The Elephant In The Room

Mayor Bloomberg and a complicated friend.Photo: Michael Edwards

It is helicopter Hysteria Day. This morning’s front pages blare the news that someone, somewhere, connected with Al Qaeda has considered using tourist helicopters as weapons against the city. This follows Target Citicorp Building Day and Black Car Attack Day.

Coincidentally, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is speaking to hundreds of security officials for midtown office buildings in a previously scheduled meeting inside an auditorium at One Police Plaza. The group has been working with the NYPD for months to plan for the Republican National Convention and is gathered today to be briefed on truck-inspection checkpoints and protest-march routes by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. First, though, Mayor Bloomberg thanks everyone for their hard work and cooperation. “This is a crucial moment for our city,” he says serenely, “and I’m confident it will bring out the best qualities of the people of New York City, and we’ll show our true character to the rest of the world.”

A few minutes later, upstairs at a press conference, the tanned and trim Bloomberg is equally crisp, if considerably less cheery. Though the phrases “car-stopping delta barriers” and “high-tech vehicle-scanning devices” don’t roll trippingly off his lips, he handles the details of soft and hard perimeters, airport inspections, and arrest procedures with aplomb. Bloomberg is annoyed, however, at what he considers the overreaction of the news media to the latest terror rumors. “Just because there’s a story in the paper, it’s not the first time we’ve heard or thought about it!” he snaps in reply to yet another question about preventive measures against the possible copters-of-death. Even if his tone—testy bordering on tense—isn’t exactly the best way to soothe an increasingly jittery city, Bloomberg’s attitude—Hey, we’re New Yorkers, we’re tough and smart; enough with the hand-wringing already—is strangely reassuring.

Yet the most impressive aspect of Bloomberg’s performance is what he doesn’t say. With the convention bearing down, the mayor spends nearly an hour talking about every last economic, logistical, and philosophical intricacy of the massive political event. And not once does he speak the words “president” or “George W. Bush.”

With the convention bearingdown, the mayor talks aboutevery last economic and logisticalintricacy—and never says the words “president” or “Bush.”

There’s no hiding the star of the show, of course. Nor the fact that the mayor, like the president, is a Republican. But the ways in which Michael Bloomberg confronts and sidesteps that reality will make for the most fascinating, unpredictable politics in an otherwise tightly scripted week.

Already, the core of Bloomberg’s strategy is clear. He is treating the Republican National Convention as simply one more astute business deal. Bringing the convention to the city isn’t about politics; it’s about filling hotel rooms and restaurant seats, marketing a resilient New York on international TV. “This convention will bring the city $250 million in economic activity, and also show that we’re back from 9/11,” Bloomberg says. “And the real economic benefit is long-term, from the people going home from the convention and telling their kids or telling their neighbors that New York is safe, that it’s fun, that people were nice to them.” Displaced street vendors? Nightmarish traffic jams? “This is the slowest business week of the year!” Bloomberg says, slightly irritated. “You couldn’t ask for a better week to do it!”

Bloomberg wants to drain the emotion out of a week that’s fundamentally about stoking emotions, whether through celebratory balloons or satirical street puppets. Assuming—praying—that there are no tragedies, convention week is shaping up to be a classically Bloombergian event for New Yorkers: something that ain’t all that much fun for most people, but—c’mon, admit it—is ultimately good for you. A net positive for the public welfare, accompanied by minor hassles. Kind of like the smoking ban, only with street closures and lots of bomb-sniffing dogs. (And, of course, what the mayor isn’t mentioning is that the convention will likely barely move the city’s economic dial—witness the Democratic convention in Boston.)

As much as the strictly business, nothing-personal approach is consistent with Bloomberg’s style and character, it’s also politically astute: Bloomberg is the mayor of, and next year will run for reelection in, the city with the largest and most vehemently antiwar Democratic population in the nation. Besides being the opening act of Bush’s reelection campaign, convention week is the prelude to Bloomberg’s 2005 reelection effort. And as the mayor reacts to unexpected twists—whether terrorists or mass arrests or some city-bashing slur by Trent Lott—the convention could finally begin to establish a positive emotional connection between Bloomberg and New Yorkers. The convention is the first true public spectacle largely of Bloomberg’s making. “It was a team effort,” he demurs. But then genuine salesman’s pride seeps through as Bloomberg talks about making the city’s case. “To sell something, you really have to believe in it, and I truly believe that New York is the best place for any party to have a convention,” he says. Then his voice drops self-consciously. “Maybe some of that came through.”

