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The Sixtysomething Upstart

Why is Leslie Crocker Snyder saying all those things about Robert Morgenthau, the 85-year-old Manhattan D.A.? Blame it on her dad.

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The year was 1967. The leaves were browning on the trees when an ambitious young law-firm associate marched herself downtown on her lunch hour to the prestigious U.S. Attorney’s office, Southern District, and demanded a job application for the Criminal Division.

There was some snickering behind the desk. Women weren’t being considered for that sort of thing, sorry.

“I am sad to say that the U.S. Attorney was Robert Morgenthau,” says Leslie Crocker Snyder whenever she tells the story.

Years passed, and Bob Morgenthau was elected Manhattan district attorney. Snyder became a justice of the State Supreme Court. One day, she would again come looking for Bob Morgenthau to discuss a job she really, really wanted. His job.

Every campaign trail has its indignities, but this year’s race for Manhattan D.A. has more on the schedule than most. “I apologize to all candidates for our doorbell when it rings,” said the moderator at a campaign event. “Secondly, as influential as this club is politically, we can do nothing about the dog barking in the hall.”

Bob Morgenthau is 85 years old. That Jack La Lanne jazz about him cycling, skiing, playing tennis, cannot obscure the fact that however compos mentis—and many say that he’s as sharp as he’s ever been—Bob Morgenthau is an old man. A very old man who doesn’t walk, he shuffles. These past few months, he has good-naturedly suffered the lousy acoustics of the rented rooms where these campaigns play out, with their gymnasium floors and drop-cloth-covered pianos in the corner.

His left ear, his good ear, is cocked in the direction of Judge Snyder. Sometimes he sits with his finger jammed right down the auditory canal, listening to her rail about his “stale” operation as her pearly pink manicure hatchets the air. Tonight, when his own turn comes, he’ll reach for the back of a chair to steady himself—and miss. His hearing aid will decide it is time to hum an aria. On the way out, he’ll misplace his coat. He is a Mr. Chips who is not yet ready to say good-bye, and there’s pathos to his protest, even if he’s got a talent for snatching away her issues.

People around him say he’s fuuuurious that Snyder is out there—with her “new energy, new leadership, new ideas”—trying to deny him a ninth term in this office with a tradition of papal tenure, distorting his record. The last person to seriously challenge him was C. Vernon Mason in 1985.

Leslie Crocker Snyder has been hard to ignore, spray-misted with diamonds and done up in satin-collar suits and tweedy trumpet skirts, a buckle of cleavage occasionally visible under a lacy camisole as she drags the old man off the porch by his Brooks Brothers lapels.

“I’ve been talking about domestic-violence issues for months. I’m happy that Robert Morgenthau now seems to be adopting them on his own,” she’ll say, fire-breathing sarcasm. She enjoys correcting him on how it all works, like the night he claimed credit for heading the first office in New York to indict DNA profiles of as-yet-unknown perpetrators. “Actually, the Bronx was the first to do that,” she purred.

“You’re wrong,” he bellowed, winking at his wife in the first row (and Snyder was).

In Manhattan, almost 59 percent of registered Democrats are women, and Judge Snyder has a great story, says one of her campaign strategists, Doug Schoen: first woman to do this, first woman to do that. She founded the first sex-crimes-prosecution unit in the nation and co-authored the state’s rape-shield law, which protects victims from “being raped on the witness stand over and over for hours” disclosing prior sexual history, she says Andrea Dworkin–ishly.

Snyder is positioning herself as a more “hands-on D.A.,” who would whiz through courtrooms and crime scenes, host community breakfasts, make assistant D.A.’s a bigger presence in the housing projects, in satellite offices, and in community courts.

She’s attempting to reinforce this impression with an active schedule. “Let’s see him at the subway stops,” says the preppy blonde, an objection-overruled edge in her voice. Candice Bergen seemed the natural choice to play a Snyder-style judge a few months ago on one of the Law & Orders (where Snyder now vets scripts on the side).

The sexist spin on Snyder’s campaign bothers Bob Morgenthau almost as much as the ageist one. Several women have occupied the most senior positions in the D.A.’s office, where there are now 258 female assistants. It remains his ill fortune that one of the categories in which crime is up is domestic violence, which gives his opponent more to make noise about. Morgenthau supporters have taken to wearing buttons proclaiming him the WOMEN’S CHOICE.

Snyder is assuming some risk in smashing this icon: Break a few bones and you might disable a future run. “She should have waited,” says Ed Koch, conceding Snyder could make a fine D.A.; after all, it was he who appointed her to the bench in 1983. “I hope she recovers from the thrashing.” Snyder says Eliot Spitzer (who has endorsed Morgenthau) told her she’d make a great D.A.—after Morgenthau.

But she insists she’s in this to win now. She is 63 years old: How long can she wait? Says defense attorney and Snyder supporter Lawrence Goldman, “She’s got more balls than any guy I know.”


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