Citizen Mike

Michael Bloomberg, in worn jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers, is perched on a ladder at a Brooklyn school auditorium, painting a wall yellow. A frequent volunteer, he’s stretching to get his roller into a corner, but his mind is on his chances in this year’s mayoral race. Bloomberg thinks the fact that he’s rich ought to be a huge asset: It means he can’t be bought by special-interest groups. “Does the press seriously think that anybody who gives money to a candidate wants nothing?” he says. “No! Why don’t they say so? If some Democrat beats me by five votes, every single bloc in the whole city will say, ‘I got you elected.’ It’ll be impossible to govern.” On a roll, he starts in on the Democrats running for mayor, his voice dripping with contempt: “Let’s get serious here. What skills does the public advocate or the comptroller or the Speaker of the City Council have to run the city? There’s absolutely nothing I can think of that they have done. Maybe they have a better knowledge of details of programs than I do, which is useful, but that’s what you have your staff for!”

This divorced billionaire with an Upper East Side townhouse, an art-filled London home, a house in Bermuda, a weekend place in Westchester, a private plane, and a company helicopter he flies himself thinks he should be the next mayor of New York. And though it’s hard to imagine a man who has a box at Ascot and is driven around town in a chauffeured gray Cadillac Fleetwood working the kielbasa circuit, he insists he’s looking forward to visiting senior-citizen centers in the Bronx and shaking hands on the Staten Island ferry. Ask him if he ever rides the subway, and he reaches for his wallet and triumphantly pulls out a MetroCard. Michael Bloomberg, regular guy? “I like meeting people,” he says. “I love people. Although I’m sure if I run, by the end of the summer, I’ll say I miss the old days, when I could play golf on the weekend.”

Bloomberg’s quest to be the first billionaire ever to run an American city is a civics lesson in how the rich do things differently. Nearly twenty years ago, he created the Bloomberg financial-data terminal, which now sits on the desk of nearly every serious financial player on Wall Street and around the world. After expanding his numbers-crunching business into a multi-billion-dollar TV, radio, and print empire thought to be worth more than $5 billion (it’s privately held, and Bloomberg owns approximately three quarters of it), he began thinking about his legacy and putting even more of his money to public use, giving over $300 million to charity in the past five years – $100 million alone to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University. He serves on prestigious boards, like those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center, but now that’s not enough. “Do you want to relax and have a great life or devote yourself to helping others?” he says. “Either you believe you can change the world, or you don’t.”

He has his heart set on public office, and if he runs – and it is almost certain that he will – he will finance his campaign himself. Bloomberg refuses to say how much he’ll spend, but the numbers that have been floating around go as high as $30 million. That’s too high, he says. “At some point, you start to look obscene. There’s a limited amount of ad time you can buy. It becomes dysfunctional; you annoy people with ads.” Pressed further, he brings up the Kennedy family: “When Joe Kennedy was asked how much he spent to get JFK elected, he said, ‘I hope not a dime more than I had to.’ ” Bloomberg insists the public should be happy he’s spending his own bucks. “As for the other candidates, I can’t help it if your problem is that you can’t afford to do it yourself.”

And New Yorkers should rejoice in his entry into the mayoral race, if only for the sheer entertainment value of his cheerfully outrageous comments. Ask him if he’s ever smoked a joint in the past, and he replies, “You bet I did, and I enjoyed it.” He’s also more than happy to joke about his single-rich-guy dating status: “Annette de la Renta and Jayne Wrightsman see me as their boy toy; they love to fix me up with their friends.” This is not a man used to editing himself for public consumption.

He’s charming and open one day, arrogant and thin-skinned the next. He prefers to be interviewed on the move, in the car, walking down a school hallway, dashing up a flight of hotel steps, as if journalism were an aerobic sport. He has a low tolerance for questions he deems unworthy. When I asked him why – in addition to splashing his name on his TV network, his radio stations, and the computer-data terminals that made him rich – he monograms his shirts, he stared at me for a moment and then deadpanned, “I’ve never thought about that particular piece of egotism before. I’m so embarrassed and ashamed, I think I’ll go shoot myself.”

