The Make-Over Artist: Wily Hank Morris Working on Hevesi

If City Comptroller Alan Hevesi is going to become the next Mayor of New York, he’ll have to do better than the single-digit support he’s been getting from black voters. Blacks, who will be choosing from three white men and a Latino amongtheleading Democratic Mayoral candidates, not only are a critical voting bloc this year, they may be the most energized and sought-after voters of Campaign 2001.

Mr. Hevesi is a longtime critic of the Reverend Al Sharpton whose carefully crafted centrist politics resemble Rudolph Giuliani’s–no selling point there with many black voters. Nearly 30 years ago, as a young state legislator, he introduced bills that would have barred racial quotas in public employment in New York. (The bills failed.)

Enter Hank Morris, Mr. Hevesi’s chief strategist, longtime friend and all-round trouble-shooter. Behind the scenes, Mr. Morris has been working feverishly in recent weeks to smooth relations between Mr. Hevesi and the black community, particularly Mr. Sharpton. It is no exaggeration to say that Mr. Hevesi’s fate in this, the toughest campaign of his career, will depend on Mr. Morris’ diplomatic mission.

The bond between Mr. Hevesi and Mr. Morris is tighter than any candidate-consultant relationship since the days of Ed Koch and David Garth. Few New York politicians are so closely identified with their political mastermind. “They can finish each other’s sentences,” political consultant Evan Stavisky said. If Mr. Hevesi seems to have a low profile, it’s because Mr. Morris often does the talking for him. When political insiders pump each other for information about Mr. Hevesi, they tend to ask one another about the whereabouts of Mr. Morris.

The consultant’s whereabouts on Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 15 were hardly a secret. He was with his candidate in Harlem as Mr. Hevesi spoke to a group of Mr. Sharpton’s supporters. The Comptroller’s appearance was the result of Mr. Morris’ third-party negotiations with Mr. Sharpton, conducted by telephone and over a face-to-face lunch in midtown. Mr. Hevesi’s speech had the air of a peace offering, all right, but it was not without tension, signaling just how much work Mr. Morris has ahead of him.

Mr. Hevesi gave a pretty innocent talk. “I hate bigots,” he intoned. “I happen to believe that bigots are profoundly stupid people; they are ignorant people; they are evil people!” The audience murmured respectfully. Mr. Hevesi touted his record on affirmative action and stressed his ties to black elected officials.

Somebody in the audience, however, suggested that he was too close to Mayor Giuliani. The crowd grew restive. Mr. Hevesi delivered a well-meaning, if dry, treatise about economic development in Harlem. The audience began to cackle. After several minutes of sturdy self-defense, Mr. Hevesi retreated to his seat, flushed and irritated. Then, almost magically, Mr. Morris appeared by his side. The consultant whispered into Mr. Hevesi’s ear for two minutes in plain sight of the audience, of the cameras, of his startled colleagues.

It was a perfect Hank Morris moment–a snapshot of the close relationship between consultant and candidate. Few politicians would openly display such extensive dependence on an adviser–particularly in openly hostile territory.

Mr. Morris has been consumed by Mr. Hevesi’s political fate for more than a decade. He orchestrated Mr. Hevesi’s surprising rise from obscurity to citywide office, overseeing his upset victory over former Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman in 1993. Mr. Hevesi himself has given Mr. Morris credit for his rise to power; Mr. Morris has been plotting Mr. Hevesi’s Mayoral bid since the early 90′s.

“He’s indefatigable [in] whatever he does,” Harold Ickes, the political consultant, said of Mr. Morris. “He’s almost messianic about his candidate and about his approach to politics.”

In his quest to make Mr. Hevesi the next Mayor, Mr. Morris is not afraid to play Mr. Hyde to the Comptroller’s Dr. Jekyll. If the Comptroller comes across as a genial, low-key public servant–a kind of resident intellectual of Queens clubhouse politics–Mr. Morris is an unabashedly tough, even ruthless political operative. He has the political consultant’s requisite ghostlike complexion, bad posture and rumpled wardrobe. His nickname is “The Sweater.”

Mr. Morris may be the only consultant in New York who has run his own mother’s campaign for political office. In his capable hands, Rita Morris, a 68-year-old grandmother and librarian from Long Island, was transformed into a would-be political terminator. “He turned his mother into a mud wrestler,” said Gary Ackerman, a Congressman from Queens and Nassau County who awoke one morning in 1992 to discover he was suddenly being challenged by Mrs. Morris. (She ultimately lost.) “He’s Hank Morris–he thought he could do anything.”

Some of Mr. Morris’ clients think he can do anything. “I think he’s great,” said State Senator Tom Duane of the West Side, another Morris client. “He’s really honest and really smart and very trustworthy. The thing I like most about him is that he doesn’t tell me what my view should be. I respect him for that.”

A Hands-On Guy

Mr. Morris enthusiastically involves himself in every facet of a campaign. Ninety percent of the real political work–the most interesting part of any campaign–goes on behind the curtain, out of view of voters. There’s the fundraising, the here’s-why-I-can-win sales pitch to line up endorsements, the berating of reporters, the occasional spreading of rumors to rattle opponents. To hear Mr. Morris’ colleagues tell it, he is particularly adept at these types of tactics; he seems to excel at the subterranean psychological warfare that campaigns wage against one another. His ads sometimes seem designed not just to reach voters, but to shake up consultants in the rival camp. His most oft-cited effort in this regard was a 1998 ad for Charles Schumer assailing Alfonse D’Amato with the tag line: “Too many lies for too long.” This was a subtle dig at Mr. D’Amato’s chief political adviser, Arthur Finkelstein, whose trademark assaults on liberals–typified by his slogan, “Too liberal for too long”–were losing their bite.

