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The Elephant In The Room

Bringing the Convention to New York was Mayor Bloomberg’s Bright Idea. But Who’s Using Who?

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Mayor Bloomberg and a complicated friend.  

It is helicopter Hysteria Day. This morning’s front pages blare the news that someone, somewhere, connected with Al Qaeda has considered using tourist helicopters as weapons against the city. This follows Target Citicorp Building Day and Black Car Attack Day.

Coincidentally, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is speaking to hundreds of security officials for midtown office buildings in a previously scheduled meeting inside an auditorium at One Police Plaza. The group has been working with the NYPD for months to plan for the Republican National Convention and is gathered today to be briefed on truck-inspection checkpoints and protest-march routes by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. First, though, Mayor Bloomberg thanks everyone for their hard work and cooperation. “This is a crucial moment for our city,” he says serenely, “and I’m confident it will bring out the best qualities of the people of New York City, and we’ll show our true character to the rest of the world.”

A few minutes later, upstairs at a press conference, the tanned and trim Bloomberg is equally crisp, if considerably less cheery. Though the phrases “car-stopping delta barriers” and “high-tech vehicle-scanning devices” don’t roll trippingly off his lips, he handles the details of soft and hard perimeters, airport inspections, and arrest procedures with aplomb. Bloomberg is annoyed, however, at what he considers the overreaction of the news media to the latest terror rumors. “Just because there’s a story in the paper, it’s not the first time we’ve heard or thought about it!” he snaps in reply to yet another question about preventive measures against the possible copters-of-death. Even if his tone—testy bordering on tense—isn’t exactly the best way to soothe an increasingly jittery city, Bloomberg’s attitude—Hey, we’re New Yorkers, we’re tough and smart; enough with the hand-wringing already—is strangely reassuring.

Yet the most impressive aspect of Bloomberg’s performance is what he doesn’t say. With the convention bearing down, the mayor spends nearly an hour talking about every last economic, logistical, and philosophical intricacy of the massive political event. And not once does he speak the words “president” or “George W. Bush.”

With the convention bearing down, the mayor talks about every last economic and logistical intricacy—and never says the words “president” or “Bush.”

There’s no hiding the star of the show, of course. Nor the fact that the mayor, like the president, is a Republican. But the ways in which Michael Bloomberg confronts and sidesteps that reality will make for the most fascinating, unpredictable politics in an otherwise tightly scripted week.

Already, the core of Bloomberg’s strategy is clear. He is treating the Republican National Convention as simply one more astute business deal. Bringing the convention to the city isn’t about politics; it’s about filling hotel rooms and restaurant seats, marketing a resilient New York on international TV. “This convention will bring the city $250 million in economic activity, and also show that we’re back from 9/11,” Bloomberg says. “And the real economic benefit is long-term, from the people going home from the convention and telling their kids or telling their neighbors that New York is safe, that it’s fun, that people were nice to them.” Displaced street vendors? Nightmarish traffic jams? “This is the slowest business week of the year!” Bloomberg says, slightly irritated. “You couldn’t ask for a better week to do it!”

Bloomberg wants to drain the emotion out of a week that’s fundamentally about stoking emotions, whether through celebratory balloons or satirical street puppets. Assuming—praying—that there are no tragedies, convention week is shaping up to be a classically Bloombergian event for New Yorkers: something that ain’t all that much fun for most people, but—c’mon, admit it—is ultimately good for you. A net positive for the public welfare, accompanied by minor hassles. Kind of like the smoking ban, only with street closures and lots of bomb-sniffing dogs. (And, of course, what the mayor isn’t mentioning is that the convention will likely barely move the city’s economic dial—witness the Democratic convention in Boston.)

As much as the strictly business, nothing-personal approach is consistent with Bloomberg’s style and character, it’s also politically astute: Bloomberg is the mayor of, and next year will run for reelection in, the city with the largest and most vehemently antiwar Democratic population in the nation. Besides being the opening act of Bush’s reelection campaign, convention week is the prelude to Bloomberg’s 2005 reelection effort. And as the mayor reacts to unexpected twists—whether terrorists or mass arrests or some city-bashing slur by Trent Lott—the convention could finally begin to establish a positive emotional connection between Bloomberg and New Yorkers. The convention is the first true public spectacle largely of Bloomberg’s making. “It was a team effort,” he demurs. But then genuine salesman’s pride seeps through as Bloomberg talks about making the city’s case. “To sell something, you really have to believe in it, and I truly believe that New York is the best place for any party to have a convention,” he says. Then his voice drops self-consciously. “Maybe some of that came through.”

Bloomberg was pitching a New York convention to the White House even before he was officially on the job. On November 15, 2001, nine days after he’d upset Mark Green and won the mayoralty, Bloomberg flew to Washington. New York was still in shock, the World Trade Center rubble still smoldering. Adding to the tension was the fact that the Bush administration had just helped to kill a $9 billion aid package for the city. Bloomberg went to Capitol Hill and met with the New York delegation, then went to the White House and pressed Vice-President Dick Cheney about the immediate need for federal dollars—but also, for the first time, about the notion of awarding the 2004 Republican National Convention to New York.


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