“Bullshit,” Mike Bloomberg said. The televisions inside Bloomberg campaign headquarters had been showing smoke and fire billowing from the World Trade Center’s North Tower for fifteen minutes. Now a plane smashed into the South Tower, and a news anchor wondered whether there had been a disastrous problem with air-traffic control. Bloomberg was reacting not as a novice politician or as a billionaire media mogul but as an experienced pilot. “It’s a crystal-clear day,” he said. “These are visual-flying conditions. It has nothing to do with air-traffic control or any other mistakes.”
He’d been expecting a slow primary day, tinkering with his speech declaring victory over Herman Badillo. All the attention was on the Democratic side, which featured a tight contest between Mark Green and Freddy Ferrer. The city’s media had mostly dismissed Bloomberg as a bumbling naïf, and polls showed him being clobbered nearly two to one by whoever won the Democratic nomination [E1]. At around 10:45 a.m., the primary was halted.
Politics took a break, but not for long. Giuliani’s leadership in the immediate aftermath of the Towers’ fall turned him into an international hero; the day after the rescheduled primary, which Bloomberg won and which thrust Green and Ferrer into a runoff, Giuliani proposed a 90-day term extension. This presented a stark tactical problem for his would-be successors: With Giuliani’s popularity soaring, did they dare oppose him? Bloomberg didn’t mind the idea of Giuliani remaining in City Hall a little longer, but he desperately needed Rudy’s enthusiastic endorsement to have a real chance to win. Antagonizing Giuliani would have been foolish. Ferrer, whose base was anti-Giuliani voters, rejected the proposal. Green, who needed Giuliani Democrats, acquiesced. That choice probably helped Green defeat Ferrer in the runoff, but Bloomberg’s advisers were also thrilled: They thought Ferrer would be a tougher general-election opponent. And Giuliani loathed Green, so he’d likely be even more eager to help Bloomberg.
Unless Giuliani wasn’t helpful at all, that is. “Rudy was focusing on his job, but he was also trying to appear above politics,” a senior Bloomberg campaign adviser said. “I’m sure there were people in his camp saying, ‘Look, you’ve just been sainted; do you really want to go out there with your first endorsement after 9/11 and endorse a losing mayoral candidate?’ And it wasn’t clear we were going to win.” So as the November 6 general election closed in and Green continued to lead, the Bloomberg campaign began to squirm: When, if ever, would Giuliani formally endorse Bloomberg? “The folks in the Bloomberg camp, they wanted it, wanted it, wanted it, and Rudy wouldn’t give it to them, and it was driving them crazy,” a Giuliani aide said with a laugh.
Bloomberg’s anxiety escalated because he was finally gaining serious ground against Green with a resonant message of competence and job creation. Giuliani’s backing would provide unparalleled validation, if only he’d deliver it. “We couldn’t crowd Rudy or we risked pissing him off,” a Bloomberg adviser said. So Bloomberg turned to David Garth. The pioneering political strategist had elected Hugh Carey governor and John Lindsay, Ed Koch, and Giuliani mayor. In the spring of 2001, when a Bloomberg-for-mayor campaign seemed at most a vanity play, two of his closest advisers, Patti Harris and Kevin Sheekey, called Garth, who agreed to a furtive lunch at a back table inside Café des Artistes. The gruff adman surprised them by saying he’d come onboard, and six months later, Garth proved an invaluable emissary to Giuliani.
Bloomberg’s $73 million in campaign spending bought some subtle tools, too. “We were doing daily tracking polls and Mark wasn’t, which is why they realized too late how close the race was,” a Bloomberg strategist said. “Those polls also helped us show Rudy that we had a real chance of winning.” To be ready to move instantly if and when Rudy said yes to shooting an ad, the Bloomberg campaign rented a TV studio and film crew and kept the meter running for what turned out to be two weeks. “Rudy went to the studio Garth wanted, and they gave him a script, but he didn’t look at the script,” a Giuliani aide recalled. “He said to David, ‘Put on the camera.’ Rudy spoke for 58 seconds, David said, ‘Cut, we’re done,’ and Rudy left.” Giuliani made the candidate sweat a bit longer, though. “The commercial was in the can, but we couldn’t run it until Rudy signed off and until he endorsed Mike in person,” a Bloomberg aide said. With media speculation cresting that Giuliani was avoiding endorsing Bloomberg, the event finally happened on Saturday afternoon, October 27, on the steps of City Hall. The endorsement ad started running the next day.
On Election Night, the Bloomberg team assembled inside a suite at the Hilton Times Square, poring over returns fed to them by cops charged with delivering the numbers to the Board of Elections. Bloomberg trailed all night. Then, around 10 p.m., a landline in the suite rang.* It was Mark Green, calling to speak with Bloomberg. Apparently, Green had better police sources: He was conceding. Bloomberg took the phone, stunned. He had never led in any poll, public or private. And now a city living through its darkest hours was turning to him as its next mayor.
*This article has been corrected to show that the call Bloomberg received from Green on Election Night came through on a landline, not Sheekey's cell phone.