Geoffrey Canada intervened to keep Obama out of the race; Canada who has received millions from Bloomberg’s pockets and from taxpayer funds also pushed for renewal of mayoral control -- he has a lot to be responsible for. - Leonie Haimson
November 4, 2009
The White House switchboard lit up with calls from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s emissaries several weeks ago with a message that was polite but firm: The mayor is going to win re-election, they said. We think the president should stay out of the race.
Members of Mr. Bloomberg’s inner circle were especially worried because they knew President Obama planned to visit the region to campaign with Gov. Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey, and he would face pressure to support the Democratic candidate, William C. Thompson Jr., the city’s first black comptroller.
“I know she is close to the president and has his ear,” said Mr. Canada, whose nonprofit group has received $600,000 in personal donations from Mr. Bloomberg.
A close adviser to the mayor, who stayed neutral in the presidential race, described the campaign’s pitch to the White House this way: “He didn’t pick sides in your race. Don’t pick sides in his.”
The president’s office agreed, and in early October alerted Bloomberg aides that it would offer only a halfhearted Friday afternoon endorsement for Mr. Thompson, and Mr. Obama did not campaign with him.
In the race for mayor of New York City, there was one campaign on the surface. But there was a more dramatic effort, unfolding behind the scenes, that really mattered: ensuring, through money and muscle, that Mr. Bloomberg faced no serious obstacle to winning a third term.
The critical moments were not widely watched debates or speeches, but triumphs celebrated privately inside the cavernous Midtown Manhattan headquarters of Bloomberg 2009: the elbowing out of Representative Anthony D. Weiner and the neutralizing of any powerful Democrat who could hurt the Bloomberg campaign.
Underlying it all was a sophisticated strategy, and at times intimidating tactics, seemingly at odds with Mr. Bloomberg’s image as a nonpolitician, that his aides sketched out during a marathon meeting in the fall of 2008.
This account is drawn from dozens of interviews with top aides, consultants and friends of both candidates, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly without inflaming two powerful public officials.
In the days after the mayor had emerged, victorious, but badly bruised, from his fight to rewrite the city’s term limits law, Mr. Bloomberg and his three top deputies, Edward Skyler, Patricia E. Harris and Kevin Sheekey, gathered in the Staten Island room in City Hall and began to plot his campaign.
They warned him that it would be entirely different from his campaigns in 2001 and 2005. “This will be really hard,” one participant said.
Mr. Sheekey, the mayor’s political guru, urged him to quickly send a warning to potential challengers. He suggested recruiting a high-profile attack dog for the campaign and disclosing it to the press. The choice was obvious: Howard Wolfson, the combative former communications director for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential run.
Mr. Skyler suggested that the campaign be run by his best friend, Bradley Tusk, a former deputy to Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, who was leaving Lehman Brothers and eager to return to politics. Mr. Tusk spent weeks last fall helping Mr. Sheekey ram the term limits legislation through the City Council.
Mr. Sheekey pushed what he called the Powell Doctrine — a burst of overwhelming force that would discourage anybody who was even thinking about taking on the mayor.
Mr. Tusk, extremely self-confident and forceful, talked about “taking the oxygen out of the room”: hiring so many staff members, rolling out so many endorsements, and tossing up so many television ads that opposition seemed futile.
A sky-is-the-limit ethos, unfettered by spending limits, infused the effort. Mr. Tusk told his outreach coordinator for Asian voters, Oliver Tan, to find him a Bollywood star to endorse the mayor. After weeks of transcontinental phone calls, he did.
“It was selling inevitability,” a campaign adviser said.
In many ways, what the campaign was selling was a charade. Inside the campaign, pollsters and consultants fretted over surveys that showed New Yorkers angry over term limits, anguished over the economy and eager for change. Mr. Bloomberg’s re-election numbers were alarmingly low for a two-term incumbent.
Polls showed that Mr. Weiner, a scrappy, politically agile Brooklyn Democrat, posed the greatest threat. Not only could Mr. Weiner compete with the mayor for the white middle-class vote, he was undaunted by the mayor’s power in a city where most politicians bow to him.
Mr. Tusk started to hold daily meetings about how to knock Mr. Weiner out of the race, unleashing a two-pronged attack: making on-the-record statements belittling his record and encouraging embarrassing articles in the New York dailies. Negative articles began appearing, the most colorful of which purported to show that Mr. Weiner had skipped votes in Congress to play hockey in Manhattan.
Despite angry denunciations of what he called a smear campaign, the congressman slowly lost his will to take on the mayor.
On May 26 Mr. Weiner announced he would not run, and Mr. Tusk and Mr. Wolfson held a celebratory dinner at Peter Luger’s, splitting an $85 porterhouse steak.
The only obstacle remaining was Mr. Thompson. At Thompson campaign headquarters near Union Square, Mr. Bloomberg’s display of political might over the summer — he had spent $37 million by July 11 — was having its desired effect. By August, Mr. Thompson’s advertising team had stopped trying to track the mayor’s television and radio spending, standard practice in a campaign, telling colleagues it was too depressing. Anne Fenton, Mr. Thompson’s press secretary, told friends that she was intimidated by Mr. Wolfson.
At times, the Bloomberg campaign, waging what they proudly saw as a presidential-
Midway into the campaign, Mr. Thompson scheduled a publicity tour through a foreclosure-
Team Bloomberg swung into action, dispatching a group of researchers to dig up Mr. Thompson’s ties to what they called an “anti-union developer” and $400,000 in campaign donations from real estate companies. They tapped out a 2,000-word e-mail message to the news media, titled “Thompson’s Rhetoric on Affordable Housing Doesn’t Match His Record” and prepared to hit the send button.
But to their astonishment, the Thompson campaign attracted almost no press to the event. The e-mail message never went out.
Mr. Tusk’s high level of organization, and his demand for corporate-style accountability, earned him admiration and occasional resentment within the campaign. He kept meticulous checklists and spreadsheets on a dozen topics at a time, and sought daily, sometimes hourly, updates from staff members.
Mr. Bloomberg, pleased with the effort, focused on his mayoral duties and tried to avoid being drawn into the campaign back-and-forth, with one exception. Three weeks before the election, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani made an appearance with Mr. Bloomberg before a group of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn.
Whatever message they had hoped to convey was drowned out by Mr. Giuliani’s speech, in which he suggested the city could not afford to return to the bad days before 1993, when the city’s first black mayor reigned, adding, “And you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Mr. Bloomberg, who had prided himself on lowering the city’s racial temperature, was furious. The mayor’s advisers recognized the statement could become a nightmare if Mr. Thompson’s campaign exploited it deftly.
Mr. Thompson’s advisers pleaded with him to seize the opening.
“I talked to the Thompson campaign and said, ‘This is the decisive moment, it may be the best opportunity to change the race,’ ” a Democratic leader said.
But Mr. Thompson refused to make a big fuss about the statement. He addressed it only in passing, relying on surrogates to take on the mayor.
The Bloomberg campaign braced itself. But the storm never came.