Bloomberg was pitching a New York convention to the White House even before he was officially on the job. On November 15, 2001, nine days after he’d upset Mark Green and won the mayoralty, Bloomberg flew to Washington. New York was still in shock, the World Trade Center rubble still smoldering. Adding to the tension was the fact that the Bush administration had just helped to kill a $9 billion aid package for the city. Bloomberg went to Capitol Hill and met with the New York delegation, then went to the White House and pressed Vice-President Dick Cheney about the immediate need for federal dollars—but also, for the first time, about the notion of awarding the 2004 Republican National Convention to New York.

Bloomberg kept up the sales pitch during the next thirteen months, in conversations with President Bush, in meetings between New York hoteliers and Republican National Committee leaders, even in a PowerPoint presentation that was fine-tuned by Emma Bloomberg, his eldest daughter. At the same time—as Bloomberg always hastens to add—the city was pursuing the Democratic National Convention. That courtship was considerably less ardent on both sides. The Democrats wanted an exclusive in New York, which Bloomberg quickly rejected. City officials were annoyed that the Democratic National Committee sent a site-visit group of 70 people—“a total patronage deal,” says one angry Bloomberg insider—in contrast to the RNC’s delegation of seven people, all of whom had specific experience operating previous conventions.

“Bloomberg told me he thought the Republicans were coming to New York, and I told him from day one that he would not get both conventions,” says Terry McAuliffe, the DNC chairman. “It made zero sense, with a Republican mayor and a Republican governor in New York, to go and share work space with the Bush White House, on their terms. We were not going to go to a place where the Republicans are blatantly going to take advantage of 9/11, which was a tragic and nonpartisan event.

“Michael Bloomberg gave me a lot of money,” he continues. “He was a very generous, dedicated Democrat who gave hundreds of thousands of dollars. He would have had a leg up on getting the Democratic convention if during one of our private dinners he told me he renounced the disastrous policies of George W. Bush and was coming back to the Democratic Party. But hey, if he decides to run for reelection as a Republican, we’ll beat him.”

“I have no right to play partisan politics on the conventions,” Bloomberg claims. “I told Terry that New York City is open to everybody. It would be a disgrace for me to limit the choices to one or the other.”

The deal was sealed in December 2002, when Bill Harris, the head of the Republican site-selection team, came to the city to talk about hotel rates. “September 11 wasn’t one of their considerations in selecting a city,” claims a Bloomberg negotiator. “It never came up when we talked to the Republicans and the White House.” As if it had to: That final meeting was held at the new Ritz-Carlton in Battery Park City, overlooking the World Trade Center site.

If the Republicans didn’t want to connect the dots out loud, Roland Betts, the founder and chairman of Chelsea Piers and a longtime close friend and business partner of President Bush’s, did it for them. Bloomberg put Betts on the three-member team lobbying for the convention. Betts told Bush and Karl Rove that holding the convention in Tampa, one of the other finalists, would generate talk of hanging chads. Going to New Orleans had little resonance of any kind. New York, Betts said, was the best background for the convention, to highlight the administration’s response to the September 11 attacks.

From the vantage point of December 2002, when the selection was made, holding the convention in New York must have looked irresistible to the White House. The invasion of Afghanistan seemed to have gone smoothly, President Bush’s poll numbers were soaring, and his embrace of firefighters atop the World Trade Center pile was one of the indelible images of his first two years in office. Bloomberg was promising there’d be no trouble with municipal unions and that the city would have no trouble raising the private money—the current figure is $70 million—needed to help bankroll the convention.

The world, needless to say, has changed since then. Coming to New York now means coming to the home field of antiwar, anti-Bush sentiment—creating a situation where violent protest could create a swing-state bounce. For Bloomberg, too, the political equation has greatly shifted. Until this year, it seemed like Bloomberg’s Republican identification—and the convention, more specifically—was one of the factors that would pull him down to defeat in 2005. Now, even though his prospects have improved considerably—his approval rating hit 50 percent in June—Bloomberg dances around the questions that dominate national politics. “The War on Terror started here, in the streets of New York” is as close as he comes to talking about Iraq.

