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Driving Mr. Bloomberg

A lame duck's coattails have never given such a smooth ride as Rudy's did to Mike Bloomberg. But now, things may get bumpy.

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No one paid much attention to the meeting at the time. It was just one extremely rich businessman, in a city full of them, calling on the mayor. Up until that short chat in October 1996, Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani had very little in common: Bloomberg was a registered Democrat. He'd supported David Dinkins in the 1993 race against Giuliani. All 261 pages of Bloomberg's autobiography, published the following year, go by without a single mention of Giuliani.

Then mutual self-interest pushed Bloomberg and Giuliani together and launched what last week proved to be a highly useful partnership for both men. In October 1996, Bloomberg had just flown in from Singapore and was riding back to Manhattan when he called City Hall and asked for a meeting. Giuliani was fighting with Time Warner, demanding that it clear a New York channel for Fox News. The mayor claimed he was lobbying on behalf of city jobs; skeptics denounced his efforts as political payback for Fox's owner, Rupert Murdoch, whose media outlets like the New York Post had boosted Rudy's run for City Hall.

Bloomberg saw an opening. He, too, had a fledgling news service that was languishing without a major cable distributor. He realized he could help himself by offering the mayor some cover: Giuliani's I'm-only-battling-for-New York-jobs argument would be slightly more credible if he were trying to force Time Warner to carry both Fox News and Bloomberg Information Television.

Both networks eventually won their spots on the satellite. But far more significant was the bond formed between Giuliani and Bloomberg. "You could see that Rudy and Mike understood each other," a Bloomberg adviser says. "They were on the same wavelength right away." They grew closer as Bloomberg mulled running and Giuliani encouraged him; as Bloomberg ran, current and former Giuliani staff coached him. Last week, their hands clasped high in the air in triumph, Giuliani and Bloomberg appeared to be soul mates.

Well, B.B. King's is no Rick's American Cafe, and the Election Night scene isn't likely to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Intimates of both men are already wondering about the durability of the good feeling. "There's no doubt in anyone's mind Rudy won the election for Bloomberg. This was Rudy's re-election," says a former high-ranking Giuliani official -- who, like anyone else who has worked for Rudy, knows where Giuliani believes all credit for anything successful in New York belongs, never mind the efforts of, say, police commissioners or $50 million in campaign spending. The ex-Giuliani aide also issues a warning: "As tough and hard as the mayor is, when the deals were done with unions, he knew how to compromise in order to push his agenda. He knew how to make deals with Peter Vallone in the City Council. Even during the troubled times with him and Governor Pataki, he knew when he had to compromise. That's going to be the key. The mayor is a great politician. Bloomberg is a terrific guy. He's clearly smart. He's a leader. But if you're the boss of a business, you say it and it's done. You deal with your bankers and your customers; Bloomberg didn't even have to deal with public stockholders. Any slipups -- in light of September 11 -- are gonna be very, very hard to recover from. It'll be very interesting to watch the first 100 days of this administration."

A second key Giuliani-administration veteran is more explicit about who will be watching most intently, and more dubious about how long the Giuliani-Bloomberg love match will last. "He's got a couple of books to write. He's been ill and he wants to get a piece of his life back. So I take him at his word that he's gonna be real busy," the former aide says. "But Rudy Giuliani will never disappear, that's for sure. Mike's going to look to carve out his own very big public niche as mayor. And I wouldn't be surprised if that causes a strain between them."

Bloomberg would appear to have weightier problems. His first crisis is likely to hit in February, when he presents a preliminary budget that attempts to close a projected $4 billion deficit. "When we came in, in January 1994, it was a bad economic situation but not as bad as this," says a former Giuliani official. "There's gonna be a lot of cuts that piss people off." Contracts with the teachers', firefighters', and police unions have expired, or will very soon, and instead of satisfying a pent-up demand for raises, Bloomberg will be talking to labor about layoffs. The one agency where it's crucial for Bloomberg to retain people, the Police Department, is hemorrhaging close to 200 retirees a month. Bloomberg will also have to decide whether to try to influence the selection of a new, Democratic Speaker of the City Council.

But touching or underlying all of these issues, especially at the beginning of his administration, is Bloomberg's relationship with Giuliani -- a man who doesn't necessarily have Bloomberg's best interests at heart. With their mutual enemy, Mark Green, dispatched, the dynamic between Giuliani and Bloomberg will change, and fast. Giuliani realizes he needs some deniability in case Bloomberg is a spectacular failure.

Bloomberg's breakfast with Freddy Ferrer drew all the cameras last week, but it was a quiet phone call he made the next day, to Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields, that surely got the incumbent's attention: Giuliani ignored Fields for nearly his entire time in office. Last week's press-conference posturing by Bloomberg, that he'd be the one deciding whether Giuliani headed the World Trade Center recovery agency, may have given Bloomberg a measure of useful public-relations distance from his patron. There's no doubt, however, who will make the call about Rudy's future employment.

"He'll look for a position that allows him to be free-swinging," says Ed Koch, who despises Giuliani but teamed with him to endorse Bloomberg. "Giuliani has to keep himself in the information area, people have to know about him continuously, he can't allow people to forget about him, because his goal in life, based on his history and his comments, is that he wants to be mayor again." One thing Bloomberg and Giuliani share is an elastic loyalty to the GOP; don't think that just because Giuliani put Bloomberg into City Hall, he'll hesitate to kick him out in 2005.

Interestingly, Bloomberg's ties to Governor George Pataki look far stronger. Pataki needs a relatively healthy New York City when he's running for re-election next year, of course. But the pair have two women linking them as well. Bloomberg's girlfriend, Diana Taylor, was an assistant secretary in the Pataki Cabinet for three years. Bloomberg also wisely cultivated a friendship with Zenia Mucha, Pataki's barnacle-tough strategist, who is now an executive at ABC.

Giuliani antagonists are already eager to draw unflattering comparisons with Bloomberg. A November 18 memorial service for Fire Department widows was postponed the day after Bloomberg's win. "We didn't want to hold it while the mayor who is spitting in the eye of firefighters' widows is still in office," a fire union official says. "We'd rather wait and give Mike the honor of addressing the memorial." The media, of course, will look for any contrasts between the behaloed Giuliani and the novice, potty-mouthed Bloomberg; any hints of second-guessing or backstage string-pulling by Giuliani will immediately be in three-inch, boldfaced front-page tabloid type. Yet Bloomberg's ability to respond is severely restricted. "Bloomberg may get a little irritated if there are stories about the shadow mayor or the 'real' mayor," a Bloomberg adviser says. "But he owes Rudy -- big."

Perhaps Bloomberg has already ordered the rudy giuliani way signs for the nondescript street adjoining Jacob Ruppert Place behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. Somehow, though, it's hard to imagine one block of pavement satisfying a man who believes there'd be no city for Mike Bloomberg to govern if he, Rudy Giuliani, hadn't saved it.


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