Spotlight On:

Our new DA Janet DiFiore is no Jeanine Pirro. No one’s complaining.



Spotlight On…

 

The Quieter, But Not Gentler,

District Attorney

 

Strong and stylish—Janet DiFiore finally

got the job she’s always wanted.

 

By Meredith Berlin

 

 

 

Quick—Who’s Westchester’s District Attorney? Jeanine Pirro? Wrong. But you knew that. It’s just that you can’t remember who the new one is. Who did you vote for? Relax. If you feel a little embarrassed for knowing zilch about one of the most important people in county politics, you’re hardly alone. Unless you received a subpoena or jury notification lately, Janet DiFiore’s name is not on the tip of your tongue, and the District Attorney, who has been in office since January 2006, is just fine with that.

 

For better or worse, DiFiore’s predecessor, Jeanine Pirro, was always in the headlines—a glamorous, dark-haired, media-savvy, political rising star until a series of personal events put that to rest. DiFiore, 52, and not your Red State-type Republican (she is pro-choice and pro-gun control) has thus far kept a lower profile. But that doesn’t mean DiFiore lacks some of Pirro’s star power or legal chops.

 

Blonde, hazel-eyed, and genteel, the current DA, like her predecessor, loves clothes. Today, she’s dressed in a beautifully tailored, designer black dress with matching jacket. A pair of large, topaz earrings sets off her short, stylishly-cut hair. She wears a necklace set in heavy gold and three enormous, semi-precious-stoned rings by chic jewelry designer Pomellato, which she purchased in Italy. “I go to Italy as often as I can,” she says. Her face lights up when she’s told how well put together she looks. “Obviously, I like pretty things,” she says. Just don’t confuse DiFiore’s polished surface with a lack of substance. As she says, “I didn’t get this job because I’m a shrinking violet.”

 

Janet DiFiore, in fact, relishes the tougher aspects of her work because she believes her position gives her the power to change lives in a positive way. Even as a child, she had dreams of being not just a lawyer but a prosecutor. An only child, DiFiore grew up surrounded by family; her parents, cousins, grandmother, and aunts and uncles lived in a multi-family house in Mount Vernon. “All the cousins, we lived together and ate together.” All but one cousin. Her mother’s brother lived with his family in a different part of the county. And it was that cousin who influenced the direction of DiFiore’s career.

 

“When I was twelve,” she says, “he committed home invasion with a gun. It was awful. He was like the brother I never had. And I went to court with his mom and dad every day. But when I sat through the proceedings and saw how fair, in my estimation, the process was, even though I loved this boy desperately, I thought he was being held appropriately accountable for the terrible thing he had done. Ultimately, he went to jail for a very long time.” Watching the prosecutor battle in court at her cousin’s trial, she thought, “Oh my God, that’s what I want to do.” She never wavered in her goal.

 

Her husband, Dennis Glazer, a partner at the Manhattan law firm, Davis Polk & Wardwell and Chairman of the Board of Governor’s at Bronxville’s Lawrence Hospital Center, can vouch for that. “When I first struck up a conversation with Janet, she said she wanted to be a prosecutor in Westchester County and only Westchester County. She always knew what she wanted.”

 

DiFiore’s ambitions required her to reach higher than her immigrant parents, who were not formally educated, had been able to reach. Born in Italy, her mother went to school until the tenth grade, while her father, who owned a construction business, had only stayed through the eighth grade. But “they intuitively knew that to get ahead in this country you need an education,” DiFiore says. Once she turned 18 and had to register to vote, her father took her aside and helped her choose which political party to join.

 

 “My dad, who was a registered Republican, said, ‘Okay, honey, let’s figure this out. You want to go work for this guy Carl Vergari someday, right? So let’s see what his party is. He’s a Republican? He might be there when you’re ready to go work for him so I think you should register Republican.’” DiFiore laughs. “As it turned out, Mr. Vergari was the most apolitical person. He wouldn’t have cared if I was a Green Party member.”

 

Carl Vergari, Jeanine Pirro’s predecessor, was indeed still the Westchester County District Attorney when DiFiore went to work as an intern in his office (she stayed with the office through his entire career) after she graduated from St. John’s University School of Law. (DiFiore completed her undergraduate work at C.W. Post on Long Island and graduated in 1977.) He was, DiFiore says, the best District Attorney ever.

 

“Carl Vergari was the personification of integrity, honesty, and a man who had absolutely no agenda except to serve the people who elected him,” DiFiore says. “You wanted to make him proud. You wanted to live up to his expectations. If you had a tricky issue, he would sit down with you and say, ‘Tell me what you think is the right thing to do.’ And that is always what guided the case: the right thing to do.”

