Backstage Bloomberg: Boardroom Mayor Is Reversing Rudy

During the opening act of his administration, Michael Bloomberg

has gone out of his way to play the role of self-deprecating Mayor,

sidestepping political fights, declining to flaunt his power and conspicuously

sharing the stage with key advisors. He has made himself accessible to everyone

in City Hall, treating them as if they were the happy employees pictured in

glossy Bloomberg L.P. brochures. Once, when he encountered a reporter on the

oval stairs in the City Hall lobby, he remarked: “Seriously-don’t you have a

coffee machine in Room 9?” (Seriously, there is none.)

This self-effacing approach, his advisers say, reflects Mr.

Bloomberg’s natural reluctance to dominate the stage in the manner of

predecessors like Rudolph Giuliani and Ed Koch, as well as the simple

calculation that this style will earn him favorable comparisons to Mr.

Giuliani, who ran City Hall as if it were an Egyptian temple, with himself in

the role of King Tut.

“You can be strong by yelling and banging the table, or you can

show quiet strength,” David Garth, the veteran political consultant who helped

elect Mr. Koch, Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Bloomberg, said in a recent interview with

The Observer . “Mike is not Rudy or

Koch. On the other hand, he’s also not a softy. He has a kind of built-in

confidence that has already been established in the business world. He’s a very

tough guy. Gary Cooper never raised his voice.”

But only two weeks into his Mayoralty, Mr. Bloomberg’s

conciliatory style is being subjected to its first real test, as political

skirmishes brew on two fronts. First, The

Observer has learned, a behind-the-scenes conflict is taking shape between

advisers to Mr. Bloomberg and aides to Gov. George Pataki over a real-estate

deal on the East Side-a conflict that is the result of the Bloomberg

administration’s willingness to allow aides to talk to the press. And second, a

series of moves Mr. Giuliani carried out in his final days as Mayor are now

coming to the fore, testing Mr. Bloomberg’s ability to wield the formidable

power of the City Hall pulpit, which seems utterly foreign to his laid-back

style.

The potential fight with Pataki advisers concerns a deal,

negotiated by Mr. Giuliani and supported by the Pataki Administration in which

the city-run United Nations Development Corporation, a public corporation that

facilitates development in the U.N.’s neighborhood, would sell off property to

a private developer. Aides to Mr. Bloomberg, who will have the final say, have

prematurely signaled to the press that the Mayor may block the deal,

infuriating members of the Pataki administration.

Then there’s the looming conflict with Mr. Giuliani. In the final

days of his Mayoralty, he signed tentative deals with the Mets and Yankees for

new stadiums. More recently, it was revealed that he amended the city’s leases

with the teams to give them added leverage over the new Mayor. On Jan. 15, Mr.

Bloomberg conceded that he didn’t know about his predecessor’s 11th-hour

maneuver-then dismissed the whole matter as if it were merely a polite

boardroom misunderstanding, rather than the municipal equivalent of a slap in

the face with a white glove.

“I think in all fairness to Mayor Giuliani, the basic terms of

what he agreed to were described to me with exception of those two things,

which I don’t view really as substantive in the grand scheme of things,” Mr.

Bloomberg said on Jan. 15.

Given Mr. Giuliani’s willingness to insert legal booby traps for

his successor into the stadium deals, and given the importance Mr. Giuliani

places on them, it seems like a matter of time until the former Mayor attacks

the current Mayor over the volatile issue. That seemingly inevitable scenario

has begun to preoccupy City Hall insiders. They are wondering whether Mr.

Bloomberg’s rejection of the idea of the imperial Mayoralty may diminish the

power of his Mayoralty, or worse, leave him incapable of withstanding the

crucible of sustained political combat, particularly with an overwhelming

personality like Mr. Giuliani.

“New Yorkers judge their elected officials by the force of the

persona they project through the media-not through the force of their

arguments,” said one seasoned Republican operative. “Bloomberg is used to

playing out business scenarios in the boardroom. He’s not used to playing out

political scenarios in the media.”

Backroom Conflicts

In a more immediate sense, Mr. Bloomberg and his advisers are

finding that their freewheeling ways can produce unexpected backstage

conflicts-in this case, the battle that could develop with the Pataki

administration over the United Nations land deal. It started when former State

Senator Roy Goodman, the new Mayor’s chairman of the U.N. Development

Corporation, told the New York Post

that Mr. Bloomberg might block the deal. The deal would allow the UNDC to sell

off three valuable East Side land parcels to an Israeli company as part of an

effort to get the city out of the development business and bring in new tax

revenues for the city.

Mr. Goodman’s comments, as it happened, angered members of the

Pataki administration, according to an administration official who spoke to The Observer . The source said that,

while it is the Mayor who ultimately signs off on the deal, the Pataki

administration, which has several appointees to UNDC’s board, had a big stake

in its success. The source added that the Pataki administration had been

working on the deal for about seven years, and viewed it as not just good for

the city and state, but also as a potential boon to his re-election campaign.

“Pataki wants to be able to say that he scrapped unnecessary

bureaucracy and got government out of areas that are better-handled by the

private sector,” the official said. “Getting the deal done was part of the

basic mission of Pataki-appointed board members at the UNDC.”

“I don’t think anybody in Albany should get upset, because

Senator Goodman does not set policy,” said William Cunningham, a spokesman for

Mayor Bloomberg. “He’s entitled as he walks into that shop to take a look at

what’s confronting him. But the Mayor will speak for himself and announce what

he wants to announce on that.”

