Seducing The Times : Mayoral Candidates Vie for Paper’s Hug

If The New York Times follows its tradition, Gail Collins will publish her first political endorsements as editor of The Times ‘ editorial page on Sunday, Sept. 9, two days before the primary. Along with her editorial board, Ms. Collins–who has been at her post for less than one month–will have a potent opportunity to influence city government.

The Times editorial page is likely to play a significant role in the race for Mayor, which has turned into a contest for second place behind Public Advocate Mark Green. As the candidates jockey for the nods of labor unions and public figures, the talk among politicos is that The Times could play a large hand in determining who faces Mr. Green in a runoff–or, perhaps, help Mr. Green to lock up the 40 percent he needs to avoid a runoff altogether.

For some time, it has been the consensus–both inside and outside The Times –that the editorial board’s endorsement was Alan Hevesi’s to lose. But lately that mood has been changing, as Mr. Hevesi, the City Comptroller, has faced intense scrutiny about the financing of his campaign. Campaign-finance reform, of course, has long been a Times editorial crusade, and though no one suggests Mr. Hevesi is out of the running, sources inside the paper say an endorsement of Mr. Hevesi does not appear as certain as it once did.

Mr. Hevesi has long been a darling of the editorial page. In the 1980’s, The Times consistently endorsed Mr. Hevesi in his State Assembly races with such sobriquets as “worthy incumbent” and “conscientious legislator,” and it supported him in his bids for City Comptroller in 1989 and 1993. At the same time, the paper has never warmed to either City Council Speaker Peter Vallone or Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, and while Mark Green’s crusades as Public Advocate (as well as his work as Commissioner of Consumer Affairs under Mayor David Dinkins) have often been supported on the editorial page, The Times has seemed to distrust him. He was endorsed by The Times when he first ran for Public Advocate in 1993, but the paper added the qualifier “sometimes enjoys the spotlight too much.” (On Tuesday, Aug. 14, an editorial criticized the fundraising efforts of Mr. Green’s brother, Stephen.)

At The Times, the perception was that the paper was leaning heavily toward Mr. Hevesi. But that was before Mr. Hevesi’s campaign-finance missteps ran up against one of The Times ‘ primary editorial-page missions.

Mr. Hevesi has returned several donations from questionable donors–he’s certainly not the first candidate for political office to do so–but the incident that could most likely cost him The Times ‘ support occurred on Aug. 6, when the Campaign Finance Board denied the Comptroller’s campaign matching funds because it objected to Mr. Hevesi’s high-powered political Svengali, Hank Morris, volunteering his services. Mr. Morris insisted that he was merely helping a friend, but elsewhere his move was seen as an attempt to skirt the campaign-finance rules, which limit spending.

Before the Campaign Finance Board on Aug. 6, Mr. Morris vowed to fight the ruling. But later that day, Mr. Hevesi exclusively called Times political reporter Adam Nagourney to back away from Mr. Morris’ remarks. (The Hevesi campaign has since settled the matter by paying Mr. Morris’ firm $250,000.)

“He was worried that what Hank had done really hurt his chances of getting the New York Times endorsement,” a Times staffer said. “The editorial board was leaning to Hevesi, but the thing with Hank Morris really gave them pause.”

Indeed, Mr. Nagourney’s story made a fairly blunt reference to that concern. “The image of the Hevesi campaign battling the Campaign Finance Board, some Democrats suggested, may undercut Mr. Hevesi while he tries to win support from Democratic voters and newspaper editorial boards that have been supportive of the city’s campaign-finance system,” Mr. Nagourney wrote.

A week later, in a Monday, Aug. 13, column, Times Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert cautioned Mr. Hevesi to watch his step. He held him up as the smart bet to be the next Mayor–despite a year of polls showing Mr. Green in the lead–but wrote, “Now, with the Democratic primary less than a month away, there is a palpable sense of distress among Mr. Hevesi’s supporters.” He concluded by specifically mentioning the Campaign Finance Board dispute. “The campaign finance flap is an embarrassment. And there is not much margin for error left for a campaign that a year ago looked very good to the smart money.”

Mr. Hevesi’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Not surprisingly, Ms. Collins wouldn’t discuss who The Times is or is not endorsing. She did say that the endorsement process was taxing the editorial board. “It’s been incredible this year,” she said. “And I just walked into this.”