 

DiFiore worked her way up in the District Attorney’s office, eventually taking charge of the narcotics bureau. And, of course, she finally got the job she had wanted for years. (“When Pirro announced she wouldn’t run in May of ’05,” her husband recalls, “Janet called me up and within thirty seconds she had decided to resign her judgeship and run for DA. She never hesitated, not even for a second.”) But, aside from her current job, the position that she loved best was sitting as judge on the Family Court from January 1999 through December 2002; she particularly enjoyed the juvenile delinquency component of her job. “That was a court where you can put into place actions that meet an individual child’s and family’s needs.”

 

At Family Court, DiFiore dealt with families struggling, she says, “with the day-to-day harsh realities of life.” Whether the issue before her was custody, child abuse, neglect, or juvenile delinquency, DiFiore got a close-up look at the challenges that families face and a newfound respect for those who overcome them. “Everybody loves their children; everyone wants to keep their children safe. But parenting is not very natural. You have to learn parenting skills.”

 

The District Attorney says that sitting on the Family Court helped her become a better mother. “The things that I thought were of such magnitude, well, let’s say I got better balance and perspective. The little skirmishes, the cigarette or two, the beer or two—not that I’m suggesting that’s okay; it’s not okay—but it’s not the end of the world, either.”

DiFiore says she still keeps in touch with some of the families who came through her court. She tells about one young girl who had substance dependence issues, became pregnant, and was in an abusive relationship. Today, reports DiFiore, she’s a hard-working, drug-free mother. Another family, she recalls, had been furious at her when she took the child out of their home because the child’s mother was emotionally unequipped to care for her. That family reunited and recently sent DiFiore flowers.

 

In fact, DiFiore has received flowers from several families who came before her in Family Court. She treasures these little thank-yous as evidence that lives have, perhaps, changed for the better because of her.

 

Today, DiFiore is poised to affect more lives than ever. She presides over a staff of more than 230 employees and a budget in excess of $24 million. “The job is much more than I expected,” she concedes. “The full weight can’t be felt until you are in this seat.”

 

That seat resides in her office at the County Courthouse in White Plains. It’s an enormous space that she has completely redone to showcase her worldly, beautiful things, as well as her devotion to family. The couches and chairs are upholstered in red and orange. The desk and breakfront—gifts from her husband—are crafted from English Yew wood, purchased in Woodbury, Connecticut.  The decorations and knick-knacks include African masks, modern art, drawings by her children made when they were school age, and many, many photos of family and colleagues.

 

Of her relationships with the latter, she says, “I’m a big communicator. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m not subtle and I don’t allow other people to be subtle with me. If I have a question, I’m going to ask you straight out.” But when it comes to discussing her famous predecessor and one-time boss of six years, Jeanine Pirro, she’s a little less than direct, refusing to comment on their relationship. When it’s mentioned that Pirro had a reputation for being relentless when going after sexual predators, DiFiore says, “I think she had a strong prosecutorial initiative in a place that was focused on sexual predators, yes.” An associate, who requested anonymity, maintains, “No one is going to say anything negative about Jeanine. This is a small county.”

 

Yet County Executive Andrew Spano is not mum. “Janet has reorganized the office and made it much more efficient and productive. Janet doesn’t have to be the center of the limelight. And she’s very strong, as a person, in a way that’s not offensive. I like working with her.” What did Difiore admire most about Pirro? “Her energy,” she says. “It was boundless.” And what did she most admire about the way Pirro managed the DA’s office? “Her energy,” she says again and smiles. There is a noticeable silence in the room. Did Pirro support DiFiore’s candidacy? “Yes,” she answers, then corrects herself, “Well, you know what? My impression is that, yes, of course she supported it, but you should ask her these questions.” Pirro, through her lawyer, declined to comment.

 

Clearly, DiFiore has a gift for office politics. As for DiFiore’s own political beliefs, she says that while she and her husband are Republicans, she does not always vote for Republican candidates. Two of her three children are of voting age (Michael, 18, her youngest, is a senior in high school in Bronxville), and she doesn’t disclose if they’re registered Republicans or not. Overall, however, you get the feeling that the DiFiore household is a fairly harmonious place with a solid partnership at its core.

 

DiFiore met her husband on her first day of law school. Dennis Glazer was in his third year. “She came into the library and sat down at the table I had been using for two years,” he recalls. “She pushed my books aside to make space for herself.” Two weeks after she took the bar exam, they married.