Bloomberg is not used to having his motives questioned. Sitting in his fifteenth-floor Park Avenue offices one morning, he brings up a three-month-old newspaper article that seemed to challenge his reasons for delivering holiday meals to the poor. “The nerve,” he says. “It still bothers me. Some reporter said, ‘Oh, you’re giving out free meals because you’re running.’ Where the hell have they been all the years we’ve been giving out free meals and trying to get press so that other people will kick in and help? Not everything is done for nefarious reasons, and the press can’t understand that.”

What seems a little weird is that he talks about the press as if reporters were an alien breed, an odd position for someone whose desk is in the corner of his own 24-hour TV newsroom. But Bloomberg’s background isn’t journalism; he launched his news-gathering arm only to add value to the Bloomberg financial-data terminal.

In the business community, Bloomberg’s prominent friends insist that his candor, can-do charitable activism, and CEO experience will serve him well in government. “Mike is smart, he’s driven, and I’ve told him he can count on me,” says John Rosenwald, vice-chairman of Bear Stearns, who speaks with awe of Bloomberg’s business acumen. Investment banker Steven Rattner, a major Democratic fund-raiser, says he’s not troubled that Bloomberg has recently switched his party affiliation to the GOP, saying, “Mike’s a friend, and if he runs, I couldn’t give my support to anyone else.” James Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank, has known Bloomberg for more than 25 years, dating back to the days when both worked at Salomon Brothers. “What’s endearing about Michael is that he’s so straightforward,” says Wolfensohn. “I think he’d make a damn good mayor.”

Still, some of Bloomberg’s friends, especially his media pals, are baffled by his decision to jump into the mayoral race. “I like his cocky style,” says Tom Brokaw, “but I’m not sure why he wants to do this. It’s not just all hubris; it’s a sense of public service. But I think it’s going to be so much harder than he believes it is.” Barbara Walters, an occasional dinner date of the billionaire, gushes about his philanthropic largesse and adds, “I have always teased that if I could meet Michael ten years older” – he’s 59, she’s 69 – “this would be the man I’d run off with.” (“When Barbara needs a walker,” Bloomberg jokes, “she calls me.”) Yet as much as she admires Bloomberg, Walters wonders how he’ll react to the brutal public scrutiny of a political campaign. “He’s never had anyone pushing and probing into his life,” she says. “That’s not easy.”

For now, though, he is enjoying all the attention, especially the strangers who recognize him on the street and call out, “Mr. Mayor! Mr. Mayor!”

Michael Bloomberg may be the best-connected man in New York. He knows everyone. Watch him in his Paul Stuart tuxedo, red bow tie, and black tasseled loafers as he walks through a room at a Park Avenue social event – the Citizens Committee for New York City awards at the Waldorf two months ago, for example. He is mobbed from the moment he enters the room. Arnold Scaasi wants a handshake; Ruth Messinger whispers in his ear; Kofi Annan poses with him for a photo op. Stepping to the podium to accept the Brooke Astor Award for Philanthropy, Bloomberg, the son of a bookkeeper from Medford, Massachusetts, can’t resist making a teasing reference to his modest Jewish heritage compared with the high Wasp quotient of the crowd, pointing to the socially connected Schuyler Chapin and saying, “Only someone named Chapin, not Bloomberg, could wear a green dinner jacket.”