By October 2003, when Laura Bush came to a Rainbow Room luncheon, she wasn’t looking just for donations but for a public-relations boost. Her husband was on the defensive about the failure to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and Iraqi insurgents were increasing their deadly attacks on U.S. troops. The First Lady came to be the main attraction at a $1,000-per-person Bush-Cheney ’04 affair. But photo ops with the president’s local allies were high on the agenda, too. Above Rockefeller Center, she matched smiles with an enthusiastic Mayor Bloomberg.

Moments later, Jennifer Blei Stockman caught the mayor’s eye. She knew the mayor was already besieged with invitations to host parties during the Republican convention, and Stockman wanted to once again express her hope that the mayor would be a headliner at her group’s event. “Absolutely,” the mayor replied. “I’m not sure about all the events yet, but this is one I’m going to completely embrace.”

Stockman is the co-chair of the Republican Majority for Choice; the other co-chair, Dina Merrill, is a longtime pal of Bloomberg’s from the charity-dinner circuit. The abortion-rights group is a distinctly minority player in the national GOP these days, yet in July the mayor officially made good on his promise to Stockman, and he’ll co-host the Republican Majority for Choice party, on August 31 at the Sky Room. “He’s been very good to our group, even prior to his political life,” Stockman says. “He has daughters, and he’s always believed that women should have the right to choose. But saying that and co-hosting our event takes enormous guts in this Republican Party.”

The mayor is lending his name to just three ancillary events. Besides the abortion-rights group, Bloomberg will co-host a party thrown by the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay and lesbian group that has so far declined to endorse President Bush, and one honoring the Congressional Hispanic Conference. The choices are unsubtle, in terms of advertising his distance from the family-values Republican platform and his understanding of the New York electorate. “There’s a culture war going on in this country over how to recognize gay and lesbian families,” says Patrick C. Guerriero, the executive director of Log Cabin, “and Mayor Bloomberg is really considered one of the leading voices for inclusion within the Republican Party, which is probably less recognized in New York than outside it.”

Bloomberg says he’s not concerned about whether anyone at the national Republican level is listening. “I’m for opening the party and the country to everyone,” he says. “It’s just logical to host these parties.”

Those kinds of socially leftish leanings initially helped fuel deep skepticism about Bloomberg among national party leaders. Bloomberg, of course, was a Democrat until the age of 58. His conversion, in 2000, was prompted not by a philosophical awakening but by pure expedience: He wanted to avoid running in a crowded Democratic mayoral primary. Even after winning City Hall as a Republican, Bloomberg faced a steep climb to win favor in the party’s power structure: He was mayor of a solidly Democratic city. He didn’t have the stature of his fellow New York Republican iconoclast, Rudy Giuliani. And unlike Governor George Pataki, Bloomberg couldn’t call on an old-school bond with Bush.

All of which makes Bloomberg’s acceptance by national Republicans a remarkable feat. How has he overcome all his disadvantages and endeared himself to George Bush and Karl Rove? “Bloomberg has raised an absolute ass-load of money for the Republican Party nationally,” says a GOP strategist currently working for the Bush campaign. “He is an absolute star. He’s worked very hard to put together fund-raisers for a lot of Republican candidates. Bloomberg and Giuliani account for a very meaningful fraction of the Republican money raised this year. They’ve both made a staggering lift for key candidates, but I think Bloomberg deserves more credit than he’s received yet.”

And Bloomberg is a useful symbol for the Republicans. “You’re gonna see people of the political stripe of Giuliani and McCain and Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg, who are not your hard-core traditional right-wingers, speaking at the convention,” the consultant says. “That’s a part of the Republican mainstream that we need to get out there right now, especially when we’re aiming at swing states.”

Bloomberg’s prowess as a cash machine makes Republicans willing to overlook such gestures as disinviting Ohio congressman Bob Ney to a fund-raiser at Bloomberg’s home, after Ney voted against appropriations for New York. “We’re all grown-ups here,” the strategist says. “We know what that was about.”

