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The Mayor and His Money

Ombres is secretary-treasurer of Laborers Local 731, and after the rally, he’s telling a story about meeting Bloomberg in a slightly different setting. “He had us over to his house a couple months ago,” Ombres says. “All the union leaders. That was pretty cool. It’s a fancy place, but he’s a regular guy. He put on a good spread. And he’s come through for us. All we want is work and new members, and he’s got construction going for the next 50 years.”

Bloomberg’s charitable giving, like his dinner-party guest list, has changed, too. The number of groups receiving money from Bloomberg has swelled from nearly 600 in 2000, when he first ran for mayor, to 843 (totaling $140 million) in 2004. The mayor says the growth is a reflection of his extensive travels around the city, which introduced him to even more worthy organizations. Bloomberg also claims that giving to a wider array of causes—from stem-cell research to the Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement to his ex-wife’s pet organization, Puppies Behind Bars—is an attempt to shield him from criticism that he’s playing favorites for political purposes.

What’s intriguing, though, as well as psychologically resonant, is that as Mayor Mike takes, Citizen Mike gives. When he took office, Bloomberg faced a city-budget deficit of $6 billion. He balanced the budget through higher property taxes and cuts to city agencies, spread equally with the exception of the Police and Fire Departments. After Mayor Bloomberg tried to slash the budgets of dozens of arts groups, Citizen Bloomberg sent checks to many of the affected organizations. “It’s not as if they get cut from one place and get added to the other,” Patti Harris says. “He doesn’t mix up private philanthropy with the city’s budget.”

But the practice seems to contain elements of guilt and strategy. The effect of Bloomberg’s personal largesse has been to shield him from being seen as a heartless budget-cutter, to buy off dissent. He also avoids angering friends who sit on cultural boards and the museum-going public whose votes he needs: See, I’m not really a Republican.

Harris, who ran Bloomberg’s philanthropy machine when he was a private citizen, has become a key figure in City Hall since Bloomberg was elected. As deputy mayor for administration, she oversees the Department of Cultural Affairs, the parks department, and the Mayor’s Fund. But her role demonstrates the gray areas created by the mayor’s wealth, and how his wealth has inevitably become entangled with his political power. Last spring, Harris harangued executives of arts agencies that receive city funding for personally contributing to Gifford Miller’s mayoral campaign. “The mayor is a loyal friend and he expects loyalty from his friends,” Harris says. “It’s that simple.”

Bloomberg’s purely political contributions have been even odder as he’s tried to buy support for New York around the country. Democratic opponents flay him for giving $7 million to the Republican convention that renominated George Bush, but Bloomberg can at least argue the event was a successful marketing tool for New York. Because of his blatantly expedient jump to the GOP, Bloomberg lacked a traditional political network and was forced to invent one out of his own wallet. Yet the checks he’s written to Senate and House Republicans and the national party haven’t paid off terribly efficiently. Kentucky congressman Hal Rogers took Bloomberg’s $5,000, then voted against additional Homeland Security money for the city. Locally, Bloomberg’s checkbook diplomacy has brought some unpleasant consequences: The mayor’s $250,000 gift to the Independence Party bought him a city ballot line but also the embarrassing embrace of noxious anti-Semite Lenora Fulani.

“It gets harder, frankly, to have perspective on what goes on in the real world,” says Bloomberg friend Steven Rattner, “when you’re just not taking your dry cleaning to the cleaners anymore.”

Ask Bloomberg what’s surprised him most about being mayor, and he says, “The politics. That’s the disappointing thing. You try to convince them to vote for something, and there is, ‘What’s in it for me?’ That is depressing. The level of analysis that is done when you see laws created, whether it’s the city or state or federal level—it’s much more horse-trading than analysis.”

Bloomberg says this with a straight face, making it hard to tell whether it’s arrogance, naïveté, or simply another reminder that he still sees the world from a billionaire businessman’s perspective. But he’s certainly learned how to play the game.

A full-size school bus has been painted white and cut in half, its rear roof and sides removed to turn it into a customized rolling stage. The bus sits on Dyckman Street, in the heart of Dominican New York, on a steamy August morning, draped with MIKE FOR MAYOR banners, directly opposite Bloomberg’s uptown campaign headquarters. Inside, there are tables full of sanchoco, mofongo, rice, beans, roast chicken. There are baskets loaded with Bloomberg campaign buttons, with a choice of four Latino national flags—Dominican, Puerto Rican, Panamanian, Trinidadian. There are lanyards with laminated cards identifying volunteers, supervisors, elected officials. There’s Fernando Mateo, former Lower East Side carpet salesman turned freelance political Latino, one of a huge, multiracial cast of formerly Democratic advisers and consultants whose primary value to the Bloomberg-campaign payroll seems to be that they’re not working on a Democratic mayoral campaign.