Bloomberg hasn’t brought a date, and he has been unattached since breaking up with his girlfriend of several years, Mary Jane Salk, a writer and the widow of noted child psychologist Lee Salk. “He has been discovered socially in the past year,” says Barbara Walters. “He’s straight, intelligent, and attractive.” These days, however, he seems unwilling to bring even casual dates to public events for fear of subjecting the women to untoward press scrutiny. Bloomberg was divorced in 1993 from Sue Brown, an Englishwoman who briefly worked as a secretary in Salomon Brothers’ London office; he has two daughters, Emma, a senior at Princeton, and Georgina, a high-school senior and an avid horsewoman who competes on the show circuit. Dubbed the “anti-bimbo billionaire” by the New York Post for gallantly dating women over 50, he insists that he’s got no problem with the older-man- younger-women thing; it’s just that “I have more in common with women who are roughly my age.” By all accounts, he seems to make a point of staying on good terms with the women in his life. “He’s a great friend,” says Christy Ferer, a now-married TV reporter who dated him in the mid-nineties. “He’s fun, he’s easy company. He’s the Horatio Alger of Park Avenue.”

He seems genuinely thrilled to be treated as a serious mover and shaker in New York. “I still pinch myself,” he says without a hint of his usual sarcasm. “I’m amazed to be in these rooms. When I went to Harvard Business School, I was excited just to meet the sons of famous men.” Now everyone wants to meet him, which is sweet revenge for a man fired twenty years ago from Salomon Brothers. Bloomberg-mania reached its peak in early March on the night of the Inner Circle dinner at the Hilton, where his table, which he shared with Democratic all-star guests like Ed Koch, Charlie Rangel, and Carl McCall, was so surrounded by journalists and well-wishers that the waiters had trouble getting through to clear the plates. After Rudy Giuliani’s annual cross-dressing appearance onstage in stockings and heels, Bloomberg boasted that he had no qualms about filling the mayor’s shoes: “I have great legs.”

Convinced that Bloomberg is their best hope to retain New York City as GOP territory, Governor Pataki, state GOP chairman Alexander Treadwell, and State Senate majority leader Joe Bruno have publicly been falling over one another in recent weeks to embrace Bloomberg’s self-financed candidacy, even though the billionaire was a staunch Democrat until re-registering as a Republican last fall. “I think Michael would be an excellent mayor and a tremendous candidate,” says Pataki, insisting that Bloomberg’s late-in-life conversion doesn’t trouble him. “Ronald Reagan was a Democrat, too. It doesn’t matter what you were or who you voted for twenty years ago.” (Twenty years ago? Bloomberg was donating money to Democratic candidates just last year.)

“I like his cocky style,” says Tom Brokaw, “but I’m not sure why he wants to do this. It’s going to be much harder than he believes.”

Bloomberg freely admits that he changed his registration merely to avoid the already-crowded Democratic primary. “I knew I couldn’t do it as a Democrat,” he says. “The party always protects its officeholders, and an outsider can’t come in as a challenger.” Bloomberg expects to campaign on the traditional Democratic side of issues: He’s pro-choice, pro-gun-control, and, to a limited extent, anti-death-penalty. “I have no moral problems with the death penalty,” he explains, “but I’m against it for practical reasons, because you cannot guarantee the state won’t make a mistake.” He wants to maintain the Rudy legacy of safer streets but would emphasize better community relations and a less-trigger-happy, more racially tolerant police force. “You’re not going to find much difference between any of the other four and me,” he says.

His message to the city’s Democratic voters, who outnumber Republicans five to one, seems to be: If you could vote twice for Rudy, a real Republican, it’ll be even less of a stretch to vote for me, a pseudo-Republican. “I like Mike, he’s a friend, but I don’t think it’s doable,” says state comptroller Carl McCall, who has endorsed Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer for mayor. Consultant Hank Sheinkopf tried to talk Bloomberg out of changing parties and is working now for Mark Green. He gives a hint of the campaign to come when he says of the media mogul’s GOP reincarnation: “It makes it sound like he has no principles.”

Bloomberg, who recently stepped down as chairman of his company (though he retains the CEO title), has been preparing for the race by boning up on city policy in his own unique way: He’s been visiting many of the local do-good projects – a drug-treatment program, a home for the mentally ill – that he’s written checks to in the past. (“It gives me access,” he says.) He commissioned Ester Fuchs, director of Columbia University’s Center for Urban Research and Policy, to prepare an 1,800-page primer for him on local issues, from education to police to housing. “He doesn’t assume he has all the answers and knows everything,” she says. “He’s trying to learn.”

