The event was kept secret from even the most inquisitive City Hall insiders, but on the evening of Feb. 4, Mayor Michael Bloomberg made his way to a fund-raiser at the Metropolitan Club on East 60th Street and Fifth Avenue. No reporters were on hand to witness the procession of high-profile guests-even though 11 U.S. Senators were on hand to help raise money for Republican Senate candidates across the country.
As national Republicans like Senators Kay Baily Hutchinson of Texas, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Orrin Hatch of Nevada sipped cocktails in the club’s dim reception room, Mr. Bloomberg gave a brief speech, expounding on New York’s precarious economy and joking that the Senators should spend as much as they could before leaving for their home states. After his speech, Mr. Bloomberg informally mingled with the crowd, pressing the city’s case for federal emergency assistance with the visiting Senators. As one person who was present put it, “Mike was working the room harder than some of the corporate C.E.O.’s who were there.”
A generation after Nelson Rockefeller bankrolled the New York Republican Party with his private fortune, the state G.O.P. has a new patron and behind-the-scenes pitchman, one who calls himself a “liberal,” has stocked his administration with Democrats and hobnobs with the Reverend Al Sharpton: Mike Bloomberg. For all his public displays of non-partisanship, Mr. Bloomberg has embarked on a party-building exercise reminiscent of Rockefeller’s legendary use of his family’s oil fortune to rebuild the New York G.O.P. in the 1960’s-and, not coincidentally, to enhance his national profile.
Mr. Bloomberg’s willingness to use his fortune, his fund-raising connections and his Upper East Side townhouse as tools to fortify local and national Republicans was to be made clear on the night of Feb. 6. That’s when the Mayor was scheduled to welcome President Bush as his honored guest for a fund-raiser on behalf of Governor George Pataki, who is running for re-election. Tickets for the event cost $15,000 apiece-money that will be funneled to Mr. Pataki’s campaign treasury.
Mr. Bloomberg, who changed his party registration from Democrat to Republican just last year, already has written generous checks to the state G.O.P.-$1 million and counting. He has vowed in private conversations with State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno to raise whatever it takes to help Republicans retain control of the Senate. And he already has scheduled two more fund-raisers in his townhouse, in addition to the Feb. 6 event featuring the President.
Mr. Bloomberg’s efforts reflect a simple political reality: The success of his Mayoralty is largely at the mercy of the good will of his Republican allies in Albany and Washington. Unlike Rockefeller, a partisan (if liberal) Republican, Mr. Bloomberg has gone out of his way to emphasize the nonpartisan nature of the government he’s putting together in City Hall. But Mr. Bloomberg understands how much he needs the help, support and even gratitude of Mr. Bush, Mr. Pataki and Republican leaders in the State Senate and U.S. House of Representatives to accomplish two huge tasks ahead: rebuilding lower Manhattan and plugging a $4 billion hole in the city budget.
“The city will not succeed without Albany and Washington,” one senior adviser to Mr. Bloomberg said. “If it were up to the Democrats, we would have $50 billion [in federal emergency funds] by now. The roadblocks to getting money for the city have been Republicans in the House and Senate and in Albany who say, ‘Maybe we’ve done enough.'”
In the ongoing experiment that is the Bloomberg Mayoralty, New Yorkers are discovering the virtues and limits of wealth and connections as a tool for carrying out a Mayor’s agenda. All of Mr. Bloomberg’s predecessors have brought a commodity that they hoped to translate into the currency of raw political power. John Lindsay had celebrity and status; David Dinkins, the city’s first black Mayor, was imbued with a sense of historical mission; Rudy Giuliani was the perfect spokesman for the alienated middle class.
Mr. Bloomberg’s commodities are enormous wealth-he’s the city’s first billionaire Mayor (not that others haven’t tried)-and an extensive network of fund-raising connections from his years of raising money for philanthropic endeavors. His efforts to translate his assets into political influence are similar to those of another businessman turned politician, Senator Jon Corzine of New Jersey, whose personal version of trickle-down economics helped him win local party support for his political goals since winning office in 2000.
