Friday, October 02, 2009

A Master Politician

There is really no question in our mind that Mike Bloomberg is a master politician-and the reason lies with his ability to convince enough folks that his actions and policy decisions owe little or nothing to the behind the scenes political machinations that determines these manifest moves. Of course, it helps when you have millions of your own money to spend to encourage others to parade around pantomiming your party line as you remain aloof and seemingly uninvolved with the play.

The Village Voice's Tom Robbins underscores this theme with his discussion of Bloomberg's term limit scheme-and the subsequent quest for the third title: "As it heads into the home stretch, the Bloomberg campaign has adopted a new slogan to sum things up and help focus voters on the big picture. The new motto was rolled out at the big Bloomberg rally held primary night on a West Side pier, a gala celebration aimed at snatching attention away from Democrats and on to Mayor Mike. The slogan was emblazoned on Bloomberg's podium, and tattooed over and over on a TV backdrop. Which made it hard to miss. It read: "Progress. Not Politics." The first word is a debate worth having. The next two are simply lies."

And it is only in New York, where one candidate has unlimited funds, and the other's tapped out, that any one could seriously advance the idea that Mike Bloomberg was somehow above the nastiness of normal politics. And his quest for ballot lines dramatizes the fraud: "Not politics? Whatever you think of Bill Thompson's erratic campaign, at least he was being nominated that very night by his own party in an open primary. Mike Bloomberg? His GOP endorsement came courtesy of a classic, old-school political deal in which five Republican county leaders sat down in a room and agreed to give the mayor their ballot line. He cut the same insiders' pact with the cultish local chapter of the Independence Party. The party's nominating convention this spring featured all the democracy of a Chinese Politburo meeting, including a ruling clique that fawned over the visiting mayor. A few weeks later, Bloomberg sealed the deal with a $250,000 down-payment to the party's coffers, with presumably a great deal more to come."

If we had a real competitive race here, the buying of the ballot lines-along with the mayor's disbursement of his own money to aggrandize his political self interest-would have been emblazoned on countless screaming ads decrying the corruption of the political process by a wealthy candidate. And this would have been a follow up to the attacks on the term limits power grab itself. But that, of course, didn't happen, and the reason lies with the lassitude of the Thompson campaign, as well as its lack of resources.

But Robbins highlights-courtesy of Joyce Purnick's book that took a beating from us last month, but may deserve a second look-just how politically clever the term limits maneuver really was; and in the process reveals how Bloomberg skillfully employs his great wealth to his own advantage: "But there's new light shed on the subject by Joyce Purnick, the veteran New York Times editor and reporter whose insightful political biography, Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics, is out this month...It was clear he had given a third term some thought," she writes. The mayor told her that "the mechanics" of such a bid were "difficult" because he would need the backing of the city's daily papers. Bloomberg told her that he knew he could count on Post publisher Rupert Murdoch and the Daily News' Mort Zuckerman. But he was in the midst of saying he was "uncertain about Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr." when a press aide cut him off, insisting that the rest of the conversation had to be off the record. That spring, Bloomberg commissioned a poll on public attitudes about changing term limits. Purnick confirms that it showed that voters were likely to vote thumbs down on any move to change term limits in a new referendum."

So what did Mike do? Did he give up the quest realizing that it was not what the citizens wanted, or would publicly back? No, this pol did what any normal elected official concerned purely with self interest would do-he looked for an end run to achieve his objective-one that would avoid the counter productive aspects of a democratic referendum: "Bloomberg hesitated, Purnick writes, concerned in part about the response of fellow billionaire Ronald Lauder ("Complication No. 1," she dubs him), who spent millions to win the original term limits referendum and who successfully beat back a later challenge to the law. That hesitation, she says, helped the mayor avoid pressure to put term limits on the ballot that fall, when it was even more likely to be defeated by the pro-Obama voters expected to swamp the polls. She said that one close friend of the mayor who was also urging him to run for a third term told her that the mayor "deliberately ran out the clock because of the poll in June." The friend told her that Bloomberg's "political advisers were telling him he wouldn't win a referendum" overturning the term limits law."

And, in the absence of any public clamor to overturn the law, who was urging Mike on in his quest? "In July, Bloomberg attended the annual tycoons' retreat in Sun Valley, Idaho. There, Purnick writes, Bloomberg mingled with Murdoch and other pro–third term chums, including investment mogul Henry Kravis and Time Warner's Richard Parsons. The mayor was apparently treated to a full-court press from those moguls, who were in turn consulting with real estate big Jerry Speyer and investment strategist Steven Rattner, both of whom were aggressively pushing a third term."

A masterful hijacking of the democratic process by someone with real political skills-and the fortune to enhance them; aided in this by the fiscal crisis that was exploited even though it postdated Bloomberg's decision to try to grab the third term: "It was while that clock was running down that the financial collapse struck, giving the mayor what Purnick dubs "a plausible reason" to push for a fast Council vote rather than a public referendum."

Then there's the tawdry deal with Ron Lauder, a naif who was duped into removing his objections to the power grab with an illegal offer of a job: "But after what Purnick says was heavy lobbying by the pro-Bloomberg business crowd, Lauder bowed to a one-time change in the law in exchange for a small concession: that the mayor agree to name him to a new Charter Review commission panel in 2010—one that would recommend reinstituting term limits."

Quid pro quo, no? No: "Lauder clearly wasn't getting much in return: The commission doesn't even exist, and if it is convened, he'll be just one member. But it was also a glaring example of the city's top executive using the perks of office to win political advantage. That is something officials are explicitly barred from doing by the City Charter. As good-government advocates Gene Russianoff of NYPIRG and Susan Lerner of Common Cause put it in a letter a few days later to the city's Conflicts of Interest Board, "We believe that Mayor Bloomberg has used his position in a prohibited manner to obtain personal advantage in a quid pro quo deal with Ronald Lauder."

And then the Board acted: "Whatever became of that complaint? "Nothing," said Russianoff last week. "We never heard a word from the board." That's the policy, a board official said when asked about the matter. When the board doesn't find any violation, "the public never finds out," he said. Which is just how the mayor wants to keep it until after November."

So we have a political coup of the most sophisticated kind-one conceived and concocted by the city's richest man and most Machiavellian practitioner of the political arts. Mike didn't rise to the top of a multi-billion financial empire observing Marquis of Queensbury rules-and he has used these skills to good advantage in his mayoral tenure. But please, don't say that somehow he is above, or outside of the political process-or of the special interests that, at least in the case of his third term, have supported him proudly as their true native son.