Bloomberg is convinced he’s got what it takes to connect with the proverbial housewife in Queens. He’s always besieged by people who want something – a job, advice, money to invest in their companies, a charitable donation – and his style is to listen patiently, an interested smile on his face. His pockets are usually full of business cards pressed into his hand by importunate strangers. “You have to listen,” he told me at a Washington reception just after being cornered at the buffet table at midnight by a man eager to talk up his satellite company. “You never know. And I make sure everyone gets a response. People are so surprised and grateful, even if the answer is no.”

Bloomberg travels with a posse of staff people – press rep Christine Taylor, philanthropic exec and Koch alumna Patti Harris, and Washington government-affairs rep Kevin Sheekey, a former Moynihan aide – but their role is to hang on the fringes until summoned rather than to run interference for the boss.

His company was built on a near-maniacal obsession with customer service: Each of his 156,000 data terminals worldwide sports a top-of-the-screen message urging clients to personally zap him an e-mail if they have a problem. Bloomberg is already kicking around the idea – if he becomes mayor – of establishing the equivalent of a 911 number for citizen complaints, which people can call to report a pothole or a garbage problem and have their calls directed to the right agency, with a 24-hour response time.

“New York has never had a CEO run the city,” says Harold Doley, a black stockbroker and former Reagan-administration ambassador, who, as an informal campaign adviser, has arranged for Bloomberg to meet the Reverend Al Sharpton and other black city leaders. “As the stock market declines and city revenues taper off, Mike as a businessman is the ideal leader.”

In “Citizen Mike” – an Orson Welles-style video spoof made for a 1999 testimonial dinner and narrated by the likes of Peter Jennings, Donald Trump, Liz Smith, Beverly Sills, Christo, and Percy Sutton – the life story of Bloomberg, from lowly number cruncher to William Randolph Hearst-like media maven, is treated with amusing irreverence. The omniscient narrator intones at the Citizen Kane-style beginning, as a baby picture flits by on the screen, “The momentous arrival of Michael Rubens Bloomberg goes somewhat unnoticed on that fatal natal day. He will make them pay for that.”

Bloomberg’s father was a bookkeeper for a dairy who died of heart failure in 1963. After his death, Bloomberg’s mother, Charlotte, went to work as a secretary. His parents were never all that consumed with material success, he says, adding that his 92-year-old mother has refused his offers to treat her to a nicer home, preferring to stay in the family split-level in Medford that Bloomberg’s parents bought for $11,000 some 50 years ago. Mom, in fact, is still so independent that when she uses a car service at night that’s billed to her son, “she sends me a check!” the billionaire says with incredulity. “It drives me crazy.”

At Johns Hopkins, Bloomberg was the first Jew to join the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. John Galotto, a Maryland internist who was one of Bloomberg’s frat brothers and remains a close friend, recalls, “When we were rushing him, I looked into his closet and there was this chart his mother had made for him of what shirt to wear with what suit.” Bloomberg, an engineering major, became president of the fraternity, even while holding a job as a parking attendant at the faculty club to pay his living expenses. “I wasn’t smart enough for a scholarship,” says Bloomberg, who took out college loans. Galotto adds that Bloomberg was driven to succeed: “He wanted people to think that everything came naturally, but you’d see him at 2 a.m., dragging 50 feet of paper home from the computer lab.” (These days, Bloomberg the student is studying Spanish for the campaign trail, although he ruefully admits that languages aren’t his forte.)

Accepted at Harvard Business School despite mediocre grades – “I bet they’re thanking their lucky stars that some admissions officer let me in,” says Bloomberg, alluding to his hefty donations to his alma mater – he expected to go to Vietnam upon graduation but was turned down after his Army physical revealed that he had flat feet. So instead he moved to New York in 1966 and joined Salomon Brothers as a trainee.

