Like any shrewd businessman, Michael Bloomberg knows the
importance of test-marketing a new product-especially if the product in
question happens to be himself. So Mr. Bloomberg, the billionaire media mogul
who is considering a run for Mayor on the Republican line, is conducting a
series of focus groups to determine, in part, whether New Yorkers will buy his
main selling point: that his experience as the founder of a global
financial-news service gives him the management experience necessary to run the
unwieldy enterprise known as City Hall.
Mr. Bloomberg has begun high-profile hiring in preparation
for a campaign has resigned as chairman of his company’s board and has been
talking with academics and political insiders about public policy and the
mechanics of a citywide race. But some of the most important consultations are
taking place not in back rooms, but in a small auditorium on lower Fifth
Avenue. There, on a recent afternoon, three dozen New Yorkers gathered to watch
a videotape of Mr. Bloomberg as he explained his electoral rationale. Sitting
in a comfortable armchair in front of a calming backdrop of books, he answered
questions from an off-camera interrogator. As he spoke, each focus-group
participant used a small dial to register moment-by-moment reactions-approve,
turn right; disapprove, turn left-to Mr. Bloomberg’s performance.
These sessions provide a glimpse of Mr. Bloomberg’s
strategic deliberations as he weighs a run for City Hall. The question at the
core of Mr. Bloomberg’s quasi-candidacy is this: Can he be the Jon Corzine of
New York City? Is it possible to do in New York what Mr. Corzine did in last
year’s New Jersey Senate race-that is, spend gobs of personal wealth on a
campaign without being tarred as a vanity candidate?
At the Fifth Avenue focus-group session, which took place in
mid-February, Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers test-marketed responses to the questions
he will inevitably face about his wealth, which is estimated at $4 billion.
According to a participant who reconstructed the scene for The Observer on condition of anonymity, Mr. Bloomberg’s off-camera
inquisitor asked whether he thought New Yorkers would vote for a
businessman-candidate for Mayor.
Mr. Bloomberg’s answer
suggests that he’s trying to frame his Horatio Alger personal story-he is a
bookkeeper’s son from a blue-collar suburb of Boston who went on to build an
immense media empire-to show that he is not out of touch with the everyday
concerns of voters. On the videotape, Mr. Bloomberg discussed his modest
background, his hard-working father, his early struggles to make money even
after being denied a credit line, his identification with struggling New
Yorkers and his belief in New York as a city of limitless opportunities. The
audience listened respectfully, dialing in their reactions for possible future
use by Mr. Bloomberg’s strategists.
At another point, the participant recalled, Mr. Bloomberg
was asked to reveal his net worth. He said he wouldn’t divulge an exact figure,
but the question was moot because he intended to leave his fortune to
charity-save for small trust funds for his two children.
“They have a candidate who’s reluctant to announce his net
worth, and they think it will be raised against him,” Republican consultant
Roger Stone said of Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers. “The conventional wisdom is that
Corzine’s money hurt him. They’re trying to formulate a response.”
The session was
revealing in other ways. The focus-group participant who spoke with The Observer said that in the video, Mr.
Bloomberg sounded conciliatory in talking about the Reverend Al Sharpton;
offered several ideas about keeping trucks out of midtown during peak traffic
hours; and recounted the history of several sexual-harassment lawsuits against
his company. (Two lawsuits were dismissed; the other was settled.)
On the latter issue, Mr. Bloomberg must have acquitted
himself well, because the audience apparently reacted positively to his
explanation. “When that segment was over,” the focus-group participant
recalled, “a guy came in and said, ‘I can’t believe you guys didn’t react
William Cunningham, a veteran of New York’s political wars
who serves as a senior adviser to Mr. Bloomberg, would not discuss the focus
group, which was conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Mr. Bloomberg
declined an Observer request for an
Mr. Cunningham said that Mr. Bloom-berg’s wealth, far from
being a political liability, would be an asset. As a self-financed candidate,
he would not be indebted to traditional interest groups and power brokers. He
added that Mr. Bloomberg’s lack of experience in city government was similar to
that of outgoing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who was a federal prosecutor who had
never held elective office before becoming Mayor in 1993. “One guy was a career
federal prosecutor; the other guy built a business,” Mr. Cunningham said. “They
were both successful at what they did. If voters see that you’re successful,
they will listen to what you have to say in a Mayoral race.”
At the very least, Mr.
Bloomberg will command attention because he is an entertaining character. He is
a self-described liberal Democrat who changed his registration to Republican
rather than deal with a bruising, crowded Democratic primary. The 58-year-old
Mr. Bloomberg flies his own plane and helicopter and has gained a reputation as
a man about town and a patron of the arts. The headquarters of his media
empire, at East 59th Street and Park Avenue, resembles the deck of a busy space
station. More than 2,000 employees buzz around the building constantly, eating
for free in the company’s food court or sitting in glass-enclosed conference
rooms. The building has no traditional, walled-in offices; even Mr. Bloomberg’s
desk is out in the open on the 15th floor. The 7,000 employees who work in the
company’s 79 offices around the globe carry electronic identification cards that make it possible for
managers to determine, with the click of computer button, their exact
The company keeps the work environment verbally clean by
filtering curses and racial epithets out of internal e-mails between employees.
