Money Tries to Talk

Michael Bloomberg committed an unforgivable act the other day. He gave voice to a fact that is obvious to anyone who reads the newspapers: There are Republicans in Washington who are acting against the interests of New York City. As if uttering that weren’t bad enough, Bloomberg then suggested that he was going to try to do something about it.

The occasion was a recent event at Federal Hall in lower Manhattan. Bloomberg stood before a knot of reporters and declared that he would be teaming up with the city’s most powerful political donors and fund-raisers in an effort to force Washington politicians to act in the interests of New York City. They would do this, Bloomberg warned, by evaluating each politician’s treatment of the city before opening their wallets.

For instance, the mayor intoned, New York campaign contributors might want to pause before writing a check to the Republican House majority leader Tom DeLay, who has proposed changes to federal financing formulas that would cost the city $300 million in transportation aid. “I would argue that you should certainly, before you make a donation to him, point out that that is not in the city’s interest, if that is his position,” Bloomberg said.

The response from Republicans and their allies in the media was ferocious. Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie all but charged that Bloomberg was a traitor. The New York Post editorialized that the idea was “eccentric.” And the Manhattan Institute’s Steven Malanga blasted City Hall’s “enemies list.”

It would be tempting to dismiss Bloomberg’s initiative as a political maneuver. The mayor, after all, has already taken heat for failing to go head-to-head with another Republican who stiffed the city—George Pataki. The Federal Hall announcement—and the Republican backlash—might dispel the notion that he had failed to fight for New York.

“We need to have a clear agenda for contributors, so they can speak to politicians with one voice.”

But the initiative—which was organized by the Partnership for New York City, a business group—has the potential to have a real impact. First, there’s the vast amount of New York’s contributions to politicians across the country—more than $150 million in the past two election cycles. And Bloomberg is well positioned to make such a scheme work. As a media mogul, he had plenty of practice using money—and a team of Washington lobbyists—to advance a business agenda in D.C.

What’s more, the idea seems to have strong support from broad swaths of the city’s power elite—the corporate leaders, the real-estate barons, the leaders of the big investment houses. These big-money people are growing increasingly frustrated by New York City’s lack of leverage in Washington. The partnership alone consists of 200 CEOs of the city’s top corporate and investment firms—a group that routinely gives huge amounts of money to both major political parties. These people, too, know how to push their private interests in Washington—why not the city’s?

“If we don’t tell our story in Washington, no one will,” says former Texas governor Ann Richards, who now lives half-time in New York and works closely with the partnership on civic issues.

There’s a compelling story to tell. Financial and real-estate leaders are dismayed by the federal government’s failure to redress an imbalance that was an obsession of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s—the fact that the city sends $8 billion more to Washington than it gets back. New York’s tax base can no longer sustain the rising cost of keeping the city competitive with other world cities.

“When donors give to politicians, they’ll now say, ‘The amount of money New York City gets from Washington is far less than we send, and we’re not happy about that,’ ” says James Tisch, the president and CEO of Loews Corporation.

Bill Rudin, a real-estate developer and chairman of the Association for a Better New York, is helping to create talking points for donors. “We need to have a clear agenda for contributors, so they can speak with one voice on issues important to New York City when politicians come here looking for money,” Rudin says.

Bloomberg’s willingness to endorse this effort represents a significant shift in his relationship with private-sector leaders. It had been a standing joke in the business world that the mayor never asked for their help with anything. The only time City Hall called them, it seemed, was to raise money for Bloomberg’s pet municipal causes. “Until now, the mayor would always say, ‘I can handle it,’ ” says one business leader. “This is the first time the mayor has really said, ‘We need a broad-based effort in Washington. We need all the help we can get.’ ”

Bloomberg didn’t expect to need help. During the first two years of his mayoralty, his supporters predicted that he would amass unprecedented clout in Washington. Convinced that his personal wealth alone would win him friends in Washington, Bloomberg showered national Republicans with campaign contributions. When New York won the 2004 GOP convention, his aides predicted his influence would soar.

But whatever Washington influence Bloomberg has simply hasn’t translated into the dividends New York needs. New York officials had to mount a huge campaign to win $90 million in federal money to track the illnesses of 9/11 rescue workers. And Washington, inexplicably, dragged its feet endlessly on promised homeland-security money, at a time when the city is investing in combating terrorism. The city also wants to maintain the formula on transit funding that DeLay is trying to change. They want an extension on federal Liberty bonds—$8 billion that can be spent on rebuilding but will be lost if the bonds expire at the end of 2004.

Will it work? For the time being, leaders of the effort say they’re not prepared to threaten to withhold contributions. After all, many of these contributors may be reluctant to endanger their own interests by offending legislators—even ones hostile to New York’s interests. On the other hand, these are people who can often get their way just by asking.

If Bloomberg can make headway by boosting private-sector efforts to lobby Washington, it will be a big victory for a mayor who was expected to enhance the city’s stature in the nation’s capital.

“Washington doesn’t seem to consider itself responsible for New York,” says Kathryn Wylde, the partnership’s president. “It’s been that way for a long time. The problem is, that’s no longer sustainable.”

Money Tries to Talk