What Bloomberg discovered at Salomon Brothers was that he loved to sell, to close the big deal, to hustle stocks and bonds to institutional customers, to feel the adrenaline rush on the trading floor. America has always had a weakness for really talented salesmen. And though he may be a novice politician, he’s been prepping for decades for the handshake-and-a-smile rigors of a campaign in which the only difference, this time, is that the product will be himself. “A good salesman never gets discouraged,” says Bloomberg, who doesn’t seem to have ever had a Willy Loman day in his life. “Sometimes people say no,” he says, “but what’s great about sales is that you know whether or not you’re connecting and convincing people.”

“He’s a bawdy guy, very funny, but you don’t take 75 percent of what he says seriously; he just loves to get a rise out of women.”

In 1979, after a power struggle, he was transferred away from Salomon’s trading area to a dead-end job upgrading and running the firm’s computer operations. Two years later, when Salomon Brothers merged with the Phibro Corp., Bloomberg was among a number of partners who were let go; but he received $10 million as his share of the sale. “What’s amazing, in hindsight, is that the firm let him go because they saw no value in what he was doing,” says Richard Grand-Jean, a former Salomon partner who now runs his own firm. Bloomberg’s 1997 autobiography, Bloomberg by Bloomberg, gives a breathless account of what happened next: how he started his own company and built the ultimate futuristic financial-data machine, with every possible stock and bond and commodities price, and computer software to twist and turn the numbers into five-year charts and comparative returns. With a mere idea of a product and the best sales pitch of his life, Bloomberg won Merrill Lynch as his first customer and major investor (the firm still owns 20 percent of his company). In twenty years, he’s created a financial colossus: Bloomberg’s 156,000 terminals lease at a cost of $1,650 a month for one and $1,295 each for two or more; that adds up to the tidy sum of more than $2.5 billion a year.

He launched his news division in 1990 to provide breaking financial stories, the kind that move markets, to his traders on their terminals. Later, he added 24-hour radio and TV operations; neither makes a profit, but Bloomberg uses them to boost the company’s name recognition.

Bloomberg professes to be a bit embarrassed that people perceive him as an egomaniac for putting his name on the machines and the news operation. “You want a name you can remember,” he says, explaining that the terminals were first called Market Master, but when that trademark proved invalid, he switched to the name his customers already unofficially used. “Bloomberg is a name you can remember.”

On election night in New York this past fall, Elaine’s was so crowded that it was almost impossible to move without crashing into someone famous (Sorry, Uma Thurman! Whoops, my fault, Charlie Rose. Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg, can I squeeze by?), and even Bloomberg, a co-host of the party, looked overwhelmed. Harvey Weinstein, another co-host, was genial, albeit succinct, when asked about Bloomberg, pronouncing, “He’s a good guy. Write something nice.”

Among reporters and politicians, Bloomberg’s name has recently become synonymous with fabulous A-list parties. He dazzled the Washington elites last year with a post-prom after-party that followed the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. There were mounds of caviar, a table laden with fresh sushi, and an army of security to keep out unwanted crashers. An invitation to this year’s party is as coveted as a George W. nickname; even last Wednesday’s episode of The West Wing had a joke about whether President Bartlet could get into the “Bloomberg party.”

Last summer, hedging his political bets, Bloomberg not only gave a gala at the Republican convention in Philadelphia honoring George Pataki (Colin Powell stopped by) but also threw a Los Angeles bash for the Democratic convention’s New York delegation. A semi-nude model, her breasts artfully covered with shells, perched over Spago’s raw-seafood bar; movie stars mingled with Tom Brokaw, Charlie Rangel, Chuck Schumer, and ink-stained wretches from most of the New York newspapers. Mark Green, working the room, went over to thank his host and rival, then wandered by where I was sitting with other journalists. “I just told Mike, ‘If you don’t win,’ ” Green quipped, ” ‘will you at least cater my inauguration?’ “

