The Conventioneer

The most important Republican in New York right now is not Michael Bloomberg, George Pataki, or even Rudy Giuliani. He’s a conservative political operative from Alabama who has a passion for Civil War military history and is an avid hunter of dove and quail.

His name is Bill Harris, and he was dispatched to New York several months ago to be the CEO and chief planner of the 2004 Republican National Convention. It’s an event that’s bound to be as divisive as the man it will coronate—a massive display of President Bush’s power in the heart of enemy territory, just two months before Election Day.

A lot is riding on Harris these days. His performance as convention manager will in large part determine whether the most important event in New York next year is a success—or a flop.

“There is nothing more intense,” Harris said on a recent afternoon. “You’re talking about the culmination of a process to elect the most powerful man in the world. You take an event that draws that sort of scrutiny and put it in a city like New York, and you have to do extremely detailed planning.”

In his office at 2 Penn Plaza—eighteen stories above the future site of the convention, Madison Square Garden—Harris has an elaborate plastic model of the arena. It has moving parts, so he can experiment with camera angles, sight lines, and seating arrangements for delegates. He has a picture of one of his sons, a West Point graduate serving in Iraq. His walls are covered with giant street maps of the city. Harris has been scouring New York’s neighborhoods for places to stage events that will present a picture of GOP racial and ethnic diversity to a national audience—a tricky political task, judging by the party’s 2000 convention, in Philadelphia, which had all the depth of a Benetton ad.

Harris is described by former campaign associates as intensely loyal and unflappable. He describes politics in stark military terms, they say, and has been known to quote from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in the heat of campaigns.

Harris may want to consult Sun Tzu’s tome again in coming weeks. Because when the convention comes to town next summer, he’s certain to have a war on his hands.

The Republican convention is going to play out amid extraordinary tension. Heightened fears of terrorism will result in an unprecedented security lockdown in midtown. Hundreds of thousands of protesters plan to lay siege to the city, possibly leading to violent confrontations with police. The inevitable turmoil won’t just tie up city streets and enrage locals. It figures to have major ramifications for the general election.

Political skirmishes have already broken out over the event. Although Republicans deny it, Democrats have accused the GOP of staging the convention late—it runs August 31 through September 3—in order to capitalize politically on the third anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Giving Dems more ammo, recent reports also have suggested that George Pataki, a fervent Bush partisan, is hoping to lay the cornerstone of the new World Trade Center during convention week.

Some Democrats have even suggested that Team Bush is staging the convention in New York in part to provoke mass protests. By this reckoning, the convention is designed to broadcast the following image to a national audience: President Bush, in the city that was attacked on 9/11, fearlessly standing up for his war on terror against a sea of screaming, multi-pierced, sixties-style protesters.

“The Republicans hope to convince the country that the Democratic Party is marching outside of the Garden chanting ‘Bush is a fascist,’ ” says Congressman Anthony Weiner, a Democrat from Queens and Brooklyn. “White industrial-area swing voters, even if they’re pissed off about losing their jobs, are going to side with Bush against a kid with spiked hair carrying a poster of the president with a Hitler mustache.”

Into this combustible atmosphere steps Harris, who seems eager to show that the GOP comes in peace. For instance, when asked about plans for ground zero, Harris says he’s ruled out events there, something that would have infuriated New Yorkers (and anyone else) wary of politicization of the site.

“This convention will have no event at the Trade Center site,” Harris said flatly. (Of course, what the president and Karl Rove might decide to do outside the convention itself is beyond Harris’s control.)

Harris is doing other things to win good faith. He has directed members of his staff to volunteer on weekends to help charities around the city. “We’re trying to be an active citizen in New York,” Harris says.

Harris may know more about planning political conventions than any living individual; he’s played a key role in managing every quadrennial GOP gathering since 1988. But his record is not free of blemishes. He orchestrated the 1992 Republican convention in Houston, an event that came to symbolize the GOP’s rightward drift. The convention ran into trouble when Patrick Buchanan infamously hijacked a prime-time slot with a speech laced with fire-breathing conservatism.

Now Harris is facing the mother of all logistical challenges. He has to make some 50,000 Republican delegates, dignitaries, and visitors comfortable, and mobile, in the midst of what protesters aim to turn into a cauldron of anti-Republican fervor.

Then there’s security. According to one convention official, planners are grappling with a thorny problem: what to do about Penn Station. The commuter hub needs to keep operating during convention week, but also sits under the Garden, thus leaving the arena’s underbelly vulnerable.

Convention and police officials are also privately debating the extent of street closings around the Garden. Due to threats of terrorism, the closures are likely to be far more extensive than they were during the 1992 Democratic convention, something that risks major disruptions.

There’s plenty more for Harris to worry about. He has to build a staff capable of handling this extremely complex operation. He has to figure out how to keep some 15,000 members of the international media happy during convention week. And then there’s the national audience. He needs to come up with ways to keep millions of prime-time TV viewers gripped by what has essentially become a non-news event, little more than a coronation.

“Harris, like the GOP, is trying to make himself comfortable in political territory as hostile to Republicans as the south once was: New York City.”

Mindful of that problem, Harris is scouring the city in hopes of coming up with big ideas for off-site events. While any program decisions need final approval from President Bush, Rove, and Harris’s boss, RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, Harris wields enormous influence over what the final convention will look like to millions of TV-viewing Americans.

So what does he have in mind? For one thing, Harris wants to stage events at high-profile New York City landmarks. A leading contender for the site of the big international-media party that traditionally precedes the convention is the Brooklyn waterfront, just under the Brooklyn Bridge. Harris is also contemplating events in Staten Island’s minor-league Yankee stadium and in Coney Island’s ballpark, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones—as well as in both big-league stadiums. And an event in Central Park, where a GOP gathering might be tied to the city’s annual SummerStage festival.

Harris wants the GOP to venture into the outer boroughs. He’s eyeing Flushing Meadows Park in Queens as a possible venue, and is exploring events in the city’s diverse ethnic neighborhoods. The idea is that the sight of Republicans mingling with New Yorkers of all hues will project an image of a new, inclusive GOP to a national audience.

“I fully expect to have events all around New York,” Harris says. “It’s an opportunity to show the country, and the world, what the Republican Party is all about.”

Harris’s story—his journey from Alabama to New York—mirrors that of the modern Republican Party. In the late seventies and early eighties, when Democrats still ruled the South, Harris was chairman of the state GOP in Alabama. He stubbornly clung to the notion that the GOP could eventually crack the South, and ended up playing an important role in delivering Alabama in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, whose victory marked a key moment in the protracted Republican takeover of that region.

As Harris climbed through party ranks, he grew close to GOP luminaries like Republican operative Haley Barbour, orchestrating Barbour’s successful campaign to become RNC chairman in 1993.

Now Harris, like the GOP, is trying to make himself comfortable in political territory as hostile to Republicans as the South once was: New York City.

He’s doing all he can to familiarize himself with the new terrain. He has visited black churches on weekends. He took in a Cyclones game. He marched in a parade with Mayor Bloomberg.

Harris appears to be enjoying himself—for now. On a recent afternoon, he attended a Yankees game with Giuliani. At one point, sitting in the stands, he turned to the former mayor and remarked, “Now these are Yankees I could learn to like.”

The Conventioneer