The Mayor’s Hard Bargain

Illustratiob by Thomas Fuchs

Tonight, West 125th Street is the boulevard of plots and fantasies. On the sidewalk immediately in front of the Apollo Theater, chanting supporters of Freddy Ferrer are trying to prop up the increasingly remote dream that Ferrer can be elected mayor. They’re also trying to drown out the vicious fabulist Lenora Fulani, who is leading a small group of her followers in shouts of “Bloomberg on C!,” a reference to the Independence Party ballot line where the mayor’s name will appear next month, thanks to his quarter-million-dollar “donation” to Fulani’s party.

Across the street, hanging from an empty storefront’s security gate, are poster-size photos of Elijah Muhammad wearing his wizardy fez of stars and crescents. The pictures of the dead Nation of Islam storyteller gaze down on rows of peddlers whose card-table displays are crowded with DVDs purporting to reveal the secrets of the mysterious, all-powerful Illuminati. Another metal storefront gate is plastered with graphic, blown-up photos of all-too-real lynchings. Next to these macabre pictures is a small placard designating a meeting place: AFRICAN-AMERICANS FOR BLOOMBERG. About a dozen fans of the mayor mill about, not quite sure what they’re supposed to do.

The fact that Bloomberg himself is defiantly not coming to the Apollo, the site of the first debate of the mayoral race, is fueling the grandest speculations of all. Especially when the mayor’s face suddenly pops onto TV screens in stores all along 125th Street. He’s downtown, live from One Police Plaza, standing in front of that weirdly archaic rec-room wood-paneling backdrop and announcing that there’s been a “specific” terrorist threat to the subway system. Aha! comes the reaction from Ferrer’s backers and reporters. After a week of being criticized for stiffing the Harlem debate, Bloomberg is creating a diversion!

Which was just plain nuts, no matter how much street-vendor incense anyone had inhaled. Bloomberg wasn’t playing politics with the subway alert, in the literal sense: Given what he knew and when he knew it, the mayor made the right decision and announced it as soon as seemed possible and prudent. Besides, the notion that he was manipulating the timing didn’t even make tactical sense: At that moment, the mayor was ahead of Ferrer by fifteen points in the polls (and rising), not behind, and Ferrer was groping for campaign funds. Skipping one debate certainly wasn’t going to produce a radical swing in public opinion.

Yet the local political-media myopia wasn’t completely wrong. Politics is indeed being played with terrorism. It has been since September 11, 2001. Bloomberg was elected four years ago because, in the jittery, grief-soaked months immediately after the attack on the World Trade Center, he seemed the candidate most able to protect the city from further harm—an appeal buttressed in no small measure by the millions Bloomberg spent on ads and by the invaluable endorsement of Rudy Giuliani. This time around, Bloomberg is on a pace to spend even more money, and he invokes the World Trade Center attacks in nearly all his campaign ads and speeches. He’s likely to be reelected because he’s succeeded in defining the city’s “recovery” primarily as an economic rebound. And September 11 has pushed the city’s traditional interest-group politics to the background, one reason Ferrer has seemed so irrelevant.

Bloomberg isn’t the one to blame for the politicization of terror, but he’s trapped by it all the same, a consequence of his Republican bargain. The architects of the real terror-politics conspiracy are Bloomberg’s national Republican Party-mates. That’s the scariest lesson of the subway terror alert: George W. Bush and Karl Rove have so thoroughly politicized terrorism that the administration’s image is more important than whether New York gets hurt.

I’ve been in politics long enough to know when a campaign is going on,” says Peter King, the Long Island congressman. “And within minutes of Bloomberg and [Police Commissioner] Ray Kelly going on TV, I was getting calls from reporters asking me about Homeland Security downplaying the threat. It was obvious that Homeland Security was out there trying to undermine the NYPD and the city. It’s terrible.”

King is the head of the House Committee on Homeland Security. And he’s a Republican. He watched as Bloomberg, Kelly, and Mark Mershon, the head of the FBI’s New York office, announced the subway alert, and then he heard about Department of Homeland Security officials giving off-the-record interviews disputing the city’s interpretation of the intelligence information.

“It’s a turf battle,” King says. “Ray Kelly was stealing the show from the Feds. With a new regime in at Homeland Security, they want to make it clear that they’re the big gorilla on the block. Homeland Security has gotten a lot of criticism over the past several years, and from their focus groups, about threat levels going up and down. So they were looking for an opportunity to show that they were not going to be ratcheting up threat levels unless it was absolutely necessary.”

As petty and depressing as that explanation is, it’s also totally in character with the Bush administration’s five-year record of using the specter of terrorism as a political tool, and with its shabby treatment of New York. The short-changing of the city isn’t limited to Homeland Security money (and even when the Feds give the city more dollars, they hamstring the ways Kelly can spend it: DHS regulations limit how much can be used to reimburse the city for overtime, the NYPD’s most significant terrorism-related expense; the recent alert, for instance, cost $1 million).

The subway alert again raises the question of whether Bloomberg is a Republican patsy.

Many of the ways in which Bush and congressional Republicans are wounding the city aren’t especially sexy, but they nevertheless cost New York tens of millions of dollars, and they’re ongoing. “We have a disproportionate number of teaching hospitals in New York City,” says Anthony Weiner, the erstwhile Democratic mayoral candidate who is now back to being a full-time congressman. “And Bill Thomas, the chairman of the Ways and Means committee, who’s a Republican, has targeted teaching hospitals, largely because they’re mainly in urban areas. So the cuts to Medicaid have been disproportionately hitting New York’s teaching hospitals, as are the cutbacks on hospital-reimbursement rates. This is something Bloomberg should understand very well, because of his relationship with Johns Hopkins and his interest in medical research. But he hasn’t done a good job of fighting it.”

The subway-alert episode again raises the question of whether the Republicans are playing the mayor for a patsy. Bush and the party are willing to cash Bloomberg’s millions in checks, use the city as a soundstage, and point to the mayor as an example of the party’s big tent. Yet whether it’s in Congress or in a crisis, Bush and his minions abandon the city. You’d think the administration would be more accomplished at the politics of fear by now: The president hollers “Terrorists!” whenever he’s trapped in a political corner. So during a week in which word leaked that Rove might be indicted for lying about his role in the Valerie Plame affair, and the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers was foundering, Bush suddenly gave a “major speech” about the continuing terrorist menace, larding it with warmed-over details about plots the administration claims to have foiled.

It’s this kind of shamelessness that disturbs the thinking New York Democrats who are planning to vote for Bloomberg in three weeks. They’re grateful for the mayor’s managerial competence, and they don’t see Ferrer offering any new or better ideas. But then they realize that Michael Bloomberg will be the first Republican they’ve ever voted for. And the idea that they’re supporting the party of Bush and Rove, even tangentially or symbolically, leaves them chillier than the endless October rain.


The Mayor’s Hard Bargain