Convention ’04: Elephants Fly To the Garden

On an early December morning, several weeks before Republican Party officials announced that they would hold their 2004 national convention in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg paced back and forth in a conference room in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in lower Manhattan.

Mr. Bloomberg was mounting a final effort to win over members of the Republican National Committee. Although Bloomberg advisers have since said that the 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with their sales pitch, they had deliberately selected this particular conference room because it offered sweeping views of the Statue of Liberty, Governors Island and, of course, the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood.

Mr. Bloomberg opened his remarks by gesturing to Governors Island, recounting that President Bush had delivered on a plan to transform the island into a campus. He assured his listeners that he had won a “no-strike” promise from the city’s labor unions. He talked about hotels.

The one thing he didn’t mention was Sept. 11. He didn’t have to: The view spoke for itself.

Ultimately, it was that hole in the ground-more than the details of City Hall’s bid, or Mr. Bloomberg’s wooing of Republicans with horse-drawn carriage rides-that led the G.O.P. to choose New York, a decision that was announced on Jan. 6. Senior national Republicans say that a convention in New York will remind voters of President Bush’s leadership in the aftermath of the attacks. It also is intended, they said, to position the G.O.P. as the party best suited to lead the nation during its most dangerous moment since the Cold War, injecting a national-security theme into Mr. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.

“People at the White House and the Republican National Committee agree that the image of a city rising from adversity is a great backdrop for the convention,” Ron Kaufman, a Republican National Committee member from Massachusetts, told The Observer .

The G.O.P.’s decision to come to New York, rather than Tampa or New Orleans, shows how dramatically Sept. 11 has changed the relationship between the city and the national Republican Party. Only a few years ago, Republicans from the South and West routinely assailed the city as a symbol of big government and unwholesome lifestyles. Now, Republicans are embracing New York-institutionally if not individually-as an embodiment of everything the Bush Presidency stands for. National Republicans like to say that President Bush’s defining moment came when he toured Ground Zero on Sept. 14, throwing his arm around exhausted firefighters and offering a rousing tribute to recovery workers.

“This is a huge sea change,” said Republican Congressman Peter King of Long Island. “When I came to Congress, Newt Gingrich was in the ascendancy, and he couldn’t give a speech without taking a shot at New York City. Now, the comeback spirit of New York really symbolizes what President Bush wants his first administration to be about.”

The city’s civic leaders, led by Mayor Bloomberg, will spend the next 18 months preparing New York for the arrival of tens of thousands of delegates, party officials, guests and journalists, who will pump an estimated $150 million into the city’s economy. The preparations will be elaborate, requiring the collaboration of the financiers who will raise the money, the big hotel owners who will secure space, the owners of the convention site-Madison Square Garden-and the architects who will prepare the James A. Farley Post Office Building for the international media. Not to mention the union leaders who will be expected to keep labor peace, and the board members at the big cultural institutions that will host parties and other events.

The heads of these institutions already are preparing for a deluge of Republicans. “We’re going to show the Republicans a great time, New York–style,” said Karen Brooks Hopkins, the president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, who chairs a group comprising dozens of the city’s top cultural institutions.

Other efforts are also underway. Mr. Bloomberg has assembled a team of fund-raisers who have pledged to raise $53 million in private money to fund the convention. Among them: Marie-Josée Kravis, senior fellow of the Hudson Institute; Jack Hennessy, senior adviser of Credit Suisse First Boston; Andi Bernstein, vice president of Oxygen Media; investment banker and former Port Authority chairman Lew Eisenberg; and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose fund-raising ability is perhaps second only to that of President Bush himself.

The fund-raising prowess of these and other New York figures proved to be a decisive factor in the G.O.P.’s decision. According to party sources, New York had an influential ally in Jack Oliver, President Bush’s former finance chairman and the deputy chairman of the R.N.C., who argued that a convention in New York would help them reel in new donors for the Presidential campaign.

Nor is it lost on national Republicans that Mr. Bloomberg can be a prodigious Republican donor and fund-raiser in his own right. He gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state Republican Party in 2001 when he needed its apparatus for his Mayoral run, and he has since given $250,000 to the national party, whose help he’ll need in closing the city’s massive budget gap.

Still, it was the White House’s appreciation of the political implications of Sept. 11 that drove the decision. Some Republicans say that Mr. Bush and his advisers had all but officially decided to hold the convention in New York as early as mid-December-weeks before members of the Republican National Committee, which is in charge of logistics, announced that they were recommending New York. Mr. King, for instance, said that President Bush had hinted during a conversation they had at the White House Christmas party that a decision about New York had been reached.

“I told him, ‘Mr. President, they still love you in New York,’” Mr. King told The Observer . “As I start to walk away, he grabs me by the arm and tells me, ‘You’re going to be seeing quite a bit of me in New York.’ Then he gives me this big nod and a wink, like, ‘You dope, I’m trying to tell you something.’ It wasn’t until the next morning, when I saw some stuff in the papers about the convention possibly coming to New York, that I realized that’s what he was trying to tell me.”

The G.O.P.’s decision is a huge victory for Mr. Bloomberg and his special adviser, Kevin Sheekey, who oversaw the wooing of the Republicans. Mr. Bloomberg went to enormous lengths to prove to Republicans that a Democratic city could be a gracious host. He enlisted a parade of local union leaders, who personally assured R.N.C. officials that there would be no labor trouble, and got leading figures in the hotel industry to pledge huge blocks of rooms.

A key component of the package offered by the city was the decision to convert the Farley building into a huge media center. In November, City Hall enlisted the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to draw up plans to transform the building and build a pedestrian bridge across Eighth Avenue connecting it to Madison Square Garden, where the convention will take place.

A Brainstorm

The idea to use the Farley building came to Mr. Sheekey as he stood inside the Beaux-Arts landmark, trying to figure out how to fix a possible deal-breaking reality: the Garden, which hosted the 1976, 1980 and 1992 Democratic national conventions, is now considered too small and outdated.

“I was standing there [in the Farley building], surrounded by hundreds of thousands of square feet of empty space, in a building that has 100,000 square feet of dock space right across the street from Madison Square Garden,” Mr. Sheekey said. “I thought, ‘It can’t be this easy.’” The Farley building is being vacated by the U.S. Postal Service and eventually will be converted into a new Penn Station, a pet cause of Mr. Sheekey’s former boss, ex-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

It is unlikely, as some Republicans have suggested, that the decision on the convention will actually turn New York into a battleground state in the 2004 election. The real benefit of bringing the convention to New York will be much broader in nature: It will give the impression that the party is willing to transcend partisanship to give a huge boost to a city wounded by an attack on America. And coming to New York City-a place that was once hostile to the G.O.P., but now has elected two consecutive Republican Mayors-will also suggest that the G.O.P. is confident in the party’s broadening appeal.

“It puts the Republicans on the offensive, and the Democrats on the defensive,” Mr. Sheekey said. Or, as Republican consultant Rick Davis put it: “It sends a message to the national audience that they want to change people’s minds.”

New York Democrats, who will be traveling to the predictably Democratic city of Boston for their convention, seem resigned to the fact that the symbolic contrast will favor the G.O.P.

“Choosing New York was very smart for Republicans-not because of how it will play in New York, but because of how it will play around the country,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member from New York. “It has tremendous symbolic value, both because of Sept. 11 and because the Republicans are coming into a diverse urban area.