Mostly it was about New York Democrats carping that all the Republican favors Bloomberg has done haven’t paid off for the city. “Now he’s going to address the Republican convention and host all these people who stiffed the city and not say something?” asks Mandy Grunwald, a Democratic consultant who helped elect President and Senator Clinton and is now working for Gifford Miller’s 2005 mayoral campaign. “Bloomberg being embraced by the Republican Party may not be an issue in November 2005. But his not fighting for the city is gonna be an issue.”

It looks as if Bloomberg will be deprived of one Nixon-in-China opportunity. The mayor had planned on walking along the United for Peace and Justice protest route, perhaps even chatting with some of the expected 250,000 demonstrators as they streamed onto the West Side Highway—not out of solidarity with the antiwar cause but as an affirmation of the city’s respect for free speech, and to show he’s in control. But the confusion and indecision on the part of the march’s organizers may hand Bloomberg and the police unwanted chaos. Yet even that could have a political silver lining: Bloomberg can say he’d agreed to a reasonable compromise, and it isn’t his fault that protesters didn’t live up to the deal. “We had an agreement. They’ve reneged,” Bloomberg says. “Either they realized their turnout was going to be way down, or they couldn’t control their members. We won’t give them a permit for Central Park. And 250,000 people go to Central Park on their own on a Sunday. Those people have rights, too! The arrogance of these protest groups, to say we’ve got to clear everyone out so they can come in.”

As much as he’s ingratiated himself with Bush, Bloomberg still does things that rankle national Republicans. Ed Gillespie, the RNC chairman, objected to Bloomberg’s pick for head of the convention’s host committee—the person who’d run the city’s quasi-private convention fund-raising and planning operation. Gillespie wanted an unswervingly Republican apparatchik. Bloomberg insisted on Kevin Sheekey, a lifelong Democrat whose worldview was shaped by his mother, an executive director of Common Cause, and his mentor, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Sheekey went to work for Bloomberg as a Washington lobbyist when the media billionaire was first considering running for mayor. “My wife is about as left-wing as you can get,” Sheekey says. “And she told me, ‘I’m not moving to New York if Bloomberg wins.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, he won’t win.’ ” After Bloomberg’s victory—and the relocation of Mrs. Sheekey and the couple’s now-3-year-old twins to the Upper West Side—Sheekey became the point man in the city’s effort to land the conventions.

As Sheekey speed-walks across the temporary bridge over Eighth Avenue from Madison Square Garden to the post office, where the press will be bivouacked, he shouts to the convention’s operations manager to confirm the choice of carpet color leading to the media center (red, naturally). Sheekey has a large hand in constructing bigger symbolism as well. He’s helping to write Bloomberg’s speech welcoming the convention to New York. Even though the speech will be delivered at 10 a.m. on the convention’s first day, to a hall that’s likely to be at best half-filled and to network-TV cameras that are turned off, Bloomberg’s remarks will be keenly watched. Will the mayor take the opportunity to demand more federal money to defend the city? “Stay tuned,” Sheekey says with a teasing wink and a smile. “I can’t tell you what’s in the speech or you won’t come! But you’re headed in the right direction.”

Bloomberg himself seems determined to be anodyne. “I’m here as mayor, not to address national issues,” he says. “I’ll welcome everyone to New York, I’ll describe New York to them. I’ll talk about New York as a place to send your kids to get an education, for people to get great medical care, to come and have fun. I won’t be partisan.” And nothing about money to defend New York? “I make that case every day in Washington! These delegates aren’t making those decisions. Anyone who says that doesn’t understand the process or is being duplicitous.”

The president’s speech, of course, will be addressed to a full house at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. It will be followed by the traditional final scene of nominating conventions: The post-acceptance-speech, raised-clasped-hands, heartwarming multiethnic tableau. President Bush will wave to the cheering throng of delegates, then be joined by his closest soul mates—Laura Bush, Jenna and Barbara, Dick Cheney. Celebrities, adorable small children, and Republicans like Pataki and Giuliani will gradually join the happy scene.

But one key character won’t be among them—one last reminder of the delicate straddle he’s trying to maintain. “Mayor Bloomberg will be in the hall,” Kevin Sheekey says. “But he won’t be onstage.”

The Elephant In The Room