t respect the grass roots, the rank and file of the party, and the local leaders around the state.”
For instance, in December, Minarik, who is a Pataki loyalist, arranged a straw vote among the party’s county chairs in an attempt to get everyone united behind Bill Weld. It was a naked power play by the governor, who hates Golisano for running against him in the past, to try to shut the billionaire out of the process. (Golisano recently announced he’s not running.) Nearly half the leaders didn’t vote for Weld, abstained, or didn’t show up, including the chairmen from the key counties of Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester.
As the summer wore on and Pirro continued to struggle with her decision, she had a number of conversations with Conservative Party head Mike Long. It is a given that a Republican cannot win a statewide race in New York without the blessing of Long’s party. Having the Conservative line on the ballot can mean as much as 150,000 votes for a Republican, which, in a state dominated by Democrats, can be huge.