If you try to send an e-mail with a prohibited word-such as “asshole”-the
computer instantly shows a message: “The following word is considered to be
inappropriate in the context of business correspondence.” (“Dick” is permitted
because it’s a name, “wop” because it’s a stock-ticker abbreviation for
Woodside Petroleum, and “bimbo” because it’s the symbol for Grupo Bimbo, a
Mexican pastry company.)
Mr. Bloomberg has hired a team of well-known advisers to
help him if he decides to emerge from these high-tech surroundings into the
grubby world of New York politics. In addition to Mr. Luntz, he has enlisted
pollster Doug Schoen; Maureen Connelly, a onetime adviser to former Mayor Ed
Koch; Kevin Sheeky, a onetime adviser to former Senator Daniel Patrick
Moynihan; and David Garth, the legendary consultant.
“The first time I met with Bloomberg, close to a year ago, he
asked me whether he had a chance,” said Mr. Koch. “I said no. But now, based on
the way the other candidacies are going, I think he has a good chance. He can
run as a businessman who is going to keep the good things that Giuliani and
Koch did, and not let the city revert to the days of spending and radicalism.”
Mr. Koch, who is supporting City Council Speaker Peter
Vallone, also told The Observer that
he would be open to supporting Mr. Bloomberg in a general election should Mr.
Vallone lose the Democratic Primary. “I’m not making any commitments,” he said.
No Great Issue?
Not everyone agrees with Mr. Koch’s assessment of Mr.
Bloomberg’s chances. “I don’t see him connecting with the public,” said Fred
Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, who advised Mr.
Giuliani during his successful 1993 Mayoral run. “I don’t think he knows much
about the city. Why would we turn to someone not involved in city government?
There’s no great issue right now that could propel an outsider candidate into Gracie
If history is any guide, Democrats lose control of City Hall
only in the wake of major demographic shifts or amid severe crises of
Democratic leadership. Mr. Giuliani won because the city seemed to be
collapsing amid disorder and civil unrest; the youthful John Lindsay won
because of population shifts that swelled the rolls of young and minority
voters; and Fiorello La Guardia rode to power amid a wave of revulsion at the
corruption of Tammany Hall. And neither La Guardia nor Lindsay-the only two
Republican Mayors besides Mr. Giuliani in the 20th century-groomed a Republican
heir-apparent. Lindsay, in fact, became a Democrat before leaving office.
Mr. Bloomberg’s chances
could be further complicated by political machinations unfolding far away from
Mr. Bloomberg’s midtown redoubt. Conservative Party chairman Michael Long, who
owns a liquor store in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, told The Observer that he is talking with several possible candidates
interested in running for Mayor as a Conservative. Mr. Long said that one of
the people under consideration is a conservative political pundit who “has been
on TV a number of times and who has some celebrity status.”
Mr. Long declined to name his mystery candidate, but the New York Post reported on March 6 that National Review editor Richard Lowry is
considering a run. In past Mayoral elections, the Conservative Party candidate
has won up to 30,000 votes-a small number, considering that Mr. Giuliani
collected nearly 800,000 votes in 1997, but certainly enough to cut into Mr.
Bloomberg’s support among Republicans. Mr. Long’s opposition may have cost Mr.
Giuliani the extremely close 1989 election against David Dinkins, when the
Conservatives ran cosmetics heir Ron Lauder for Mayor. Mr. Giuliani overcame
opposition from the Conservative Party in 1993 thanks to overwhelming support
from disaffected outer-borough residents-a crowd that may not connect with Mr.
“I don’t know if he
embraces Republican values,” Mr. Long said of Mr. Bloomberg. “I don’t know if he
possesses any core values. I would hope you possess some of the values of the
party you converted to. If he converted just for political expediency, it will
Perhaps not, because Mr.
Bloomberg most likely will run as a pragmatic, non-ideological Republican, one
who will keep government clean and continue Mr. Giuliani’s managerial
successes. He may try to run on both the Republican and Liberal Party lines, as
Mr. Giuliani did, so he can position himself as a centrist even as the
Democrats compete for the left in their own hard-fought primary.
“I think that there’s a center-right Giuliani constituency
that’s still up for grabs-blue-collar ethnic Catholics, conservative Jews,
law-and-order voters-but it’s more center than right,” Mr. Stone, the Republican
Mr. Bloomberg’s quasi-candidacy is not about sounding grand
ideological themes so much as selling himself as a manager, as someone who
wants to offer incremental solutions to niggling, prosaic urban problems. For
instance, the focus-group participant said, Mr. Bloomberg talked about
relieving traffic congestion by imposing fees on trucks that come into the city
during peak traffic hours. On education, he suggested several novel, if
sketchy, ways for aggrieved parents to share their opinions of the school
system with education officials.
For his part, Mr. Bloomberg seems to have little patience
with the view that being Mayor is, as John Lindsay’s reelection campaign of
1969 stated, the second-toughest job in America. Not long ago, he described the
job this way:
“It’s getting everybody,
explaining it to them, holding their hands while they do it; it’s picking the
right people, attracting good people; it’s delegating to them; it’s making sure
that they’re coordinated and work together.”
Nothing to it.
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