The Republican National Convention in New York this summer will be drawing some unlikely visitors: supporters of Senator John Kerry.
Mr. Kerry will open a special New York office for the duration of the convention, and his campaign has already begun contacting local supporters, including Senator Hillary Clinton and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, to coordinate a response to the G.O.P. gala. City Democrats, who initially seemed a bit cowed by the Republicans’ bold choice of this liberal stronghold for their convention, are pleased. For them, the convention will be the backdrop to dozens of press conferences, many demanding that the Federal government come through on the $20 billion it promised New York after the Sept. 11 attacks. They also relish the chance to link the Republican Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, with an unpopular (at least in New York) Republican President.
The convention “will be a time for a full accounting for where George Bush has delivered on his promises from Sept. 11 and where he has fallen woefully short,” said a Kerry campaign official. “The process is underway to get ready to have rapid response during the convention.”
This early, combative approach to the convention, which will run from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 in Madison Square Garden, reflects a year’s shift in the national mood. When the Republican National Committee announced its choice of New York in January 2003, President Bush’s approval rating was hovering at around 60 percent. “It seemed like a stroke of genius,” said Democratic consultant Howard Wolfson of the G.O.P.’s decision to bring its convention to New York for the first time. The Democrats’ choice of Boston for their convention seemed a retreat, and they could only rail against the President for trying to capitalize on the memory of Sept. 11 in the city hit hardest by the attacks. Since then, however, the President’s approval ratings have sunk below 50 percent. The report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, due out a month before the convention, is expected to lay out opportunities the Bush administration missed to preempt the attacks. And continued unrest in Iraq has made the war on terror an open political issue.
“I don’t think they better go anywhere near 9/11,” said Representative Charles Rangel, the Harlem Congressman and dean of the city’s delegation. “The way this war is turning, just being here [in New York] is a constant reminder that we don’t know if we’re winning or losing.”
As conventions have turned from internal party affairs into lavish press conferences, opposing party responses have become an essential sideshow. The Bush-Cheney campaign opened an office across the street from the Staples Center in Los Angeles in 2000, where the Democrats held their convention. The Democrats offered reporters rides in a bus called the Rolling Donkey to their own briefings during that year’s Republican gala in Philadelphia.
When told of the Democrats’ plans for New York, convention spokesman Mark Pfeifle snickered, “You don’t say.”
“Partisan Democrats are acting like partisan Democrats,” he said, adding that “no one political party has a monopoly on the great city of New York.”
There still is an informal tradition that each party remains relatively quiet during the other’s convention, and one Democratic Party official said the party will wait and see what Republicans do in Boston before completing their plans. But the G.O.P. choice of New York raises the symbolic stakes, as Sept. 11 becomes an unavoidable issue. While each party warns against exploiting the memory of the attacks, Republicans highlight the President’s “steady leadership” and Democrats accuse him of shortchanging local police and fire departments.
Democratic members of New York’s Congressional delegation say the convention will give them the opportunity to revive stories that have faded into one-inch blurbs deep inside the local daily newspapers. There’s the complaint that the city may not collect the full, promised $20 billion in federal aid to recover from the Sept. 11 attacks. There are lingering accusations that the Environmental Protection Agency downplayed health risks immediately after the attacks. And perhaps the most politically potent criticism, Mr. Kerry and his allies argue that police departments and security projects are underfunded.
“The only time we’ll be fully funded for security is when the President is around,” said East Side Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.
There’s no clear measure of how much of the promised billions have arrived. Congress has appropriated all of the money, but some $5 billion takes the form of tax credits, including tax-exempt Liberty Bonds. The city may be unable to use some of those tax breaks before they expire-and Ms. Maloney and others are demanding that the balance be made up in the form of a check to City Hall.
The convention is “an opportunity to say, ‘You are going to use us for a photo op and you really didn’t stand by us,” said City Comptroller William Thompson, who is planning to release an updated accounting of the federal aid before the convention.
While national Democrats like Senator Clinton use the convention to attack Mr. Bush, local Democrats have another target: Mr. Bloomberg. The Mayor has endorsed the President and contributed $2,000 to his campaign and $25,000 to the Republican National Committee this election cycle.
“This is killer for him,” said Representative Anthony Weiner of Queens, a possible Mayoral challenger in 2005. “I’m going to highlight the Bush-Bloomberg budget choices every opportunity I get: This is Mayor Bloomberg’s candidate that slashed first-responder funding; this is Mayor Bloomberg’s candidate that shortchanged us on education.”
Mr. Bloomberg’s spokesman, Ed Skyler, called the anticipated attacks “politically motivated spin.”
“The jobs and the millions of dollars that are going to be created and spent in New York City because of the convention aren’t going to discriminate on the basis of party label,” he said, adding that Mr. Bloomberg “is not going to be participating in the usual jockeying [for prime-time speaking slots] that goes on at conventions.”
While Mr. Weiner and Mr. Kerry gird for a fight in New York, other Democrats are more cautious. Many note that the flood of coordinated Republican messages pouring out of Madison Square Garden may wash away dissenting voices for the week. One prominent labor leader worried that television coverage of protests will be limited to “the transgender animal-rights activist.”
The Republican convention “does present some opportunities, but it also presents some dangers,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, a West Side Democrat.
First among them is the unpredictability of the protests, which could backfire against Mr. Kerry by making the opposition to Mr. Bush appear extreme. Democrats would like to see the rallies dominated by police officers, firefighters and hard-hats gathering at loud, peaceful rallies organized by their unions. Construction and hotel union officials welcomed the convention for the jobs it will bring and pledged not to disrupt it with a strike. But they remain hostile to the President and are walking a fine line. “I don’t see us protesting the convention,” said the president of the city’s Central Labor Council, Brian McLaughlin-who also is a Democratic assemblyman from Queens. “I see us protesting the anti-union policies of George W. Bush during the convention.”
An anti-war group, United for Peace and Justice, is battling the city over its application to use Central Park’s Great Lawn for a rally. A spokesman for the group, Bill Dobbs, said the protesters also will picket the Democratic convention.
“It’s about ensuring there’s a strong anti-war movement for the day after the election,” he said.
But groups well to the left of the anti-war movement-at a New York demonstration in March, speakers praised North Korea and carried posters of the Pakistani nuclear proliferator A.Q. Khan-will also come out in force. Democrats worry even more about violence, which has plagued major events from Seattle to Genoa. The image haunting some Democrats is their own convention in Chicago in 1968, where violent protests outside helped paint the party as radical and out of touch.
“We don’t need a Chicago; we don’t need a freak show, a Karl Rove dream,” said the chairman of the state Democratic Party, Herman (Denny) Farrell. “Many of us are going to be cautioning against exactly that.”