Bloomberg’s Golden Army

A small brass plaque in the elevator of 126 East 56th Street announces it: “Bloomberg for Mayor.” So does a seventh-floor wall in the office building–only this time in giant letters stretched 20 feet wide and polished to a silvery shine.

The font is familiar: a simple sans serif, synonymous with the Bloomberg name, ubiquitous on bus sides and taxi tops. So is the decor: simple, clean, the bowl of fresh fruit and bagged snacks in the reception area, the closely spaced work stations (no office for you!), a Bloomberg terminal on every desk.

Bloomberg the business has morphed into Bloomberg the candidate–right down to the look of what is described as the “exploratory campaign office” just down the block from the shiny black tower that is headquarters to Bloomberg News. Everything appears set for an official campaign announcement soon after Memorial Day.

There’s one other familiar thing, too: To launch this venture, Michael Bloomberg has assembled the most eclectic team of political all-stars that money can buy–and, if you listen to the critics, probably did. Mr. Bloomberg’s lineup is the political equivalent of those $100-million major-league payrolls.

There’s the portly and seasoned David Garth, 71, the political consultant who helped get John Lindsay, Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani elected Mayor. There’s the puckish Frank Luntz, the pollster whose diverse clientele has included Mayor Giuliani and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

There’s Doug Schoen, a pollster who has worked for the Bloomberg company, and who played a big part in another big-money campaign: the election of New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine. And Maureen Connelly, the savvy public-relations executive who used to work for Ed Koch.

Speaking for Mr. Bloomberg is the silver-haired Billy Cunningham, whose extensive political pedigree is most often associated with former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And also boasting a diverse and long political history: Lawrence Mandelker, the mustachioed and tenacious lawyer for former Republican Party chief William Powers, who tried–and failed–to block Senator John McCain from getting on the Republican ballot in last spring’s New York Presidential primary. None of these people work for peanuts, and most campaigns usually can afford only one or two home-run hitters. Mr. Bloomberg, by contrast, has hired an entire wing of the political Hall of Fame.

The team also includes Jonathan Capehart, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former editorial writer for the Daily News , on leave from his weekly national-affairs column at Bloomberg News, and–strangest of all to some–Ester Fuchs, the lefty Barnard political-science professor who has thrown a few impassioned lobs at Mayor Giuliani in her day, and some wet kisses to former Mayor David Dinkins now and again.

Exactly how much they’re getting paid is a closely guarded secret–at least until the Board of Elections filing on July 15. But there’s no doubt that this is a no-expenses-spared campaign: The Bloomberg terminals alone cost up to $1,640 a month each. “We pay full price!” insisted Mr. Cunningham, the campaign spokesman.

New York City has had career politicians, an accountant and a career prosecutor for Mayor in the last half-century, but it has yet to try a career businessman–and certainly not one worth an estimated $4 billion, and willing to fund his own candidacy. Assembling his campaign team, Mr. Bloomberg may be signaling exactly what having a billionaire for Mayor will mean (only without the big bucks to throw around).

It’s his modus operandi: get a disparate group, mix them up, pay them a lot. It’s a departure from the usual campaign approach, which usually revolves around a hired gun or two and a lot of passionate and underpaid acolytes hewn from some ideological cloth.

It might show a man who is willing to try anything that works–a sort of business-model-based, post-partisan approach.

“This is what you can expect from a Bloomberg Mayoralty,” said Mr. Cunningham. The team, he said, “is a direct function of Mike Bloomberg–the way he will choose people based on their talents. He starts with no preconceived notions of what works and what doesn’t.”

Or it might reveal a man (the same man who jumped party lines purely for expediency, he freely admits) who has no core beliefs and no real vision of what he wants to accomplish as New York’s next Republican Mayor.

“He is repeating all of the mistakes self-made billionaires make when they run for office, which is replicating their success in business and following their gut–none of which could possibly work,” said consultant Norman Adler, who has become something of a one-man anti-Bloomberg quip machine.

“Why not work for Mike Bloomberg? It’s good to get a paycheck,” sniffed Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who said he was speaking on his own behalf, not for Mark Green, for whom he is a strategist. “If the guy is paying you–they’re all making a lot of money.”

It is not, consultants like Mr. Sheinkopf assume, because Mr. Bloomberg’s team members think the mogul can win–and the polls indeed look grim. A recent Daily News poll, for example, showed Democratic candidates who are barely in the single digits in polls of their own party members walloping the media mogul in a general election by margins as big as three to one.

Of course, Mr. Bloomberg has tons of money to spend, and money can buy things in politics. Still, “look at all of the people who worked for Forbes, and they knew he was going to lose,” said Mr. Adler, the consultant. “The political-consultant community follows the Biblical saying, ‘He was a stranger and we took him in.’”

Privately, the language gets even more heated: “They are sucking him dry,” said one prominent politico. “They are taking him for a ride.”

Mr Cunningham would not comment on his or his colleagues’ payment arrangements, except to say, “People do sign up, so they must be getting close to what they want.” He would not make Mr. Bloomberg available for comment.

