Wily Cunnigham Hatches a Plot to Salvage Mike

As he seeks to resuscitate the political fortunes of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, William Cunningham, the Mayor’s communications director, has been thinking a lot about another of his bosses, Hugh Carey-whose political career was nearly destroyed by a fiscal crisis a generation ago.

Mr. Cunningham worked for the formerGovernor throughoutthe 1970′s,aperiod when dire economic times came perilously close to killing Mr. Carey’s hopes for re-election. He had fallen almost 40 points behind in the polls in 1978 when his handlers, led by media strategist David Garth, devised an ingenious strategy. They launched a campaign that focused on Mr. Carey’s accomplishments, arguing: “The more you know, the more you know Hugh Carey is right for Governor.”

Now, with Mr. Bloomberg tanking in the polls amid another fiscal crisis, and with the Mayor signaling that he has no intention of changing his dry, uncharismatic style, Mr. Cunningham is hoping to employ a similar get-to-know-the-facts strategy to guide the Mayor to re-election.

“Carey’s pollster told him: ‘Don’t run [for re-election]-you can’t win,’” Mr. Cunningham said in an interview with The Observer . “But David Garth looked at those numbers and said, ‘Nobody knows what you’ve done for them.’ Carey built a record that he could point to, and that’s exactly what the Mayor’s doing. In a re-election effort, it will be: ‘Here’s what we did.’

“We will say: ‘These are the other things that were going on that you might not have noticed. And the more you know the facts’ -if I can steal David Garth’s slogan-’the more you know the Mayor’s right.’”

Mr. Cunningham was sitting in Tavern on Jane, a bar in Greenwich Village, on a recent evening. As always, Mr. Cunningham-a political brawler with a sharp, abrasive wit-seemed to be enjoying his role as the Mayor’s rhetorical bodyguard.

As Mr. Cunningham well knows, his performance in the coming months will go a long way towards determining whether his boss is re-elected or becomes a one-term Mayor, a transitional figure who minded the store between more charismatic chief executives. Mr. Bloomberg’s popularity is at a dangerously low point, a state of affairs that can be blamed in part on the Mayor’s woeful communications skills-leaving it to Mr. Cunningham, more than any other member of the Mayor’s inner circle, to come up with a way that will compensate for this weakness and help rescue Mr. Bloomberg.

Mr. Cunningham’s strategy will be the same one that saved Mr. Carey: Focus on substance, and portray all debate about the Mayor’s stylistic flaws as mere tactical diversions from any discussion of his policies and accomplishments.

Consider Mr. Cunningham’s response to the Democratic challengers who in recent weeks have been circling the wounded Mayor. Although there are still more than two years until the Mayoral election, Democrats like Fernando Ferrer and Anthony Weiner are arguing that Mr. Bloomberg’s aloof public persona has left an opening for a challenger who will give voice to the anger of New Yorkers coping with the Mayor’s tax hikes and service cuts.

In the interview with The Observer, Mr. Cunningham heaped scorn on that argument. In another preview of his Carey-like strategy, he insisted that voters will ultimately reject challengers who criticize the style, and not the substance, of the Mayor’s policies.

“You want to run for Mayor, boys?” Mr. Cunningham said. “You want to run for Mayor? Then step up and tell us what you would have done differently. ‘Oh, I would have talked differently.’ That’s all they’re saying-’I would have talked differently.’ Oh, but you would have done the same thing?”

Mr. Cunningham continued: “If you don’t have anything different to do, you’re just saying what-you’d put sugar with the medicine? You’d be Dr. Feelgood ? You’d have some narcotic to make it feel better?”

It has been nearly 30 years since Mr. Cunningham got his start in politics as a low-paid advance man for Mr. Carey’s gubernatorial campaign. Mr. Cunningham, who was raised by an aunt after his mother died, was all but adopted by the future Governor, who dubbed him “the 13th Carey” (a reference to Mr. Carey’s 12 children). In the interim, Mr. Cunningham became a top adviser to two Governors (Mr. Carey and Mario Cuomo) and a Senator (Daniel Patrick Moynihan), had dinner with Frank Sinatra (who at first mistook him for a member of Mr. Carey’s security detail), and got to know Presidents and Presidential candidates (Bill Bradley referred to him as “the second Bill Cunningham in my life,” the first being Philadelphia 76ers star Bill Cunningham).

Over the years, Mr. Cunningham built a reputation as a hard-edged political operative who combined a vast knowledge of political and military history with a keen appreciation for the less esoteric side of politics.

“Billy has two of the most important things you need to survive in politics,” said Tom Regan, a longtime friend who worked for Mr. Carey in the 1970′s. “First, everyone knows that he has a great memory. Second, if you screw Billy, he’ll screw you back.”

These days, many New Yorkers know Mr. Cunningham, 52, as the lean, white-haired, tough-talking spokesman who once manhandled a reporter and who regularly surprises the press corps with his combative posture towards unions and other adversaries.

But Mr. Cunningham is much more than just the Mayor’s public enforcer. He is at once Mr. Bloomberg’s liaison to the city’s opinion makers and his Sherpa, the man who lugs the political baggage as the Mayor ascends (or descends, depending on the day) the perilous slopes of city politics. He is the behind-the-scenes operative who quietly takes care of the less-than-seemly tasks required to advance City Hall’s agenda, but he also functions as the administration’s in-house municipal historian, its institutional link to the distant past. In particular, he is the only Mayoral adviser who was involved in the tumultuous politics of the 1970′s fiscal crisis.

