A Mayor’s Race Blooms

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is one of about nine white faces in a standing-room-only crowd of 500 people all crammed into the auditorium of Sacred Heart School, out past JFK in the remotest reaches of Queens, in a heavily Democratic neighborhood that in 2001 voted for Mark Green, and yet he looks completely at ease. He leans against the podium, casually propped on one elbow, staring out at the middle-class black homeowners who make up the Cambria Heights Civic Association. Bloomberg doesn’t attempt a man-of-the-people act. A jarring just-the-facts efficiency remains the core of his style.

But three years into the job, Bloomberg is growing some old-fashioned political skills. Empathetic anecdotes drop into his answers more frequently, and they sound more natural. When one man complains about the illegal conversions of single-family houses, the mayor doesn’t tell him to call 311. “It’s funny, I was driving down the street tonight, and this is a neighborhood like the one I grew up in,” Bloomberg says. “My mother still lives in the house I grew up in; she’s 95 years old, and the neighborhood really has not changed. People have wanted to come in and build multifamily houses, and the zoning where I grew up—Medford, Massachusetts—does not allow it. And we shouldn’t allow it here, either.” Heads are nodding in unison; there’s an enthusiastic murmur in the crowd, gospel-like: Uh-huh!

Still, the charm makeover isn’t total. When Bloomberg mentions the property-tax rebate, he says he hopes everyone has received their check, adding, “I got mine.” You can practically see 500 brains process the same thought: Yeah, like a billionaire needs $400!

The 2005 mayoral candidates have been running for months, but unofficially and largely out of sight. Now, with that pesky presidential race finished, New York’s political attention can return to its happily parochial focus. Barring cataclysmic events outside his control—a terrorist attack, a national recession, Bill Clinton’s suddenly lusting for Gracie Mansion—the biggest threat to Bloomberg’s reelection chances will unfold over the next six weeks, and it’s directly related to his greatest vulnerabilities: His billionairehood and his tendency toward hubris. The danger is as big as … as … oh, as a six-acre rail yard along the West Side Highway.

Right now, voters in Cambria Heights and many other neighborhoods are thinking locally. They’re agitated about the shooting at a Chinese restaurant on Linden Boulevard, about the foul taste in the tap water. Bloomberg deftly parries these complaints with statistics and with promises to dispatch city commissioners. He’s got a good story to tell in many respects: Crime rates continue to plunge, he’s tackling the eternally unfixable homeless-shelter and school systems. Ask Cambria Heights residents their opinion of the proposed West Side stadium and they shrug. Citywide polls show ambivalence, at best.

But Bloomberg is pushing the contentious project to the forefront. By escalating his dispute with the stadium’s richest, most prominent opponent—Cablevision president Jim Dolan—Bloomberg is creating the kind of personal feud that the media love. Bloomberg argues that the billion-dollar stadium is right “on the merits,” that it will be a veritable geyser of new jobs and tax revenues and is crucial to the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympics. But the manner in which he’s pressing the case scares some of Bloomberg’s closest advisers. “Mike’s really not good at packaging, and most of the people around him don’t understand the problem,” one confidant says. “Making this fight for the stadium really bothers me. What the hell are you fighting for? Is this going to benefit the average citizen of this city, or is it going to be a fiesta for a bunch of elites? It hands his Democratic opponents a weapon. I believe Mike is in good shape, but he isn’t in such good shape that you can rattle this cage.”

Jim Dolan—president of Cablevision, owner of the lousy Knicks and the dormant Rangers—is one of the few people in this city who rank below Bloomberg in public sympathy, and so he makes an inviting target. For months, Dolan and Cablevision, through a coalition of stadium opponents called the New York Association for Better Choices, have run an $8 million lobbying and advertising campaign that questions how a city can spend $300 million on a football stadium when it claims it can’t afford big raises for teachers and cops. Then, in early November, Dolan handed the mayor an opening, signing a letter, run as a full-page ad in the city dailies, that attacked the stadium plan.Bloomberg—the dispassionate, cold-facts mayor—turned strikingly personal. He’s called Dolan selfish, pointing out that the stadium might cut into Dolan’s profits at Madison Square Garden. He’s labeled Dolan a liar.

