Howard began attending meetings of the board, and his association with commercial real-estate kingpins like Harry Helmsley, the Rudin family, and Alan Tishman began in those meetings. "Howard knew strategy," says Lew Rudin; "he was very astute, very decent, not pushy. Respect developed between he and I."
Rubenstein cemented those relationships when he helped the landlords form the Commercial Properties Association in the late sixties. Many of its members became clients. "They'd ask my opinion, my political opinion," Rubenstein says. "How do I think this new mayor will deal with real estate? What do you think the City Council's attitude is? To this day, that's how they use me." Then the bottom fell out of the city's commercial-real-estate market. "We were worried about keeping people in the city and paying rent," says Rudin. So in 1970, he and Rubenstein renamed the landlord group the Association for a Better New York, its admittedly self-serving mandate "to maintain and promote the city's position."
"That was really the beginning of my understanding of crisis issues," Rubenstein says. Not coincidentally, ABNY's efforts to restore New York's luster brought its P.R. adviser more clients. "If you trusted him to save the city," says Rudin, "you had to trust him with your own business."
Abe Beame did. "I used to treasure his advice in the political arena," says the ex-mayor. "I learned to depend on his thinking." After losing his first mayoral bid, in 1965, Beame paid the P.R. man $17,500 to handle his primary runoff in 1973. That November, Beame became New York's first Jewish mayor.
Rubenstein spent the next four years as Beame's closest unpaid adviser. He vowed not to abuse his position, and insists he never did. "I don't sell that, and I've never sold it," he says. "I don't tell people, 'I'm wired; hire me.' " Regardless, in Beame's first year in office, when city lobbyists were required to register for the first time, Rubenstein's firm ranked first of 67.
In the years that followed, Democratic politicians effectively took charge of real-estate development in New York. That made Rubenstein's connections much more alluring for builders. Today, he downplays his lobbying efforts, perhaps because they quickly became controversial. Rubenstein went too far when he called Beame for one of his clients, who wanted to open an amusement park in Staten Island. Residents screamed fix, and he quickly resigned the account. "I probably didn't pay attention to it or the resistance to it," he says. "And that happens; that's happened in my career." (Indeed, it's happened repeatedly. A few years later, he gave up contracts with four state agencies to head off conflict-of-interest charges. "Maybe I wasn't mature enough to understand it," he says. He was 50 years old at the time.)
All the controversy proved that Rubenstein had arrived. Though his four years as the unpaid head of Beame's kitchen cabinet cost him short-term, it paid off when it became clear in August 1975 that the city was running out of money and hurtling toward default on $8 billion in short-term municipal debt. Rubenstein's role in the crisis was small but decisive, and he calls it "the best time in my life."
At the request of Judah Gribetz, an aide to Governor Carey who lived in the Rockaways near Beame and Rubenstein, Rubenstein carried messages, made bad news palatable for the mayor, and helped keep the fragile talks from being derailed by animosity between Carey, who'd opposed the Brooklyn machine, and Beame, who personified it. "Abe had many dark, dire nights," says union adviser Jack Bigel. "Howard helped. It doesn't sound like much. It was much more than that."
The city was forced to live on an allowance and survived. Abe Beame's mayoralty didn't. Ed Koch ran against him and became mayor, and the night he was elected, an interesting conversation may or may not have taken place somewhere out in the gray zone. A story has been floating around for years that the night Koch won, Rubenstein called David Garth, Koch's political strategist. "Congratulations," Rubenstein supposedly said. "It's your city now."