This last attribute, as far as Mr. Bloomberg is concerned, may turn out to be the most valuable of all. Mr. Bloomberg, after all, is in the same danger zone once occupied by Mr. Carey. The dreary cycle of tax hikes and service cuts, which is likely to repeat itself next year and possibly in 2005, is combining with Mr. Bloomberg’s distant public image to erode his support. If recent polls are to be believed, his approval rating is hovering at the levels enjoyed by David Dinkins just after the Crown Heights riots and Rudolph Giuliani during the aftermath of the police shooting of Patrick Dorismond. And as Mr. Cunningham seeks to dig the Mayor out of his political hole, he is drawing heavily on his experiences as an adviser to Mr. Carey.

Of course, there are plenty of differences between Mr. Carey and Mr. Bloomberg. Unlike the Mayor, the former Governor was an experienced politician who worked his way up through the Brooklyn clubhouses. Unlike the Mayor, Mr. Carey at least tried to occasionally summon the rhetorical flourishes that enabled him to make an impression on people who were struggling through hard times. In his inauguration speech in 1975, he famously said: “The days of wine and roses are over.” Contrast that with Mr. Bloomberg’s frequent mantra: “The law says we have to balance the budget.”

Unlike the Mayor, who has terrible relations with the city’s labor leaders, Mr. Carey tried to build a cooperative movement among the city’s elites that helped guide it out of its financial crisis. And Mr. Bloomberg, a Republican, has been reluctant to criticize GOPparty leaders in Washington, while Mr. Carey, a Democrat, assailed Washington Republicans with gusto.

“The Hugh Carey playbook was to demonstrate leadership by bringing the city’s elites together to wage a sustained assault on power centers outside the city,” said political consultant Richard Schrader. “Bloomberg, in part because this is a more divisive time, hasn’t been able to build a similar consensus among business and labor leaders. And he won’t go after Washington. The result is that Cunningham represents a Mayor who’s in a much weaker political posture than Carey ever was.”

A Quick Learner

Mr. Cunningham grew up in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn. By all accounts, he had a rough early childhood, although it’s something he clearly hates talking about. His parents were both immigrants from Ireland, and after his mother died, his father decided he’d be better off if he were raised by an aunt and uncle.

After graduating from Brooklyn College, where he studied history and political science, he joined Mr. Carey’s gubernatorial campaign in 1974. He quickly developed a reputation as someone who combined a sharp intelligence with a willingness to indulge in hardball tactics.

In an interview with The Observer , Mr. Carey recalled that he and Mr. Cunningham were once the victim of a political hoax: They drove around Brooklyn for hours, searching for a new political club known as the “Bone Club,” whose leaders were supposedly preparing to endorse him.

“Suddenly Billy looked up and said, ‘There’s the Bone Club-it’s the Greenwood Cemetery,’” Mr. Carey said. “Billy returned the favor, and he did it in his own way.” Sometime later, voters in the neighborhood woke up to find their car windshields plastered with stickers urging them to vote for Mr. Carey’s opponent. The stickers, needless to say, didn’t come off.

After becoming Mr. Carey’s appointments secretary-and earning a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard-Mr. Cunningham went on in the mid-1980′s to become executive director of the state Democratic Committee. His greatest achievement of those years may have been one he’s never been given credit for.

John Marino, the veteran political operative, said that in 1989, after he’d become chairman of the state Democratic Committee, then–Vice President Dan Quayle came to New York for a fund-raising outing at a golf course. Reporters were calling for a quote, and Mr. Marino couldn’t come up with anything good. He called Mr. Cunningham for help.

“Without blinking an eye,” Mr. Marino recalled, “Billy said, ‘John, the line is simple. Here it is: “It’s appropriate that Dan Quayle is coming to New York to raise money for Republicans at a golf outing, since he is George Bush’s biggest handicap.”‘

“I never in my life got more reaction to a quote,” Mr. Marino continued. “It was in papers all over the country, and in every golf magazine. Everybody thought I was a genius.”

Joins Bloomberg

After helping re-elect Senator Moynihan in 1994, becoming his chief of staff and then going to work for Fleet Bank, Mr. Cunningham, a lifelong Democrat, joined Mr. Bloomberg’s as-yet-unofficial Mayoral campaign. After the Mayor won, he reaped a huge reward, receiving more than $500,000 in bonuses from the billionaire Mayor.

Now Mr. Cunningham may be facing his toughest task ever-to get voters to like, or at least to appreciate, his boss. Mr. Bloomberg himself has made it clear that he has no plans to change his approach to the Mayoralty, which makes Mr. Cunningham’s job that much harder. Still, he remains undaunted.

“Everyone looks at the Quinnipiac poll and says, ‘Oh, 46 percent of the people don’t want to have dinner with him,’” he said. “Well, that’s a cute question, and it gives people a way to vent. But the [vast majority of the] same people in that poll said he’s honest, hard-working, smart and has done a good job cutting crime. You can run a race for Mayor on ‘smart, hard-working, honest, kept crime down.’ You can run a whole campaign on that.”