More subtly, there’s the merengue band. Its members are wearing blue T-shirts with the Mets logo on the front and BLOOMBERG 05 on the back. The shirts are souvenirs from a Bloomberg “volunteer night” at Shea Stadium. The Bloomberg campaign claims 30,000 volunteers. They weren’t all treated to a ball game at Shea, of course, but the campaign makes plenty of other goodies available.
It all adds up. As of July, the last time his campaign was required to file disclosure reports, Bloomberg had spent $23 million. And that’s before the major TV ads and direct-mail blowouts begin in October. Bloomberg’s reelection spending should top the record-setting $75 million he shelled out in 2001 (“The same press that says I’m spending a lot of money then raises its ad rates!” Bloomberg says). But what’s astonishing about the campaign is less the big bucks than the precision with which they are spent. Every dollar seems to have a purpose, from customized buttons and placards for every conceivable ethnic-pride parade to a more ominous, Big Brother–ish effort: the most sophisticated computerized voter file ever used in a municipal election.
“Should I tell you everything about your home life now?” Kevin Sheekey asks. Bloomberg’s campaign manager says he’s joking. Sheekey’s desk at the center of Bloomberg reelection headquarters on West 40th Street is flanked by five flat-screen computer monitors. On this morning in August, Gifford Miller released his latest Democratic-primary TV ad; hours later, Sheekey dials up and watches a digital version of the ad, a capability even the Miller campaign doesn’t have. The campaign’s most potent gadget, however, is the voter file, assembled, at a cost of more than $3 million, by mining consumer databases to identify potential Bloomberg voters. In Sheekey’s view, the mayor remains the underdog because he’s running as a Republican in a town with a five-to-one Democratic registration.
Bloomberg’s big spending also buys endless rumors about the nefarious ways he’s alleged to be using his money. In August, the Times interviewed voters who’d been on the receiving end of “push-polling”—calls disguised as opinion surveys that are really attempting to sway opinion by circulating derogatory information, in this case about Freddy Ferrer. One voter quizzed her caller and was told the call originated in Denver. Bloomberg’s campaign polling firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland, has an office in Denver. But so do lots of companies, and it’s surely a coincidence. “We don’t do push-polling,” says Bloomberg-campaign spokesman Stu Loeser.
Sheekey learned the political game as an aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was always scraping for campaign cash. He joined Bloomberg in 2000, and it took him time to adjust. “I remember when I was trying to find new office space in Washington, D.C., for Bloomberg L.P.,” Sheekey says. “We’d found a few floors in some buildings, and he wasn’t happy with them. He said, ‘Well, why don’t you just buy a building?’ And I said, ‘We’re in downtown Washington; there aren’t a lot of buildings that can be bought.’ He said, ‘Well, just buy an old building. Maybe an old embassy or something.’ I said, ‘Well, there really aren’t any buildings like that downtown.’ And he looked out of the window of the car and he said, ‘How about that one?’ And he pointed out a building which was a closed bank building which I had walked past every day to work and had never noticed. In the end, our actions put the building on the market, which it hadn’t been, and someone else overpaid so much that they never had the money to fit it out. The building still sits there. He just sees things that people don’t see.”
Maybe. Or maybe Bloomberg is simply willing to spend whatever it takes to get what he needs.
Bloomberg waves off the argument that he wouldn’t be mayor if he wasn’t a billionaire, and says he wants to be reelected purely on his first-term record. But he’s unwilling to run on a level campaign-spending playing field—an acknowledgment that without his money, Bloomberg might have an actual contest on his hands. Abstractions like the long-term health of democracy don’t interest him. “What’s the argument to run a risk?” he asks. “If you really believe that you’re making a difference and that you can leave a legacy of better schools and jobs and safer streets, why would you not spend the money? The objective is to improve the schools, bring down crime, build affordable housing, clean the streets—not to have a fair fight.”
The New York area is currently in the middle of a boomlet of megarich politicians, with Bloomberg in City Hall and Jon Corzine trying to move from the U.S. Senate to the governorship of New Jersey. Corzine is embroiled in a sex-and-loan scandal, but Bloomberg has, so far, managed to move from private life to public office while holding on to his dignity. If he’s able to maintain his reputation as an effective, well-liked mayor through a second term, he just might inspire other captains of industry to follow him into the political arena. Which could bring in new ideas, or turn City Hall into a fat-cat preserve. Perhaps, if the Democrats have learned anything from the current tycoon-mayor experiment, they should start looking around for a technocratic billionaire who’s willing to stay in the party and run in 2009.