Back in New York, Bloomberg frequently hosts small dinners at his five-story limestone townhouse in the East Seventies, which is handsomely decorated with a Fragonard sketch, eighteenth-century landscapes, and antique English furniture. What surprises guests is the eclectic array of New Yorkers invited and the often down-home fare: meat loaf and mashed potatoes, fried chicken, even burgers. “People love it,” he says. “Everyone else is serving the same piece of salmon.” A recent dinner-party guest list included Steve Forbes, a passel of Wall Street types, his daughter’s riding instructor, and pollster Doug Schoen. “He loves putting people together,” says Barbara Walters. “I sat between the basketball commissioner and someone from the Museum of Modern Art last time.”

One signature touch at Bloomberg’s dinners is unusual place cards: big vanilla cookies, baked with the guest’s name and a personalized image (a tennis racquet; an alma mater crest), preferably the more obscure the better. When Harold Varmus, the Nobel Prize winner who now runs Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and his wife, Constance Casey, went to dinner at Bloomberg’s earlier this year, Casey was astonished to see her terrier, Isabel, on her cookie. “My dog wasn’t mentioned in any of the profiles of Harold,” she says. “I still don’t know how they found out.” Bloomberg, with a grin, refuses to reveal his sources.

What he doesn’t have these days is a steady girlfriend (or if he does, he’s really, truly discreet). Late one night, Bloomberg admits that he’s surprised to still be single. He presumed he’d remarry within a few years of his divorce and has come close once or twice; no, he won’t name names, but he did have a close relationship with Broadway star Ann Reinking, and for years his friends were expecting him to tie the knot with Mary Jane Salk. Since breaking up with Salk, Bloomberg has enjoyed the perks of single-billionaire-hood, dating actress Marisa Berenson and last summer taking diva Diana Ross to dinner at BondSt, a date memorialized forever by the tabloids. “I was furious at that restaurant for calling the papers,” he says. “I’ve never gone back there again.”

In the political arena, without any record as an officeholder, he will be judged and defined in the upcoming campaign by his history as a CEO and, he hopes, by his commitment to charity. With 7,000 employees around the globe, he has developed a corporate culture with its own decided quirks: no titles, no private offices or executive dining rooms, endless free junk food and healthy snacks at the cheerful food court, aquariums as handsome wall dividers, well-paid workers (a Daily News reporter gleefully recalled that he tripled his salary when he joined the company last spring), and a no-exit clause: Anyone who quits to take another job cannot come back, ever.

After presiding over a well-paid high-tech white-collar staff with glossy resumes, he would certainly find it radically different to tackle an entrenched civil-service bureaucracy resistant to change. But he insists that some of his company innovations would be worth trying at Gracie Mansion, such as rotating key managers for a few weeks at a time so they can learn how the other half lives. He would also try to promote from within, as a morale-building exercise. “All of our top management has been grown from within the company,” he says. “If people think they can move up, they work harder.”

At the sleek black Bloomberg building on Park Avenue and 59th Street, the two policies raising the most eyebrows these days are the intense security (all staff members have to use an electronic badge to enter, and a computer logs their ins and outs) and a software program that blocks profanity and epithets from internal e-mail for staff and messages sent by clients via the Bloomberg terminals. Bloomberg’s voice rises – he’s almost squeaking – when I ask him about this policy. “It’s our system, and I have a right to limit what goes over it,” he says. “I don’t think it’s in our clients’ interest to allow abusive language in a business context.” Calming down, he then tells me that it’s quite easy to subvert the program; all you have to do is put stars or spaces between the letters of swear words. When I ask if Bloomberg ever swears himself, he bursts out laughing: “Me, the man the Wall Street Journal referred to as ‘the profane Michael Bloomberg,’ to my mother’s everlasting mortification?”

He admits he’s tried to clean up his act in recent years – he limits himself in front of me to the abbreviated “NFW,” as in “no fucking way” – but friends and colleagues acknowledge that he can be a salty guy, a true product of Wall Street’s raunchy trading-desk culture. “He’s a really bawdy guy, very funny,” says a woman friend, “but you don’t take 75 percent of what he says seriously; he just loves to get a rise out of women.” Female staff report that he has a good record for promoting women and minorities and has never been accused of hitting on his employees, but he has made flip sexual comments that women have found offensive.

