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The Elephant In The Room

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Bloomberg kept up the sales pitch during the next thirteen months, in conversations with President Bush, in meetings between New York hoteliers and Republican National Committee leaders, even in a PowerPoint presentation that was fine-tuned by Emma Bloomberg, his eldest daughter. At the same time—as Bloomberg always hastens to add—the city was pursuing the Democratic National Convention. That courtship was considerably less ardent on both sides. The Democrats wanted an exclusive in New York, which Bloomberg quickly rejected. City officials were annoyed that the Democratic National Committee sent a site-visit group of 70 people—“a total patronage deal,” says one angry Bloomberg insider—in contrast to the RNC’s delegation of seven people, all of whom had specific experience operating previous conventions.

“Bloomberg told me he thought the Republicans were coming to New York, and I told him from day one that he would not get both conventions,” says Terry McAuliffe, the DNC chairman. “It made zero sense, with a Republican mayor and a Republican governor in New York, to go and share work space with the Bush White House, on their terms. We were not going to go to a place where the Republicans are blatantly going to take advantage of 9/11, which was a tragic and nonpartisan event.

“Michael Bloomberg gave me a lot of money,” he continues. “He was a very generous, dedicated Democrat who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars. He would have had a leg up on getting the Democratic convention if during one of our private dinners he told me he renounced the disastrous policies of George W. Bush and was coming back to the Democratic Party. But hey, if he decides to run for reelection as a Republican, we’ll beat him.”

“I have no right to play partisan politics on the conventions,” Bloomberg claims. “I told Terry that New York City is open to everybody. It would be a disgrace for me to limit the choices to one or the other.”

The deal was sealed in December 2002, when Bill Harris, the head of the Republican site-selection team, came to the city to talk about hotel rates. “September 11 wasn’t one of their considerations in selecting a city,” claims a Bloomberg negotiator. “It never came up when we talked to the Republicans and the White House.” As if it had to: That final meeting was held at the new Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park City, overlooking the World Trade Center site.

If the Republicans didn’t want to connect the dots out loud, Roland Betts, the founder and chairman of Chelsea Piers and a longtime close friend and business partner of President Bush’s, did it for them. Bloomberg put Betts on the three-member team lobbying for the convention. Betts told Bush and Karl Rove that holding the convention in Tampa, one of the other finalists, would generate talk of hanging chads. Going to New Orleans had little resonance of any kind. New York, Betts said, was the best background for the convention, to highlight the administration’s response to the September 11 attacks.

From the vantage point of December 2002, when the selection was made, holding the convention in New York must have looked irresistible to the White House. The invasion of Afghanistan seemed to have gone smoothly, President Bush’s poll numbers were soaring, and his embrace of firefighters atop the World Trade Center pile was one of the indelible images of his first two years in office. Bloomberg was promising there’d be no trouble with municipal unions and that the city would have no trouble raising the private money—the current figure is $70 million—needed to help bankroll the convention.

The world, needless to say, has changed since then. Coming to New York now means coming to the home field of antiwar, anti-Bush sentiment—creating a situation where violent protest could create a swing-state bounce. For Bloomberg, too, the political equation has greatly shifted. Until this year, it seemed like Bloomberg’s Republican identification—and the convention, more specifically—was one of the factors that would pull him down to defeat in 2005. Now, even though his prospects have improved considerably—his approval rating hit 50 percent in June—Bloomberg dances around the questions that dominate national politics. “The War on Terror started here, in the streets of New York” is as close as he comes to talking about Iraq.

By October 2003, when Laura Bush came to a Rainbow Room luncheon, she wasn’t looking just for donations but for a public-relations boost. Her husband was on the defensive about the failure to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and Iraqi insurgents were increasing their deadly attacks on U.S. troops. The First Lady came to be the main attraction at a $1,000-per-person Bush-Cheney ’04 affair. But photo ops with the president’s local allies were high on the agenda, too. Above Rockefeller Center, she matched smiles with an enthusiastic Mayor Bloomberg.

Moments later, Jennifer Blei Stockman caught the mayor’s eye. She knew the mayor was already besieged with invitations to host parties during the Republican convention, and Stockman wanted to once again express her hope that the mayor would be a headliner at her group’s event. “Absolutely,” the mayor replied. “I’m not sure about all the events yet, but this is one I’m going to completely embrace.”

Stockman is the co-chair of the Republican Majority for Choice; the other co-chair, Dina Merrill, is a longtime pal of Bloomberg’s from the charity-dinner circuit. The abortion-rights group is a distinctly minority player in the national GOP these days, yet in July the mayor officially made good on his promise to Stockman, and he’ll co-host the Republican Majority for Choice party, on August 31 at the Sky Room. “He’s been very good to our group, even prior to his political life,” Stockman says. “He has daughters, and he’s always believed that women should have the right to choose. But saying that and co-hosting our event takes enormous guts in this Republican Party.”

The mayor is lending his name to just three ancillary events. Besides the abortion-rights group, Bloomberg will co-host a party thrown by the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian group that has so far declined to endorse President Bush, and one honoring the Congressional Hispanic Conference. The choices are unsubtle, in terms of advertising his distance from the family-values Republican platform and his understanding of the New York electorate. “There’s a culture war going on in this country over how to recognize gay and lesbian families,” says Patrick C. Guerriero, the executive director of Log Cabin, “and Mayor Bloomberg is really considered one of the leading voices for inclusion within the Republican Party, which is probably less recognized in New York than outside it.”

Bloomberg says he’s not concerned about whether anyone at the national Republican level is listening. “I’m for opening the party and the country to everyone,” he says. “It’s just logical to host these parties.”


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