Facing a deepening budget crisis and with little help from Albany in sight, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expanding his efforts to build a power base among Republicans in Washington.
The Mayor threw open the ornate doors of his East 79th Street mansion for a fund-raiser for Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama on April 21, and he’s planning another bash at the same location for Senator John McCain on April 27. And Mr. Bloomberg is planning to host yet another fund-raiser in June-this one for Haley Barbour, the former national G.O.P. chairman, who is now a candidate for governor of Mississippi.
The fund-raisers, which haven’t been made public, are part of a growing effort by Mr. Bloomberg to build power among national Republicans. Although Mr. Bloomberg has placed his personal and fund-raising resources at the disposal of national Republicans before, the latest efforts to win friends in other parts of the country have been given a new urgency-not only by the city’s dire financial straits, but by Albany’s failure to do anything to help.
One of the lesser-noticed aspects of life at City Hall these days is the glaring contrast between Mr. Bloomberg’s success in making headway in Washington and his failure to gain traction in Albany, particularly with Governor George Pataki. While Mr. Bloomberg has managed to win several notable victories in the Capitol recently, Mr. Pataki has yet to divulge how-or whether-he intends to help the city close its horrific $3.8 billion budget gap.
This difference is particularly striking given the fact that Republican Congressional leaders have historically been indifferent to the city’s fate, while Mr. Pataki would seem to have somewhat more of a stake in the city’s well-being.
Mr. Bloomberg is increasing his behind-the-scenes efforts to build power in Washington for several reasons. First, the budget is getting worse by the day, and Albany’s inability or unwillingness to come to the rescue makes Washington’s help more vital. Second, aides say, Mr. Bloomberg is hoping to build on the influence he’s already won in Washington as the Mayor of the city that’s hosting the Republican National Convention next September. The national party will be depending on Mr. Bloomberg’s efforts to ensure an impressive show.
“We will be doing more and more fundraisers for the Republican Party as the financial needs of the city and the state increase,” one aide to the Mayor told The Observer .
In throwing a fund-raiser for Mr. Shelby, a conservative Republican from Alabama, Mr. Bloomberg is trying to win an ally in a part of the country that has historically been hostile to the city’s interests. Mr. Shelby is also a smart target for Mr. Bloomberg’s efforts because he sits on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls federal spending.
Mr. McCain could prove to be a key ally for different reasons, since he is an influential and nationally recognized figure. He has a voice that can command instant attention in the national media, and has already been lavish in his public praise of the Mayor and his work on behalf of the city. And Mr. Barbour, as the former national chairman, maintains extensive connections throughout the party.
“In this period of tight budget crunches, it’s very smart to court national Republicans,” said political consultant Rick Davis. “In the period immediately after 9/11, he was dealing with the Governor and the President. Now he’s in a situation where he has to find some other friends to carry the water for the city.”
In stark contrast to his failure to win concessions from Albany, Mr. Bloomberg’s successes with national Republicans have been numerous. He persuaded the party to throw its first-ever convention bash here, by convincing leaders that their decision would be seen as a gesture of solidarity with a city that had been the target of a foreign attack. More recently, Mr. Bloomberg successfully allied himself with the state’s Congressional delegation to win new homeland-security money for the city from Washington.
A Mayor Scorned
By contrast, Mr. Bloomberg’s efforts to win help from Albany have thus far been a flop. Although the Mayor offered the Governor extensive help during Mr. Pataki’s re-election campaign last year, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money in the campaign and suppressing any politically nettlesome talk of tax increases, the Governor has shown little inclination to return the favor. Perhaps with an eye toward his ambition to play a role in national Republican politics-possibly as a member of the Bush administration-he has refused to entertain the idea of tax hikes even as the state, and the city, have plunged deeper into debt. This has stranded Mr. Bloomberg in the lonely position of calling for tax hikes with no support whatsoever from Mr. Pataki, even as he bears the full brunt of criticism for the service cuts he has authored-a state of affairs which has severely damaged the Mayor’s popularity. Although Mr. Bloomberg has refused to show his irritation with the Governor, signs of strains are beginning to show; Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers have taken to pointing out that the Governor is getting “bad advice” from his handlers. With pressure mounting from all sides on the Governor, he has yet to share his plans to bail the city out of the crisis.
“There’s no doubt that the Mayor is doing better in Washington than in Albany,” said Congressman Pete King. “Albany is taking care of itself first.”
Mollie Fullington, a spokeswoman for Mr. Pataki, said, “The Governor continues to work with the city and the federal government to fight for New Yorkers’ fair share as we all face an unprecedented fiscal crisis.”
The scarcity of funds is leading Bloomberg aides to redouble their efforts to build clout in Washington, where they hope that the importance of a successful 2004 convention will give them a good deal of political capital to draw on.
“That’s the calling card that Mike Bloomberg has within the party right now,” said Mr. Davis, the Republican consultant. “He knows that in September 2004, New York will be the center of the political universe for national Republicans.”
Mr. Bloomberg is also well aware that with the 2004 election fast approaching, the President’s fund-raising machine could suck up a good deal of the money coming from Republican donors, leaving Congressional candidates in need of patrons. Mr. Bloomberg has already proven himself to be an exceptionally generous donor to Congressional candidates: In the years before being elected Mayor, he gave Democrats hundreds of thousands of dollars, and since switching parties he has thrown fund-raisers for a range of Republicans, in some cases making his mansion available to attract the party’s best-heeled donors.
Now, with the impending convention enhancing Mr. Bloomberg’s stature in the Capitol, such efforts are set to increase.
“It’s statecraft,” said G.O.P. Manhattan chairman James Ortenzio, a powerful fund-raiser in his own right. “He knows who the party in power is, and he says, ‘I have a problem here in New York City, and these are the people whose attention I’d like to have.’”