In late June, as the Yankees swept the Boston Red Sox in the Bronx, officials at the New York host committee for the Republican National Convention were thinking of their own rivals in Boston, who are preparing for the Democratic National Convention. The New Yorkers couldn’t help talking baseball.
“Comparing the two conventions is going to be like watching Game 6 of the 1986 World Series,” said the president of the New York Host Committee, Kevin Sheekey, recalling an infamous fumble that cost the Red Sox their shot at the championship. “That they drop the ball shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.”
The way Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s man sees it, New York is the Yankees: the best team money can buy, well-oiled and hard to beat. Boston, on the other hand, is underfinanced, struggling to stay on schedule and plagued with the kind of intramural disputes-between Mayor Thomas Menino and everyone from the local press to the Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry-that play well on the sports pages.
Mr. Sheekey’s attitude infuriates Mr. Menino, who told The Observer that the Republican convention will be “all corporate America. We’re about working people.”
The burly Bostonian added that New York wouldn’t have to wait too long for its own Bill Buckner moment. “They’re trying to sweep it under the rug and say, ‘We have no problem,’” he said of the massive challenges facing New York’s planners.
Mr. Menino will have one thing going for him this summer: a home-field advantage. The city is prime Democratic turf, where Democratic Party volunteers in red T-shirts ply the streets asking passers-by if they “want to help defeat George Bush.”
New York, by contrast, is hostile territory for the George Bush–Dick Cheney ticket. That was driven home in Yankee Stadium on the evening of July 29, as the Red Sox were being battered by the Yankees. Mr. Cheney had paid a visit to the clubhouse that day, and his image appeared on the scoreboard. Greeting it was a Bronx cheer so hearty that the Yankees quickly pulled it off the screen.
“People don’t like the administration much around here,” said Norman Adler, a New York political consultant. That, of course, puts Mayor Bloomberg-a Republican up for re-election next year-in a difficult spot.
Political conventions are about Presidential nominees, but they’re also about cities and mayors. Everybody remembers Mayor Richard Daley’s scowl in Chicago in 1968; who remembers Hubert Humphrey’s acceptance speech? And since then, as the action inside the convention hall has degenerated over the years into a carefully staged pageant, much of the remaining drama has to do with logistics, from traffic to policing, that are the domain of City Hall.
The two mayors for this year’s political conventions are men in their early 60′s, both born in or around Boston. Besides their roots, the two men find themselves in similar positions, out of step with their party’s nominees-Mr. Bloomberg because of his liberal politics, Mr. Menino because of his feud with the city’s police union. Each is a trailblazer of sorts as well. Mr. Bloomberg is New York’s first billionaire mayor; Mr. Menino is the first Boston mayor in memory who isn’t Irish-American.
But that’s where the tenuous similarities end. Mr. Menino is about twice Mr. Bloomberg’s size, and his thick Boston accent betrays a lifetime spent in neighborhood politics, while Mr. Bloomberg’s decades in finance have left him with just traces of Boston’s long vowels.
Now the two men are matched up in one of America’s great urban rivalries, albeit one in which one side (New York-its economy, its status, its baseball teams) has been winning for a century, and only the losing side seems aware that there’s a rivalry at all. This summer’s layer of partisan politics, however, is raising the stakes for both mayors and bringing out their contrasting styles.
Mr. Bloomberg has approached the convention with his usual monotone, downplaying planned protests, President Bush’s local unpopularity and those raucous Yankee Stadium crowds. And Mr. Bloomberg’s convention is running like clockwork; the Republicans have the advantages of money and incumbency. They opened Madison Square Garden to the media on May 4, and the network television producers who oversee some of the most complicated parts of the convention spectacle appear satisfied.
Boston is another story. Although the Democratic convention is scheduled to begin a month earlier than the Republicans’, the Boston media walk-through was scheduled to take place more than a month after New York’s. Then, five days before the planned June 15 event, media organizations received a brief e-mail informing them that the walk-through had been pushed back another two weeks-because of police picket lines outside the Fleet Center, officials said.
The police, whose contract has expired, still plan to picket Mr. Menino at convention parties. “Our hope is to be embarrassing to the host,” said Jim Barry, the spokesman for the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association.
Then, on June 23, the Democratic convention sent media organizations the plans for telephone service-with an early deadline of just two days later.
“Two days’ warning? Unbelievable. And this following on the heels of the walk-through debacle,” complained Newsweek’ s Steve Tuttle in an e-mail.
When Mr. Menino finally welcomed about 600 members of the media to the Fleet Center on June 29, a party official introduced him as “the most popular mayor in Boston.” Given the crowd, even that seemed doubtful.
But convention officials insist that everything is running according to plan.
“It’s on schedule,” said Julie Burns, the executive director of Boston’s host committee. “If New York wants to say that it’s not, that’s fine.”
Bumps in the road
Indeed, the seeming bumps in the road haven’t stopped Mr. Menino’s aides from claiming that even these are all part of the plan. Everything from the apparent chaos to what one called “the avalanche of bad press” will lower expectations, they say, guaranteeing a success. In New York, they argue, Mr. Bloomberg has made it look too easy, promising to keep Penn Station open and close only a handful of streets, and he’ll pay for it in August.
“Say it’s Monday night-first night of the convention, evening commute-and somebody leaves a backpack,” said Ms. Burns. “There would be no way to get those commuters out of the city.”
The two mayors certainly have chosen contrasting styles as they prepare the public for convention-related headaches.
Mr. Bloomberg is playing down the inconvenience that shutting down 34 blocks and attracting tens of thousands of protesters will cause.
“If you don’t live or work in the garment district, you won’t even know that there’s a convention in town,” Mr. Bloomberg said recently. Despite the city’s “increased concern” over subway security, cited in a recent plea for more federal money, Mr. Bloomberg plans to keep the trains running. And he was unimpressed by complaints concerning the plan to close some of the entrances to Penn Station. “Come on! Get a life! If you have to go out one exit versus another exit for one day, it’s not a big deal,” he said on his weekly radio show.
Mr. Menino, by contrast, prides himself on the flood of detail about road closings and alternate routes that he has released to the public.
“We have a well-organized public-information plan for this convention,” he said, speaking to The Observer before unveiling a set of boosterish Boston advertisements. On the way out of that event, polite volunteers handed traffic information cheerfully titled “Let’s Work Around It.”
The message seems to be getting across. According to city records, one call to the dedicated convention hotline on June 28, for example, came from a man who “wanted Mayor Menino to pay his four-day salary because he believed he would not be allow[ed] access into Boston the week of the convention.”
Although the focus on seven miles of closed roads and the stopped commuter trains has obsessed the Boston media-the Boston Herald has a daily section headed “DNC Mess”-Mr. Menino’s aides defend the mayor’s decision.
“We’re talking about management of expectations,” said Michael Kineavy, Mr. Menino’s director of neighborhood services and a top political adviser. “The decision was, let’s just get it out there-let’s get the truth out there sooner rather than later.”
In New York, “the soft sell has worked thus far,” Mr. Kineavy added. “I’ve got to think that, at some point, the other shoe is going to drop.”
Mr. Sheekey maintains that New York will simply be less affected: The trains will continue running, for example, and current plans include closing only 1.5 miles of streets-a fraction of the number being closed in Boston, in a city many times larger. “New York is just more prepared for an event like this,” he said.
Boston’s Ms. Burns, however, warns that the cautious Secret Service, which has the last word on convention security, could yet spoil Mr. Bloomberg’s summer.
“The thing to keep in mind about New York is that they’re five weeks later than we are,” Ms. Burns said. “If something happens here, it will seriously impact their security planning.”
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