Cuomo’s No. 1 Fan Touts DA for ’06 Senate Race

Posted February 8, 2005 at 6:18pm

It was unsurprising, somehow, to see William O’Shaughnessy’s name spread through the recent flurry of articles suggesting that Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro (R) may challenge Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in 2006. [IMGCAP(1)]

O’Shaughnessy, one of the world’s great unsung political kibitzers, a politician’s best friend, may be the best friend that Pirro and her embattled husband, Al Pirro, have.

“I do not think that Hillary is invincible,” he says.

O’Shaughnessy, who refers to himself by his surname, is the kind of funny, earthy, world-wise guy who would get the supporting role in those old Hollywood movies as the star’s best pal. Even though he’s 66, at 6-foot-3 and with a flowing white mane, he has a movie star’s good looks.

But the movies aren’t O’Shaughnessy’s medium. Although he owns two radio stations of only modest wattage in Westchester, the big, affluent suburb just north of the Bronx, he is invariably described as a radio mogul. And indeed, his all-talk WVOX-AM may have the most diverse format in radio, mixing, among other things, live, daylong broadcasts of Jewish high holiday services, political talk and programs catering to the region’s growing Jamaican population. Plus, there’s the regular yak-fests hosted by Al Pirro; former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D); legendary, ancient New York sports broadcaster Bill Mazer; and Vincent Pastore, the actor who played Big Pussy Bonpensiero before he was whacked on “The Sopranos.”

But even if O’Shaughnessy’s broadcasting empire isn’t big enough to call him a mogul, the term somehow doesn’t even begin to describe the man’s reach, which begins with radio and extends from there.

WVOX, as much as anything, is an outlet for O’Shaughnessy’s views. And that’s something he has in abundance.

“We endorse candidates. We editorialize. We raise hell. I’m an old-style Rockefeller Republican,” O’Shaughnessy says.

“He has a joie de vivre,” says Rep. Nita Lowey (D), whose district includes much of Westchester. “He loves the high life, and he’s a very elegant, articulate writer. In Westchester, his voice is heard.”

Lowey says O’Shaughnessy’s endorsement during her first House run in 1988 was “critical” to her victory.

One plugged-in publicist who knows O’Shaughnessy well calls him “the Cindy Adams of Westchester” — a reference to The New York Post’s ageless gossip columnist. A fitting comparison: Adams and O’Shaughnessy even live in the same Manhattan apartment building.

Like any good gossip columnist, O’Shaughnessy appears to be omniscient: A call to a columnist at the Journal News of Westchester to discuss O’Shaughnessy last week was returned by O’Shaughnessy himself.

And like any good gossip columnist, O’Shaughnessy peppers his conversations with bold-faced names who happen to be his friends: Ossie Davis (O’Shaughnessy spoke to Roll Call just hours before the actor and civil rights leader died last week). Peter Duchin, the big band leader. Toots Shoor, the late, lamented New York saloonkeeper. And, of course, the politicians.

“George Elmer Pataki,” as O’Shaughnessy calls the Empire State’s current GOP governor.

“George Herbert Walker Bush.”

Former Gov. Hugh Carey (D), of whom he says: “I would rather go out drinking of an evening with Hugh Carey than just about anyone else.”

Curiously, O’Shaughnessy does not refer to the 43rd president of the United States as “George Walker Bush.” Instead, he calls him, affectionately, “The Kid.”

But there are two politicians he has most been associated with through his career, both ex-governors once considered presidential timber: the late Nelson Rockefeller (R), and Cuomo, whom O’Shaughnessy almost always calls “Mario Matthew Cuomo.”

As the head of the leading public affairs station in Rockefeller’s home turf — and given his affinity for Rockefeller’s politics — it was natural for O’Shaughnessy to fall in with the four-term governor. O’Shaughnessy is full of stories about their travels together, throughout the county, state and country.

“He was Westchester’s shining star,” he says.

But O’Shaughnessy’s friendship with Cuomo is more improbable.

The two struck up a relationship in the late 1970s, when Cuomo, then New York’s secretary of state, was preparing to run for lieutenant governor. He traveled to the radio station in New Rochelle, unannounced, for an audience with O’Shaughnessy. Thinking his visitor was John Santucci, the Queens district attorney (later discredited for holding a 12-hour lunch with alleged mobsters), O’Shaughnessy kept him waiting.

Their first conversation was about capital punishment. Cuomo, a renowned death penalty opponent, told O’Shaughnessy: “Vengeance doesn’t work.”

O’Shaughnessy says he thought to himself, “Who the f— is this guy?”

But the two grew to be such friends that during Cuomo’s first run for governor in 1982, O’Shaughnessy headed a group called Republicans For Cuomo, which vexed his Republican allies to no end. And all these years later, he remains Cuomo’s No. 1 fan, calling the ex-governor “stunningly bright” and “a philosopher-statesman,” and urging him to write more books.

“I’m on his case, baby,” O’Shaughnessy says. “I’m terrorizing him to do these books. I know his moves. I know his defenses. I’m gonna make sure he gets it done.”

Cuomo doesn’t quite return the favor. Noting that O’Shaughnessy has written three books of his own, the former governor confesses that he is dreading the publication of O’Shaughnessy’s forthcoming tome. Because his books are so heavy, according to Cuomo, “the next one will have to be delivered in a handtruck.”

“Cuomo says when O’Shaughnessy writes shorter books, Cuomo will write fatter books,” the ex-governor says.

Turning serious, Cuomo notes that despite his wealth and connections, O’Shaughnessy “has never lost his instinct for the underdog.” O’Shaughnessy is, for example, the emcee at countless charitable events each year, and nonprofit groups frequently take to his airwaves to plead their case.

And Cuomo celebrates the dying brand of Republicanism that O’Shaughnessy proudly represents.

“To me he is a constant reminder of a Republican Party that was much better for this country than the current Republican Party is,” Cuomo says.

Although the GOP has moved dozens of paces to the right since Rockefeller’s heyday, O’Shaughnessy still finds Republicans he likes. Hence his current championing of Jeanine Pirro.

Pirro, a tough, telegenic prosecutor, has been touted for higher office for years and is said to be eyeing a race for state attorney general, if not the Senate, in 2006. But her lawyer-lobbyist husband could be a political liability: In 2000, he was convicted of tax fraud and spent 11 months in federal prison. When he was released, O’Shaughnessy gave Al Pirro a talk show.

Jeanine Pirro did not respond to messages seeking comment for this article.

O’Shaughnessy says Pirro, “a very vivid, dazzlingly bright woman,” should not be penalized for her husband’s sins.

“She’s so fair of face and countenance that people think she can’t possibly be a woman of substance,” he muses. “But she is.”

Besides, O’Shaughnessy — echoing an argument quietly advanced by other New York Republicans — reasons Al Pirro’s troubles become less of an issue for his wife if she is running against Clinton, who, O’Shaughnessy observes, has a “swashbuckling husband” of her own.

Of course, O’Shaughnessy may have a motive for trying to steer Jeanine Pirro away from the attorney general’s race. Cuomo’s son, “Andrew Mark Cuomo,” as the veteran broadcaster calls him, is planning to run for that job in 2006.

O’Shaughnessy concedes that there is a conflict.

“Andrew has had a tough road to hoe because his father is so stunningly bright,” he says. “But I think Andrew is about to come into his own.”

As for the prospect of a Clinton-Pirro showdown, O’Shaughnessy predicts with glee: “This will be a goddamn catfight.”