110 Minutes With Dan Donovan

Photo: Danny Kim

Dan Donovan coughs. He clears his throat. His speech at City Hall will begin in 30 minutes, and we’re sitting in his SUV. He strokes his tie as if he’s petting a cat and jokes with his driver about the Jets’ bungled opener, where they played Darrelle Revis, despite his holding out for a better contract. It didn’t work out, of course.

Donovan’s game plan looks better. It’s September 15 and the night before, State Senator Eric Schneiderman had won the Democratic primary for state attorney general, which is just what Donovan and his supporters want. Donovan, the Republican candidate, is the conservative, aw-shucks Staten Island district attorney, an easy contrast to Schneiderman, an Upper West Side liberal.

From the front seat of the SUV, Donovan’s campaign manager, Bradley Tusk, cranes his neck and tries out an anti-Schneiderman attack line. “He’s a great choice if you’re a sex offender or a drug dealer,” Tusk says gleefully. (For the record, a Schneiderman aide calls the volley “a ridiculous attack.”)

Missing in the car is arguably Donovan’s greatest booster, Michael Bloomberg, whose fingerprints are all over his campaign. Tusk is Bloomberg’s former campaign manager. Bloomberg’s former press secretary Virginia Lam is Donovan’s flack. Bloomberg’s former opposition research man Menashe Shapiro is working for him. Donovan fund-raiser Cathy Blaney has ties to Bloomberg, too. Bloomberg himself wrote Donovan a $37,800 check, and held a $1,000-a-head cocktail party for him.

Which brings us to this morning’s event: Ed Koch’s endorsement on the steps of City Hall. Koch runs a PAC called New York Uprising, which aims to bring reform to Albany. Tusk works for the group pro bono, and Koch and Bloomberg are close. When the time comes, Donovan, 53, and Koch, 85, sidle up to the podium. Koch looks great (“It’s the suit”) and speaks off the cuff about the need to have a Republican to balance state government (this assumes that Andrew Cuomo is elected governor, and not Republican Carl Paladino, whom Koch calls “a disgrace”). As Koch prepares to introduce Donovan, suddenly Mayor Bloomberg just happens to pass by on his way to City Hall. He duly informs the assembled reporters he plans to vote for Donovan.

Afterward, Donovan exclaims, “Was Koch great or what?” getting back in the car. He remembers meeting him on Staten Island, Koch asking everyone his trademark phrase: “How’m I doin’?”

Donovan met Bloomberg ten years ago while working as chief of staff to Staten Island borough president Guy Molinari. Bloomberg needed help winning over the Republican Party, and Molinari and Donovan showed him the ropes. He and Donovan also bonded over golf. “He’s improved greatly,” Donovan says of the mayor’s game. “He counts everything. A three-inch putt, he putts it.”

Donovan is considered a palatable Republican for blue New York. He has a reputation as not being a grandstander, and has a regular-guy backstory that could sell well statewide. His father was a longshoreman, and his mother worked in a uniform factory. He worked his way through Fordham School of Law, at night. He’s half-Irish, half-Polish, and Catholic: a demographic trifecta in this state. All of which caught the eye of former senator Alfonse D’Amato, who tried to get him to run for AG in 2006.

On Wall Street, there is a concern that Schneiderman will follow in the aggressive tradition of Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo, who looked to tackle industries, not merely make cases. “The business community is unsettled by the idea of another activist attorney general,” says Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a group of business leaders.

Donovan, in contrast, has positioned himself almost as a friend to the financiers. “You can take the weeds out of the garden without ruining the fruits and vegetables,” he says, a statement that potential supporters on Wall Street could read as meaning he’ll respect their desire to keep the harvest plentiful. Already, Home Depot billionaire Ken Langone, who was so upset at Spitzer’s investigations into the financial sector he launched a “holy war” against him, has donated over $50,000 to Donovan, filings show. But ask Donovan if he wants the AG’s office to stop being the “sheriff of Wall Street,” and he equivocates. “I’m not going to be the sheriff of anything,” he says. “I’m going to treat everybody fairly. I’m not going to use people and industries as trophies over a mantel to promote myself.” To back up the statement, Donovan has pledged that if elected, he’ll wait two years after his term ends before seeking a higher office.

He pleads innocent when I ask him about the Langone contribution.

“I don’t read my filings. There’s a conflict there. I don’t want people to think the decisions I make are influenced by money, so I don’t know how much Mr. Langone gave me.”

“Fifty big ones,” I say.

Donovan’s eyes light up. He laughs.

“I better thank him,” he says.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.

110 Minutes With Dan Donovan