“On balance, [spending money on the party] has probably allowed for me to carry an agenda on state issues,” Mr. Corzine said. “People who know that I want to help encourage the development of the party are willing to give me a listen, where maybe they would be a little more at arm’s length.”
In many ways, Mr. Bloomberg is playing a game of catch-up within the Republican Party. When he became a Republican last spring, he explained, with surprising candor, that he made the switch because he knew he couldn’t win a Democratic primary. The city has no Republican organization to speak of, so Mr. Bloomberg hired mostly Democratic political professionals who rapidly built a political organization that he could call his own.
What’s more, it was Mr. Bloomberg’s wealth-not his political views-that ingratiated him to Republican leaders in the first place. A lifelong liberal Democrat who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the national Democratic Party, Mr. Bloomberg calculated early on that his ability to finance his own campaign would persuade Republican elders to offer him their line. And he was right: According to a friend of George Pataki who was privy to discussions between the Governor and Mr. Bloomberg last spring, Mr. Pataki understood how this rich neophyte could help him. “The reason [the Governor supported Bloomberg] was that Bloomberg would finance his own campaign, and not be a drain on the Republican coffers that Pataki needed for his own race in 2002,” the friend said.
Since then, Mr. Bloomberg has happily advertised his willingness to spend his prodigious fortune to win friends throughout the party. He has given the state Republican Party at least $1 million over the past year, including a check for more than $700,000 that was delivered to the party a month before Election Day last year. The prospect of further cash gifts has excited Republicans around the state, who are stunned at their good fortune in having a rich Mayor who is willing to invest his resources in their party.
“He’s rich, he’s generous and he’s Mayor!” enthused Georgette Mosbacher, a top Republican fund-raiser and socialite. “It’s a win-win for the party. How lucky can you get?”
Still, Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers say he has to be judicious with his cash contributions to other politicians in order to avoid the perception that he is simply spreading the wealth to advance his own agenda.
“It clouds the message,” said Bill Cunningham, Mr. Bloomberg’s director of communications. “There’s no discussion about using political donations to advance our agenda. Will there be donations? Yes. There have been in the past, and there will be in the future.”
Senator Corzine added that there was a downside in being overtly generous with fellow party members. “It comes with a burden,” Mr. Corzine said. “You have the occasionally cynical view that it’s all about [acquiring] political power. He has to use common sense on where and how he does this. You should not be perceived as buying political influence.”
Mr. Bloomberg, who was a prodigious fund-raiser for institutions like Lincoln Center and the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, is busily employing his fund-raising network to win influence in Albany and Washington. In addition to the Feb. 6 affair for Mr. Pataki, Mr. Bloomberg will open his mansion for a fund-raiser on Feb. 7 for Assemblyman John Ravitz, a candidate in an upcoming special election for an Upper East Side State Senate seat, and another in March for Assembly Minority Leader John Faso, who is running for State Comptroller. And he has promised Mr. Bruno help in the fall’s state legislative races. “He’s offered to help us raise the funds we need to help us retain the Senate,” said one top Republican official close to Mr. Bruno.
Sandy Treadwell, the chairman of the state Republican Party, downplayed Mr. Bloomberg’s monetary contributions, focusing instead on Mr. Bloomberg’s outreach. “His willingness to be helpful in fund-raising is a great help-but equally important is his willingness to reach out and party-build in other ways,” Mr. Treadwell said, adding that he met with Mr. Bloomberg in mid-November to discuss ways of getting Republicans elected in the outer boroughs. “He’s helping us elect and recruit candidates.”
In addition to making his Republican colleagues happy, Mr. Bloomberg’s party-building activities, as it happens, carry a range of political benefits for himself. For one thing, it makes sense for him to shore up his power base in the Republican Party in preparation for what seems like an inevitable political war with his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani. More to the point, it means that Republicans-sated by his large contributions and party-building efforts-will look the other way as Mr. Bloomberg builds support among traditional Democratic constituencies in the city by hiring Democrats and reaching out to minorities.
“Mike Bloomberg’s a bright enough man to realize that his money can translate into good will between New York, Washington and Albany,” said one Pataki administration official. “By spreading a lot of money around and party-building, he is insulating himself from criticism for creating an administration that is basically made up of liberal Democrats.”