Last month, the Daily News rehashed the details of a 1997 sexual-harassment complaint against Bloomberg by former sales executive Sekiko Garrison, who charged that when she told him she was pregnant, he responded, “Kill it.” He has denied, under oath, that he made this and other crude statements, but nonetheless he settled the case last spring, for a sum said to be less than six figures. The lawsuit wasn’t news per se – it had been mentioned before in the press – but the specific charges taken from the original legal papers made headlines. “Mike expected people would dredge it up,” says Bill Cunningham, a recently hired senior political adviser to Bloomberg, “which is why he took and passed a lie-detector test.”

Bloomberg chooses his words carefully when he’s asked about the sexual-harassment lawsuit and the press feeding frenzy after the Daily News story. “It was very hurtful,” he says. “I am 100 percent convinced that this company and myself acted honorably.” Why settle, then? “I settled it because it would have dragged on and on and been disruptive for me and a lot of people who would have been brought in for depositions.” His expanding team of political advisers fervently hope the story will be old news by the time Bloomberg is expected to announce in June. “If it had to come out,” one of them says, “it’s much better to do it now rather than a week before the election.”

Bloomberg’s management and financial expertise, as New York teeters on the verge of recession, is likely to be a key selling point in his campaign. His aides hope that Mark Green, now the front-runner in all major polls, will be the Democratic nominee, since they see him as the most liberal of the four, allowing Bloomberg to position himself instead as the pragmatic businessman willing to take on the unions with a slew of difficult contract negotiations ahead.

Ray Harding, the head of the state Liberal Party, known for its devotion to patronage politics, supported Giuliani and has met with Bloomberg twice. “He’s obviously a man of great ability,” Harding says of Bloomberg.

Harding’s party will conduct face-to-face auditions of all mayoral candidates on April 28 and May 5. “Sure, I’ll talk to them,” says Bloomberg. And what will he do if pressed to make his candidacy official sooner in order to win the endorsement? “That would force the issue to make a decision earlier,” he admits.

As for a possible Republican primary, Bloomberg’s advisers are hoping there won’t be one, that state GOP officials will pressure Herman Badillo not to run. The media mogul would likely win, but he’d be forced to move to the right in a contested GOP race, alienating Democrats in November.

He’s hired a bipartisan team of advisers, including the legendary David Garth, who helped elect John Lindsay, Ed Koch, and Rudy Giuliani; pollster Doug Schoen, who helped engineer Jon Corzine’s $60 million New Jersey Senate win; Maureen Connelly, a respected former Koch aide; and Cunningham, a press-savvy former Moynihan aide. Carl McCall, who’s running for governor with an infinitely smaller budget and brain trust, jokes, “Mike is a political consultant’s dream.”

“He can buy name recognition,” says Charlie Rangel. “Blitz people with ads and they’ll think they were raised with you.”

So how would Mayor Mike govern New York’s concrete jungle? On the public-school system: “I would have backed Edison 100 percent, because these are the five worst schools in the city and you have to try something new. Vouchers, charter schools, I’m in favor of trying them all.” On the police: “I’m very much in favor of the Civilian Review Board. The police are doing a good job, crime is way down. But the big problem is the black and Latino communities feel the police are out of control; there’s a bit of truth in that in a number of cases.” On gridlocked New York traffic: “A toll system that makes it more expensive for trucks to deliver during the day would be easy and enforceable.” He also would coerce Con Ed and cable and phone companies into informing the city before digging up streets, so the police could direct traffic accordingly. “The mayor ought to be able to sit down with these organizations and say, ‘If you want to have a problem, you’ll have a problem with me, baby.’ “

There is one softball question, however, that he dodges: Asked whether he wants the Yankees to stay in the Bronx, he stares at me and says, “You’ll notice I’m not answering.” Responding to a litany of issues that reporters have raised to date, he says he will release his tax returns if he runs, but in a limited way: listing the sources of income but not his total yearly take or his specific charitable gifts. He takes umbrage at the suggestion that inquiring minds want to know: “It’s nobody’s business.” He also says he hasn’t decided whether to decline a $14 million city tax break for a new corporate headquarters to be built on the Lexington Avenue site of the old Alexander’s. “If I walk away from the money for personal reasons, I have an obligation to my shareholders, and I’ll have to write a check.”