‘Ferrer did not do well withblacks in 2001,’oneBloomberg strategist says.‘That’s where the action is going to be.’

One element of Bloomberg’s irritation, clearly, is that a less successful businessman, operating a company roughly analogous to Bloomberg’s media conglomerate, is daring to criticize his financial smarts. That’s why Bloomberg’s mockery has a macho tone, particularly when he ridicules Dolan and Cablevision over the Koch-era tax breaks for Madison Square Garden: Bloomberg didn’t need no stinkin’ city tax breaks for his new corporate headquarters.

Cablevision executives, however, think Bloomberg’s fury is strategic, and that it’s driven by panic at poll numbers showing growing opposition to spending public money on a stadium whose main tenant would be the Jets. “By making the enemy Jim and Cablevision and the Garden, he’s trying to muddle the real picture, that many people are against the stadium and that there are real issues,” one insider says. “But there’s no backing down here.”

Money and Rudy won it for Bloomberg in 2001. He still has plenty of cash, of course. “You put incumbency together with the wealth,” chuckles one senior Bloomberg adviser, “and people don’t need to love him.” Further fueling the smugness is that Bloomberg’s crew finds the ranks of likely Democratic challengers—former Bronx borough president Freddy Ferrer, current City Council speaker Gifford Miller, and Congressman Anthony Weiner—less than formidable. “You couldn’t pick a field weaker in charisma than the Democrats!” chortles another Bloomberg adviser.

Already Miller and Weiner, their eyes on Bush-hating city Democrats, are trying to blame Bloomberg for helping reelect the president, through the mayor’s recruitment of the Republican convention. The mayor’s defenders are ready. “If you’re gonna run as a Democratic candidate and you’re gonna run a campaign against Michael Bloomberg based on national issues, you’re gonna lose. Pure and simple,” says Kevin Sheekey, the Democrat who is one of Bloomberg’s primary political strategists.

Yet Bloomberg’s support is flimsy. His job-approval ratings have ranged from abysmal to not-totally-awful, peaking recently at an underwhelming 49 percent. Ferrer beat him by five points in a hypothetical matchup. Bloomberg will again spend an obscene amount of his own money on the campaign, but instead of throwing millions at every passing political consultant again, he’s likely to turn the campaign nuts and bolts over to a handful of loyalists: Patti Harris, David Garth, Bill Cunningham, and Sheekey. And one demographic they find ripe is the city’s growing black middle class.

As George Bush’s reelection demonstrated nationally, many of the traditional ethnic-allegiance assumptions are no longer true. If Bill Thompson—the city comptroller and strongest potential black challenger—doesn’t run, Bloomberg’s advisers think the black vote is in play. “Ferrer did not do well with blacks in 2001,” one Bloomberg strategist says. “That’s where the action is going to be.”

No doubt it’s a quirk of the calendar, but on the same night Bloomberg visits Cambria Heights, he also speaks at the annual fund-raiser for One Hundred Black Men, Inc., at the Hilton on Sixth Avenue. This is a crowd of young lawyers and brokers in tuxedos and ball gowns. “He’s an effective manager, and I give him points for going to business school—like me,” Blair Smith, a Citigroup executive, says with a laugh. “And there’s a noticeably different—and better—tone in race relations in the city with the change from Giuliani to Bloomberg.”

Black leaders are skeptical. “I don’t know what polls Bloomberg is looking at,” says Tish James, a Brooklyn councilwoman whose district stretches from Fort Greene to Crown Heights. “Bloomberg is proposing two of the biggest land grabs in city history—the West Side stadium and the Nets arena—and that issue doesn’t speak to the black middle class or the working class.”

As Bloomberg strides out of the Cambria Heights meeting, a boy of 6 tags along at his heels. Bloomberg reaches down and takes the kid gently by the hand, then picks him up for a hug. It looks to be a genuinely warm, unscripted moment. Then the mayor beckons another aide: the official City Hall photographer. Bloomberg still doesn’t care about being loved. But, more than he’d like, his future at City Hall depends on how well he’s learned to play the political game.

A Mayor’s Race Blooms