The dispute might have been averted if Mr. Goodman hadn’t felt

free to speak to the press before the Bloomberg administration had reached a

final decision on the deal. According to the Pataki administration official,

Mr. Bloomberg’s budget chief, Marc Shaw, is in favor of the deal, which

suggests that Mr. Goodman’s comments came before anything approaching consensus

had been reached within the administration.

Mike McKeon, a spokesman for the Governor, said, “All I can tell

you is that no one has expressed any concern to me about the [comments] you’re

referring to.”

Meanwhile, there is the question of Mr. Giuliani. Mr. Bloomberg’s

advisers have quietly taken steps to dispel the notion that Mr. Giuliani is

hovering over his successor’s every move. This began almost immediately with

the cosmetic changes to life in City Hall, from the open offices on the second

floor to the fish tanks in City Hall’s West Wing to Mr. Bloomberg’s adoption of

a freer day-to-day tone at City Hall.

On a recent afternoon, for instance, Mr. Bloomberg stood in City

Hall’s Blue Room with board members from the Lower Manhattan Development

Corporation standing behind him in a semicircle. When reporters asked for an

introduction, Mr. Bloomberg had each one step forward and introduce himself,

giving the event the feeling of a college orientation session-a scenario that

would never have happened under his predecessor, who tended to suck up all the

air in the room. After introductions were completed, as reporters kept trying

to get Mr. Bloomberg to speak about the future of Lower Manhattan, he demurred

again and again, instead urging John Whitehead, the commission’s chairman, to

answer questions. Finally, Mr. Whitehead pulled Mr. Bloomberg forward to the

podium, and protested: “This job is temporary!”

“That’s O.K.,” Mr. Bloomberg joked. “So is mine.”

Mr. Bloomberg has also sought to undo a number of high-profile

initiatives that are closely identified with Mr. Giuliani, and he announced

that no new stadiums would be built this year. That move, according to Mr.

Bloomberg’s supporters, was in part designed to dispel the idea that the new

Mayor is merely an extension of the old one.

Ready to Rumble?

“Rudy, who really elected Mike in many ways, has this dream of

two baseball stadiums,” Mr. Garth said, adding that he is not currently advising

Mr. Bloomberg. “But Mike did not go along. You don’t do that with Rudy Giuliani

unless you’re ready to go head to head with him.”

Still, as effective as those measures may have been in staking

out territory for Mr. Bloomberg, now his “quiet strength” approach is finally

being tested in earnest by the developing conflict over the stadium. And sooner

or later, it will be matched against Mr. Giuliani’s brute political force and

his talent for commanding attention in the media. The danger, of course, is that

Mr. Giuliani will somehow contain him just when he is seeking to win the city’s

confidence.

Mr. Giuliani’s declaration in his final days that the World Trade

Center site should be converted to a memorial can be seen as a coming

attraction of sorts: It’s only a matter of time until the former Mayor becomes

the spokesman for grief-stricken relatives of disaster victims who oppose

development at the site. More recently, he has begun to make his first moves to

establish a public post-Mayoralty presence. He turned up at the State of the

State Address in Albany, prompting one Bloomberg supporter to remark, “What was

he doing there?” And on Jan. 14, he invited a horde of reporters to tour his

new offices, after laying low for all of two weeks.

Most pressing, however, are Mr. Giuliani’s surreptitious efforts

to amend the leases of the Yankees and Mets to give them more leverage over the

city. Mr. Bloomberg’s response to this seeming insult was a disarming one: At a

press conference on Jan. 15 at City Hall, he treated the whole matter as if it

were a momentary misunderstanding, rather than a potential political war with

one of the most muscular politicians in memory.

Peppered with questions from reporters who were eager to see a

forceful display of turf protection, Mr. Bloomberg praised Mr. Giuliani, parsed

the language in the contracts and said he had no doubt that all parties

involved would handle the negotiations in good faith. (Only a Boston Red Sox

fan, it seems, could say such a thing about George Steinbrenner.)

“It’s people working together,” Mr. Bloomberg said of the pending

deals. “We’re not working at cross purposes. Obviously the owners of sports

teams who are at for-profit companies would like to maximize the value of their

teams, and obviously the city would like to get the best economic deal it can.

But … you can do both, and that’s what we will try to do.”

In the end, questions about Mr. Bloomberg’s emerging style are

more than just cosmetic. They go to the heart of how much power he will

ultimately wield. The formula by which a Mayor earns the confidence of the

populace-and the ability to further his agenda-is a complex one, and it often

has to do with the size of his personality and his skill at the pulpit. The

power of the Mayor’s office tends to grow and shrink with the personality of

the person who inhabits it; Abe Beame and David Dinkins, who were not forceful

personalities, saw the power of the office diminish on their watch, while Mr.

Giuliani and Mr. Koch, who used their domineering personalities to bludgeon

through their agendas, took the office’s power to new heights.

Still, people who know Mr. Bloomberg say he is confident, even

serene, about ultimately being seen as a commanding figure by the city’s

fractious and diverse population. Rather than be an imperial Mayor with a grand

personality, they say, he believes that if he focuses on results, they’ll see

him as an effective leader.

“We don’t spend a lot of time wondering about it,” Mr. Cunningham

said. “The Mayor has embarked on his new career of speechifying and consulting.

Who knows what the future holds? What doesn’t kill us will make us stronger.”