To many, the Times endorsement was seen as key to the success of Mr. Hevesi’s Mayoral bid. And no wonder. “It’s the most important single endorsement of all organizational and individual endorsements you might get, without question,” said former Mayor Ed Koch. “None of the others come close.”

Despite its storied power, however, the Times endorsement process remains something of a mystery. Some offer clues–a low-key, collegial approach; a confident stride–but there is no particular or traditional road map to securing the paper’s nod. Said political consultant Norman Adler: “People raise these questions, which is: What do you do to persuade The Times ? And the answer is: Who the hell knows?”

To deal with the voluminous number of City Council candidates, for example, the Times editorial board decided not to try to meet with all of the candidates for office this year, and to use paper questionnaires for some candidates. But sometimes, Ms. Collins said, an editorial-board member or two will venture into the outer boroughs to attend a candidate forum or do an interview over coffee at a local diner. Some candidates have come in, too.

But in the Mayor’s race, the full editorial board–which does not include the Op-Ed columnists, such as Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman–has sat down with all six of the major candidates at 43rd Street in its 10th-floor conference room, where a half-dozen or so of the editorial board’s members get the chance to pepper the candidates with off-the-record questions for about an hour.

Because she was an Op-Ed columnist up until July, Ms. Collins did not sit in on most of the Mayoral-candidate interviews. “Most of them took place before I became editor,” she said, “but I’d been covering the campaigns as a columnist, and I feel pretty well acquainted with the candidates. Again, the board will be discussing these endorsements over the next week or two.”

Ruth Messinger, who went through the process when she ran for Mayor in 1997 ( The Times backed her opponent, Rudy Giuliani), said she enjoyed her chances to meet with the Times board. “Even though it’s terrifying, it’s a good process, because it is The Times and there’s sort of a no-nonsense element,” she said. “And they make it clear that you shouldn’t be running for office if you don’t know anything.”

Some candidates try a confident tack with the editorial board. “I said, ‘Make it an open-book exam,” Mr. Cuomo said of going before the Times board during his unsuccessful 1994 gubernatorial reelection bid. “Put every single position on paper at the start of the campaign so you could pick us to death with the facts. I went in with maybe one or two people and answered every question they had.”

“I was there maybe 10 hours,” Mr. Cuomo said. “I think they [the board] got tired before I did.”

Though Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has the ultimate say on who The Times endorses–just like his father Arthur Sulzberger Sr. did when he was publisher, and just like virtually every other newspaper publisher does, too–it is thought inside the 43rd Street offices that the younger Sulzberger plays less of a role in the endorsement process.

“Sulzberger doesn’t play a big role,” said a Times source. “The outside perception somehow is that he’s weighing in all the time, but I don’t think that’s really the case. My guess is that they come to a consensus and they run it by him, and he probably agrees to it.”

Ms. Collins said she consults with Mr. Sulzberger, but said the publisher doesn’t generally decide endorsements. “I talk to the publisher about them, which seems reasonable, but he doesn’t dictate them,” she said. “In all the time I’ve been doing them, there hasn’t been a time when he said ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that.'”

When Mr. Sulzberger’s father, Punch, was publisher, the editorial-board process was a little more formal. Max Frankel, a former executive editor at The Times and editorial-page editor from 1977 to 1986, said, “The endorsements for major office were essentially decided by the publisher and the editor of the page.”

Mr. Frankel learned that firsthand when, a few months before he was to replace John Oakes as editorial-page editor, Sulzberger ordered him to write up an endorsement of Patrick Moynihan in the 1976 Democratic primary for Senate while Oakes–who favored Bella Abzug–was vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard. Oakes tried mightily to block the endorsement, but Sulzberger had the final say. Oakes had to settle for a letter to the editor in his own paper expressing “disagreement with the endorsement.”

Candidates for major office–essentially President, Governor, Senator and Mayor–came in for formal publisher’s lunches in the dining room, Mr. Frankel said. The off-the-record sessions would be attended by the publisher and some members of the editorial board, as well as several news editors, he said.

“The person would usually come into the building and be ushered up to the publisher’s office, and there they would have a few exchanges of remarks,” Mr. Frankel said, “and from there the publisher would lead him down to the dining room, and the rest of the group would meet there.”