“He came to me ,” Ms. Fuchs said in a Woody Allen-esque admission, in her cramped, book-filled office at Barnard College. “He wanted my opinion. So he gets credit for that.” Still, on talk radio, the 49-year-old Ms. Fuchs has already been accused of “selling out for $100,000.” She denies she is being paid that amount.

Mr. Cunningham himself left a nice lobbying job at Fleet Bank, and his wife and three teenage children behind in Albany, to crash at a small Manhattan apartment during the week. “This is going to shape up as a very interesting adventure,” said the 50-year-old spokesman. “People in New York are going to respond to Mike Bloomberg’s message. His personal history is compelling. His story will work wonderfully for him.”

This is the kind of thing members of Mr. Bloomberg’s team say. They are excited about the opportunity. Mr. Bloomberg is a fresh face. And yes, yes, yes, they insist, we do all get along. There is, for example, that open-door policy: In his corporate offices a few blocks away, Mr. Bloomberg himself sits at a work station in a cornerofthe Bloomberg newsroom.

In the conference room on East 56th Street, Team Bloomberg meets regularly, sometimes with Mr. Bloomberg, sometimes without, sometimes in smaller subsets. But there is no campaign manager–Mr. Bloom-berg eschews titles–so whoever jumps in can set the agenda. “It’s not unlike the Knights of the Round Table,” Mr. Cunningham said. Or as another participant put it: “There are a lot of very strong personalities–and no lack of opinions.”

But how this will play out in the context of a campaign remains to be seen. When discussing polls, for example–which tend to be the most closely held secrets in campaigns–there was an argument about whether the door should be shut. It finally was.

Then there is the question of whether, having hired all this talent, Mr. Bloomberg will actually listen to it. Quite a few press noses have been knocked out of joint, for example, by his rather selective media policy. Mr. Bloomberg gave an interview to The New York Times , for example, but not to the Daily News . He broke news (of his willingness to accept $1 a year as Mayor) in the national press–in Newsweek . He chose to say “I’m running” to a gossip columnist: Liz Smith of the New York Post (but not to her colleague, Cindy Adams, who had reported weeks earlier, without the ultimate source himself, that Mr. Bloomberg was indeed in the race). Journalists wonder whether Maureen Connelly and Billy Cunningham, two of the savviest P.R. pros around, could possibly be advising Mr. Bloomberg to cherry-pick this way.

And will Mr. Bloomberg, the business shark, take the time to clue everyone in on the agenda? Take Ms. Fuchs. She can give an impassioned rationale for why Mr. Bloomberg should be Mayor: “I have a vision about how to make this city work better, which is also Mike Bloomberg’s vision. People experience this city through their neighborhoods–their schools, their libraries, their parks. Making this city work is about making the neighborhoods work, not just midtown Manhattan. I myself, to this day, think of myself as a Bayside girl.”

But this is Mr. Bloomberg on neighborhoods: “I don’t think that knowing the details of every single little program, law, neighborhood–whether you’re running for President or Governor or Congressman or City Council or Mayor or whatever–those aren’t the issues,” he said in an un-broadcast interview with Charlie Rose at a conference for television-industry professionals. You have staff for those things, Mr. Bloomberg said.

So much for the people of Bayside.

Then there is the question of how will they all get along? Beyond the well-known egos of the Luntzes and Garths and Schoens there are … even more egos.

Ms. Fuchs, dark-haired and dark-eyed, is the kind of person who speaks in exclamation points. “Dictator” is a word that tends to trip off her lips when she mentions Mayor Giuliani, for example. But Mr. Capehart, as a Daily News editorial writer and columnist, was supportive of most Giuliani policies. Young (he’s 33), black and gay, he made a splash early in his career, for example, with a series of columns about unsafe sex taking place in New York bathhouses. But in the loose hierarchy that makes up the campaign, he and Ms. Fuchs will work closely together.

Mr. Capehart insisted that he and Ms. Fuchs were not really that far apart ideologically. And with a few clicks on his Bloomberg terminal in the office he shares with Kathleen Cudahy, a former aide to City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, he retrieved a letter responding to one of his columns that accused him of wandering “the angry and bitter landscape of the left.”

Next to Ms. Fuchs, Mr. Capehart has generated the most buzz in his new role. (Much of this stems from skepticism about how Mike Bloomberg, the candidate, can possibly separate his radio and wire operations from his campaign.) Mr. Capehart had only just assumed writing a weekly column when he struck up a conversation with someone he described as “one of Mr. Bloomberg’s people.”

“And I said, ‘Why is he thinking about doing this?’ And I said, ‘He’s really going to have to have issues.’ And I was told, ‘Well, we were kind of hoping you’d help with that.’” Mr. Capehart said it took him a month to come to this conclusion:

“If it’s good enough for [William] Safire and [David] Gergen to jump the fence, it’s good enough for me. And I don’t think you can ever really understand this stuff until you’ve done it. After November, I want to go back to my column, and I’ll go back with more insight, more understanding.”

The campaign already has on board field workers and someone to organize the petition effort. There are more hires to come, to be sure; a Mayoral race does take an infrastructure. Even the general phone message solicits résumés.

For, unlike any of the other campaigns, this one does have an unlimited budget.