No recent political news has caused so much excitement, or consternation, as the decision by Jeanine Pirro to try to oust Hillary Rodham Clinton from her seat in the United States Senate.
Pirro had a high profile even before she decided to enter the race. In addition to her current job as Westchester County district attorney, she is also a regular contributor to the Fox News Channel. Her potential to become the most lustrous star in the rather dull firmament of the New York Republican Party has long been noted.
Pirro’s gender, her telegenic looks and the fact that her opponent is one of the most famous politicians in the world have all combined to feed a media frenzy about the race. No sooner had Pirro declared her intentions than the New York Post began trumpeting the imminent battle as “The War Of The Roses.”
Despite all that hype, however, the first days of Pirro’s campaign took some of the wind out of her supporters’ sails. The district attorney’s official announcement speech was marred by an embarrassing slip-up when Pirro stopped dead for 32 seconds – an eternity in television-time – before asking an aide to get her a page of the speech that had gone missing.
Any hopes of an early recovery from that mishap were sunk by controversy over Pirro’s husband. Albert Pirro spent 11 months in prison after being convicted of tax evasion in 2000. He also contested a messy paternity suit in the 1990s before eventually conceding, in the face of DNA evidence, that the child was his.
Pirro’s troubles have solidified the impression that she simply doesn’t have much chance against Hillary Clinton. Conventional wisdom holds that she will use the millions of dollars that will flow her way from Hillary-hating donors to fund a powerful campaign, will do her best to damage her opponent and, following her defeat, will either be rewarded by Republicans with a prime appointment or will take advantage of her increased fame in some other sphere.
All of that, of course, assumes that she will win the Republican nomination in the first place. Her rivals so far are attorney and Nixon son-in-law Ed Cox and former mayor of Yonkers John Spencer.
Pirro doesn’t seem worried about her long-shot status in the Senate race, however. Her optimism could have something to do with Kieran Mahoney, the Irish American who is masterminding her campaign and has a history of winning against the odds.
Mahoney is in the top echelon of Republican political consultants. Brought up in Queens and the New York suburbs of Long Island and Westchester, he has over 20 years’ experience in the hardball game of fighting election campaigns.
His most famous victory, when he spearheaded George Pataki’s defeat of three-term New York governor Mario Cuomo in 1994, has plenty of parallels with the current race. Pataki, like Pirro, was fighting a titan of the Democratic Party and was given little chance of winning. Pirro will be hoping Mahoney can work the same kind of magic for her.
Some of the specifics of Mahoney’s Irish heritage are lost in time. His father, he told the Echo in a telephone interview, was descended from “Famine Irish,” with the exact origins of the family on that side unclear. His maternal grandmother hailed from County Cork and his maternal grandfather from County Donegal.
“Growing up, my Irish heritage was certainly something that I was aware of, and it was something that my uncles and my parents were very into,” he recalled.
At Mahoney’s Mercury Public Affairs, a company that lobbies on behalf of businesses as well as offering political consultancy, that heritage is much in evidence.
“The company has five partners, and among them we have me, Tom Doherty and Mike McKeon,” Mahoney noted.
“We have a few Lonergans and the like running around the place, so we definitely have the Irish well represented,” he added.
Doherty and McKeon are former Pataki aides, too, and the way the three men have converted their links to the governor into a lucrative business has elicited its fair share of criticism.
Politics is in Mahoney’s blood. His father, the late J. Daniel Mahoney, is revered among right-of-center New Yorkers because he founded the Conservative Party of New York State. Not surprisingly, the atmosphere of the Mahoney home rubbed off on the young Kieran.
“I never remember a time that was ‘before politics,'” he said. “Politics was what we talked about at dinner, it was what my father did for a living, it was always there.”
The Conservative Party first began to be taken seriously when William F. Buckley ran on the party ticket for mayor of New York City in 1965. He received 12 percent of the vote. Five years later, in a huge upset, Buckley’s brother James was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Conservative.
The victory party in the Waldorf Hotel was, Mahoney recalled, “probably the night I remember most from when I was very young. That was the first time my parents ever allowed me to drink alcohol, too. I had a little champagne. I was 12 years old.”
His father aside, two men were to play a crucial role in Mahoney’s political development. One was New York’s Republican senator Alfonse D’Amato, the other D’Amato’s ally and strategist Arthur Finkelstein.
Mahoney, unsurprisingly, is full of praise for both men. D’Amato, he said, “taught me the importance of lots of constituency work.” From Finkelstein, Mahoney noted, he learnt “the importance of polling and a lot of the elements of the modern science of politics.”
Others do not see the picture quite so simply. Several people interviewed for this article suggested that D’Amato and Finkelstein seem to represent two different strands within Mahoney – D’Amato the committed conservative, Finkelstein the canny strategist more inclined towards taking the politically expedient course.
To some conservatives, D’Amato’s final loss of his Senate seat to Democrat Charles “Chuck” Schumer can be attributed to the Republican’s drift away from his base – a drift, the critics contend, that was encouraged by Finkelstein and Mahoney.
“D’Amato lost in 1998 thanks to bad advice that he received from Kieran,” author and former Conservative mayoral candidate George Marlin told the Echo. “D’Amato lost because Italian grandmothers in Queens and places like that either stayed home or voted against him to punish him” for a perceived abandonment of conservative principles.
Whatever the merits of that particular analysis, many observers agree that Finkelstein and Mahoney encouraged New York Republicans to embrace more moderate positions.
“Kieran was one of the leaders of the movement in that direction,” said the doyen of the Albany press corps, New York Post state editor Fred Dicker, in an interview with the Echo. “I think people like him and Finkelstein came to the conclusion that the state was becoming so increasingly Democratic that they had no choice.”
Finkelstein is a somewhat shadowy figure in the New York political world, his mysterious image deepened by his disinclination to give interviews. However, his prot