At South Bronx High School one recent afternoon, Bloomberg got a cram course in glacial geology – more specifically, the slow-moving pace of city budgets. Principal Eduardo Genao complained that he had been trying for seven years to get funding to replace the ancient windows. “I know it’s the city’s responsibility, but if they can’t help, can’t you get the community involved?” asked Bloomberg, who has donated money to a charitable organization that is fixing up the school’s sports field. “There must be carpenters in the neighborhood.” Replied the principal, “The community is pretty apathetic.” Afterward, in his car, driving past trash-strewn lots, Bloomberg seemed genuinely disturbed by the why-bother despair of this poor neighborhood. He’s used to being a get-it-done-yesterday, write-the-check mogul. “There’s got to be a way,” he mused aloud, “to get people involved in something that would help their own children.”

To his credit, Bloomberg has given pots of money to support education, from teacher training to arts in the schools to scholarships to literacy programs. In fact, he’s supported almost every major city charity – Citymeals-on-Wheels, shelters for battered women, Gay Men’s Health Crisis – and most of his commitments are long-standing. Bloomberg, who usually flies his helicopter every Monday to Baltimore, where he’s chairman of the board of Johns Hopkins, serves on twenty different boards, including those of the Jewish Museum, the Old Vic Theatre, and the Serpentine Gallery in London. As a champion of the arts, he is the least likely person to go on one of Rudy’s headline-making campaigns against so-called obscene art; Bloomberg calls the decency panel “ridiculous.” (Friends tease that Bloomberg routinely falls asleep at operas and plays.) Should Bloomberg run, his campaign will undoubtedly stress the big bucks he’s given away as evidence of his civic commitment.

“Mike’s been the rock of Gibraltar for us,” says Rusty Staub, the former Mets outfielder who chairs the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s benefit fund, to which Bloomberg’s been a donor since 1988. “He didn’t get involved with us for political reasons, but if being involved with us can help him now, God bless him.” However you slice it, the money makes him a formidable opponent. “He can buy name recognition,” says Charlie Rangel, who says he likes Bloomberg but could not back him as a GOP candidate. “You blitz people with ads, and by the time you’re done, they’ll think they were raised with you and went to school with you.”

Even before his declaration, Bloomberg’s billions have become a major issue in the mayoral race, since he has indicated that he will not abide by the city’s voluntary campaign-finance system, which allows candidates to spend $5.2 million in the primary and $5.2 million in the general election. The New York Times has already editorialized against Bloomberg on this score, calling his likely decision “a major political error” and leading most observers to assume that he’s killed his chance of getting the paper’s prestigious endorsement. (The Times backed Republican Bob Franks over the free-spending Jon Corzine in New Jersey for just this reason.)

The last fabulously wealthy media mogul to attempt to become New York’s mayor was William Randolph Hearst, who ran in 1905. Bloomberg is now reading The Chief, David Nasaw’s new biography of Hearst, and he admits that the first thing he turned to was the account of the New York mayoral race. Hearst was one of the richest men of his day, yet he ran effectively as a populist reformer, losing by a mere 3,000 votes. (The election was most likely stolen from him by Tammany Hall.)

If Bloomberg wins in November, he says, he has no interest in using City Hall as a stepping stone to higher office. But then again, he sounded pretty unequivocal in his 1997 autobiography when he claimed he wasn’t interested in political office of any kind. So things change.

Citizen Mike