 

DiFiore says she knew right away that Glazer was the man for her. “My husband is, hands down, the smartest man I know. He gives me a lot of space to do what makes me happy and I like to think I do the same for him.” 

 

Despite the family’s busy schedule, DiFiore gets her family time by insisting on going out to dinner en famille at least one night a week. “For about an hour and forty minutes, no one’s going anywhere. There are no phones ringing, no distractions.

 

DiFiore is reputedly a down-to-earth mother, neighbor, and friend. “I love the fact that she treats every person the same way—from the guy behind the counter who gets her coffee to a teacher or a judge; she’s always been like that,” says her 23-year-old daughter Alexandra, who currently attends Fordham Law School (Joseph, 21, is at Yale). And what does Alexandra not love about her mother? “My shoes have a funny way of finding their way to the back of her closet.”

 

DiFiore’s best friend is Susan Rienzi of Mount Vernon, whom she met 15 years ago when their children were young. Rienzi, who helps run a family restaurant in the city, says she and DiFiore were two “Italian girls” who just gravitated toward each other.  Over the years, the two friends have traveled together—to Florida, to different spas—and dream of taking a trip together to Rome. “Janet packs one bag, I pack four.”

“She’s a girlfriend, not a judge, lawyer, or DA,” says Rienzi. “She has never, ever let her position be part of the relationship. She’s a girl with me. We talk every day.

 

“Look, I’m proud of what she’s done with her life,” Rienzi continues, “but what counts is that Janet would have my back in a heartbeat. She’s been there through every trauma in my life. You know a good friend when you’re having a bad time. A good friend helps you get past it.” And if that good friend happens to be DiFiore, you might also get a pizza rustica or two that she makes. Rienzi says the DA gifts her family with one of these signature pies every Easter.

 

Not surprisingly, families, relationships, and community matter greatly to DiFiore—professionally as well as personally. She travels throughout the county talking to parents about underage drinking, one of the many things that confound families. “At one of the first groups I did with Ellen Morehouse, the director of Student Assistant Services, an organization that helps kids in schools with substance abuse issues, a parent asked, ‘What do I say when my children say, ‘Mom, you smoked marijuana or you drank, so why can’t I?’ And Ellen said, ‘You say, What I did when I was a child, number one, is of no concern to you, and number two, doesn’t relate to how I parent you.’” DiFiore beams. “And I thought, of course that’s the right answer!”

 

As District Attorney, Janet DiFiore addressed her passion for children’s rights almost immediately by putting into place an initiative called The Westchester County Child Fatality Review Team, which uses an interdisciplinary approach to see if and where government services went wrong when a child dies.

 

“There is a state law in place that permits us [to use this initiative], but we weren’t able, as a county, to get that off the ground.” Today, under DiFiore’s leadership, when a child dies, all the different agencies that contract with social services, as well as the police, representatives from the District Attorney’s office, and County Attorney’s office, meet to see if they had failed to meet that child’s needs. If something went wrong, they work together to try and figure out how to fix it so that, in the future, it doesn’t happen again. Such a meeting can often cause people to get defensive and unwilling to disclose all the facts, but that’s where DiFiore’s managerial style comes into play.

 

“I’m not one of those people who looks to assess blame and lop your head off. I don’t think that’s productive.”

 

DiFiore’s attention is also focused on a new program she’s initiated, The Intelligence Center, a technologically advanced system that allows the 40-odd police departments in the county to communicate with each other so that if a crime is committed in New Rochelle, a police officer in Somers knows about it. “Right now many police departments don’t even have case management systems in place,” she laments. “Some police departments don’t even have computerized record keeping systems, which is astounding. We are very technologically depressed and we’re trying to change that.”

 

As for the future, DiFiore absolutely intends to run again for District Attorney, a four-year term. “There is no other government agency that affects people’s lives on a daily basis like this one. The work we do here determines whether or not the people in this county are getting justice in the court.”

 

Away from the office, DiFiore loves to go boating (her family has a Cobalt 3-2), read (nonfiction only, please), go to good restaurants, and spend time with her children and extended family. When the day comes for her to say “I’m outta here,” DiFiore dreams of splitting her time between Westchester and “anywhere” in Italy. Does her husband share the fantasy? DiFiore laughs. “No, he’d probably like to go to Florida.”

 

Meredith Berlin is a freelance writer who lives in Armonk with a husband, three kids, four dogs, and two cats. This is her first assignment for Westchester Magazine.

 

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