Mr. Morris’ mystique is such that his rivals tend to get spooked by him–even if they’re not exactly sure what he’s up to. “Every time I get on the phone with someone, he’s just gotten off the phone with Hank Morris,” said one colleague who is working the phones on behalf of another Mayoral candidate.

“I actually have a great deal of admiration for him,” added political consultant George Arzt, who worked for Ms. Holtzman in 1993. “He makes the game interesting. He plays mind games–not just with opposing candidates, but opposing consultants. With Holtzman, he used to show up at City Hall press conferences, lean against a pillar and just stare at her. He rattled her–and that was the purpose of doing it.”

Mr. Morris sometimes employs gentler tactics. City Council member Christine Quinn, a Morris client, remembers making an intemperate remark to a reporter about Liberal Party boss Ray Harding. “[Mr. Morris] made me call Ray and request a meeting,” Ms. Quinn recalled. “Then Hank made me bring a piece of pie to the meeting–a piece of humble pie. He said it would set the mood.”

For his part, Mr. Hevesi’s trust in Mr. Morris appears to be absolute. Any press inquiries of a remotely political nature are almost exclusively channeled through Mr. Morris. He is also charged with assembling Mr. Hevesi’s campaign team.

Neither Mr. Morris nor Mr. Hevesi would comment on any aspect of this story.

Mr. Hevesi is, in some ways, a dream client for a hands-on manager like Mr. Morris, who insists on Bill Parcells-like control over campaigns on which he works. (He is widely thought to have removed himself from Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign because he wasn’t promised enough authority.) The Comptroller is undoubtedly a gifted speaker–he was long considered the foremost orator in the State Assembly–and was much sought after as a lecturer during his days teaching at Columbia. But despite his personable and confident appearance, Mr. Hevesi sometimes has come across as ideologically malleable.

As an Assemblyman from Forest Hills during the racially charged early 1970′s, Mr. Hevesi was forced to walk a delicate line to keep both his core constituency of liberal Democratic Jews, and more conservative Catholics and observant Jews, happy. As a result, Mr. Hevesi had one of the most liberal records in the Assembly on gay rights and abortion–even as he quietly introduced anti-quota legislation in 1973 and 1975. Similarly, Mr. Hevesi’s passionate oratory won him admiration from grass-roots liberal groups–even as he has maintained close ties with the powerful Queens Democratic machine that produced him. (He was close with disgraced boss Donald Manes, and gave a speech at his friend’s funeral in 1987.)

A Memorable Slogan

In Mr. Hevesi’s uphill campaign for Comptroller in 1993, Mr. Morris helped him devise a campaign slogan that turned his fuzzy political persona into an asset: “Alan Who?” After winning office, his low-key manner and conciliatory approach to governing did little to raise his profile citywide. Mr. Hevesi seemed all too willing to hold on to the question mark after his name.

The result is that Mr. Hevesi and Mr. Morris find themselves in a similar predicament: Mr. Hevesi has low name recognition, and his careful rhetoric on issues important to the black community has left him languishing.

More broadly, the dilemma suggests that Mr. Hevesi’s candidacy has for years been very much a work in progress, with Mr. Morris trying to position his friend as a moderate Democrat–a cross between the liberal Assemblyman of his youth and the sober Comptroller he’s become in recent years.

As Mayor Giuliani’s popularity soared, Mr. Hevesi underwent a gradual but unmistakable change. He became a reserved, buttoned-down centrist Democrat who shied away from criticizing the Republican Mayor. This move towards the political center seemed calculated to earn him the support of white Giuliani Democrats, who turned out in overwhelming numbers in 1993 and 1997. But it seems likely to cause a corresponding backlash among black voters–hence Mr. Morris’ recent efforts to pump his contacts in the black political community.

Mr. Morris’ efforts on behalf of Mr. Hevesi have certainly not been without missteps. During Mr. Giuliani’s disastrous effort to change the City Charter to prevent Public Advocate Mark Green from being first in line to become Mayor in the event of a vacancy, Mr. Morris publicly supported City Hall’s efforts on succession, presumably because he didn’t want Mr. Green to get the job by default if Mr. Giuliani–a Senate candidate at the time–left office early. Mr. Hevesi would then have had to run against an incumbent Mayor Green, leaving the Comptroller at a disadvantage.

The move was a disaster, seen almost universally as a naked bid to thwart Mr. Green. Voters soundly rejected the proposed changes.

Mr. Morris has been more sure-footed in building bridges to the city’s gay community–a key Manhattan constituency in a Democratic primary. Mr. Morris commands a good deal of respect in the gay community, having helped elect three openly gay Democrats: Mr. Duane, Ms. Quinn and Assembly member Deborah Glick. They are all intensely loyal to Mr. Morris–and some Democrats predict that the consultant will thus be able to deliver many Manhattan gay voters for Mr. Hevesi.

In the end, Mr. Morris’ chief asset may prove to be his good old-fashioned ruthlessness. “Prior to Hevesi’s race against Holtzman, Morris laid out exactly what stories he was going to plant with what reporters six months before they appeared,” said one operative, who worked on the 1993 Hevesi campaign with Mr. Morris. “He had a whole plan how to assassinate her character, and everything wound up happening exactly as he laid it out.”