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The Elephant In The Room

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Those kinds of socially leftish leanings initially helped fuel deep skepticism about Bloomberg among national party leaders. Bloomberg, of course, was a Democrat until the age of 58. His conversion, in 2000, was prompted not by a philosophical awakening but by pure expedience: He wanted to avoid running in a crowded Democratic mayoral primary. Even after winning City Hall as a Republican, Bloomberg faced a steep climb to win favor in the party’s power structure: He was mayor of a solidly Democratic city. He didn’t have the stature of his fellow New York Republican iconoclast, Rudy Giuliani. And unlike Governor George Pataki, Bloomberg couldn’t call on an old-school bond with Bush.

All of which makes Bloomberg’s acceptance by national Republicans a remarkable feat. How has he overcome all his disadvantages and endeared himself to George Bush and Karl Rove? “Bloomberg has raised an absolute ass-load of money for the Republican Party nationally,” says a GOP strategist currently working for the Bush campaign. “He is an absolute star. He’s worked very hard to put together fund-raisers for a lot of Republican candidates. Bloomberg and Giuliani account for a very meaningful fraction of the Republican money raised this year. They’ve both made a staggering lift for key candidates, but I think Bloomberg deserves more credit than he’s received yet.”

And Bloomberg is a useful symbol for the Republicans. “You’re gonna see people of the political stripe of Giuliani and McCain and Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg, who are not your hard-core traditional right-wingers, speaking at the convention,” the consultant says. “That’s a part of the Republican mainstream that we need to get out there right now, especially when we’re aiming at swing states.”

Bloomberg’s prowess as a cash machine makes Republicans willing to overlook such gestures as disinviting Ohio congressman Bob Ney to a fund-raiser at Bloomberg’s home, after Ney voted against appropriations for New York. “We’re all grown-ups here,” the strategist says. “We know what that was about.”

Mostly it was about New York Democrats carping that all the Republican favors Bloomberg has done haven’t paid off for the city. “Now he’s going to address the Republican convention and host all these people who stiffed the city and not say something?” asks Mandy Grunwald, a Democratic consultant who helped elect President and Senator Clinton and is now working for Gifford Miller’s 2005 mayoral campaign. “Bloomberg being embraced by the Republican Party may not be an issue in November 2005. But his not fighting for the city is gonna be an issue.”

It looks as if Bloomberg will be deprived of one Nixon-in-China opportunity. The mayor had planned on walking along the United for Peace and Justice protest route, perhaps even chatting with some of the expected 250,000 demonstrators as they streamed onto the West Side Highway—not out of solidarity with the antiwar cause but as an affirmation of the city’s respect for free speech, and to show he’s in control. But the confusion and indecision on the part of the march’s organizers may hand Bloomberg and the police unwanted chaos. Yet even that could have a political silver lining: Bloomberg can say he’d agreed to a reasonable compromise, and it isn’t his fault that protesters didn’t live up to the deal. “We had an agreement. They’ve reneged,” Bloomberg says. “Either they realized their turnout was going to be way down, or they couldn’t control their members. We won’t give them a permit for Central Park. And 250,000 people go to Central Park on their own on a Sunday. Those people have rights, too! The arrogance of these protest groups, to say we’ve got to clear everyone out so they can come in.”

As much as he’s ingratiated himself with Bush, Bloomberg still does things that rankle national Republicans. Ed Gillespie, the RNC chairman, objected to Bloomberg’s pick for head of the convention’s host committee—the person who’d run the city’s quasi-private convention fund-raising and planning operation. Gillespie wanted an unswervingly Republican apparatchik. Bloomberg insisted on Kevin Sheekey, a lifelong Democrat whose worldview was shaped by his mother, an executive director of Common Cause, and his mentor, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Sheekey went to work for Bloomberg as a Washington lobbyist when the media billionaire was first considering running for mayor. “My wife is about as left-wing as you can get,” Sheekey says. “And she told me, ‘I’m not moving to New York if Bloomberg wins.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, he won’t win.’ ” After Bloomberg’s victory—and the relocation of Mrs. Sheekey and the couple’s now-3-year-old twins to the Upper West Side—Sheekey became the point man in the city’s effort to land the conventions.

As Sheekey speed-walks across the temporary bridge over Eighth Avenue from Madison Square Garden to the post office, where the press will be bivouacked, he shouts to the convention’s operations manager to confirm the choice of carpet color leading to the media center (red, naturally). Sheekey has a large hand in constructing bigger symbolism as well. He’s helping to write Bloomberg’s speech welcoming the convention to New York. Even though the speech will be delivered at 10 a.m. on the convention’s first day, to a hall that’s likely to be at best half-filled and to network-TV cameras that are turned off, Bloomberg’s remarks will be keenly watched. Will the mayor take the opportunity to demand more federal money to defend the city? “Stay tuned,” Sheekey says with a teasing wink and a smile. “I can’t tell you what’s in the speech or you won’t come! But you’re headed in the right direction.”

Bloomberg himself seems determined to be anodyne. “I’m here as mayor, not to address national issues,” he says. “I’ll welcome everyone to New York, I’ll describe New York to them. I’ll talk about New York as a place to send your kids to get an education, for people to get great medical care, to come and have fun. I won’t be partisan.” And nothing about money to defend New York? “I make that case every day in Washington! These delegates aren’t making those decisions. Anyone who says that doesn’t understand the process or is being duplicitous.”

The president’s speech, of course, will be addressed to a full house at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. It will be followed by the traditional final scene of nominating conventions: The post-acceptance-speech, raised-clasped-hands, heartwarming multiethnic tableau. President Bush will wave to the cheering throng of delegates, then be joined by his closest soul mates—Laura Bush, Jenna and Barbara, Dick Cheney. Celebrities, adorable small children, and Republicans like Pataki and Giuliani will gradually join the happy scene.

But one key character won’t be among them—one last reminder of the delicate straddle he’s trying to maintain. “Mayor Bloomberg will be in the hall,” Kevin Sheekey says. “But he won’t be onstage.”


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