And, if anything, the candidates could look forward to a good meal at The Times . “They serve better food than the other papers,” Mr. Koch said. By comparison, Mr. Koch said that Dorothy Schiff–who owned the New York Post before Rupert Murdoch purchased it in 1976–tended to serve dry tuna-fish sandwiches. “You could hardly answer the questions; your mouth stuck together because this tuna-fish sandwich was so dry,” Mr. Koch added.

When Cahners suspended Variety editor in chief Peter Bart after a recent Los Angeles Magazine article for “allegations of conduct that appears inconsistent” with the company’s values, the earth didn’t shake. But it sure seemed close. Mr. Bart, the most powerful editor in entertainment–Anna Wintour on Pacific time–was dropped to the mat while his employer sorted out charges that he’d made racial and ethic slurs and also sold a script while serving as Variety ‘s editor.

The story, by former Los Angeles Times writer Amy Wallace, was a bombshell. But one wouldn’t exactly have gotten that idea from reading David Robb’s initial take on the matter on Inside.com. In his piece, Mr. Robb wrote how allegations of Mr. Bart’s script-selling first came to light in The Hollywood Reporter in March in an article “by this reporter.” Mr. Robb included an excerpt from a letter Mr. Bart had written The Hollywood Reporter concerning him. Mr. Robb also noted the conspicuous absence in leadership at Variety ‘s rival, The Hollywood Reporter , after its editor, Anita Busch, resigned when the paper refused to run a story written by–you guessed it–Mr. Robb.

Mr. Robb also left out a few other things in the first version of the story that appeared on Inside, namely Mr. Bart’s quoted slurs and the fact that Mr. Robb had worked for Mr. Bart until 1992.

“It’s become his personal message board,” said one source who knows Mr. Robb. “It just read like, ‘I’m right! I’m right! I’m right!’ I couldn’t believe they didn’t include the racial epithets in the first version.'”

It’s been a strange year for both Mr. Robb, a long-tooth on the Hollywood-unions beat, and those who color his copy. Two months after accusing Mr. Bart (whom he brutalized in a 1994 feature for the LA Weekly ) of becoming a member of the Writers Guild of America by selling a script in March, Mr. Robb went after Hollywood Reporter colleague George Christy. The society columnist, Mr. Robb said, was being investigated by the Screen Actors Guild for parlaying fake movie credits into a guild pension. When the paper’s publisher, Robert Dowling, refused to run the piece, Mr. Robb resigned and moved on over to Inside.

“As it happens,” said one Inside source, “he brought his Christy saga with him.”

Inside, of course, ran Mr. Robb’s story, and Mr. Christy is sitting along with Mr. Bart in the barred-Hollywood-journalists club. Word has it, however, that Mr. Bart’s fully confident he’ll be back and running the Variety ship in no time. A Variety spokesperson said he was unavailable for comment.

Indeed, Inside.com editor in chief David Kuhn doesn’t see anything wrong with Mr. Robb’s continued reporting on Mr. Bart, or with last Friday’s story. Mr. Kuhn told Off the Record that the story was amended five times from 3 p.m. to 6:45 p.m., beginning with five basic paragraphs on the Cahners memo. He said that the tag line–”Editor’s Note: David Robb was a Variety reporter under Peter Bart and left the paper in 1992″–ran less than an hour after the bulk of Mr. Robb’s story first appeared. Given the vague language surrounding the reason for Mr. Bart’s suspension, Mr. Kuhn said, they decided to focus on the script-selling rather than the slurs–mention of which, like the tag line, was added later.

“He hasn’t worked for Variety in years,” Mr. Kuhn said. “What he wrote for us is based on knowledge and instincts he’s developed as a reporter. It’s a very straightforward piece of reporting.”

For his part, Mr. Robb said he feels no weirdness. He wrote about himself and his past work, he said, as a measure of full disclosure. Yes, the racial stuff “popped out” at him, but he felt “it wasn’t the most serious allegation, nor was it new. In my LA Weekly story from 1994, I’d exposed that. If I wanted to toot my own horn on that, I could have.”

And no, he’s not obsessed. Not with Mr. Christy. Not with Mr. Bart.

“People use that word all the time with me,” Mr. Robb said. ” Obsessed . I cover the unions, and Christy came onto my beat and Bart came onto my beat. You do your job and you do it better than anyone else, and people call you obsessed.”

–Sridhar Pappu

Off the Record can be reached by e-mail at spappu@observer.com or gsnyder@observer.com.