Mike’s On Phone! Mayor’s Specialty: $1 Million Calls

It’s become part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s daily ritual: He retreats to his City Hall cubicle, picks up the phone and dials for dollars. The Mayor works from a list of names supplied by Republican political operatives, calling some of the Republican Party’s most reliable donors. His goal for each phone call is $1 million, a small payment toward the most expensive political gala in American history-next month’s Republican National Convention.

When he started raising money for the $64 million convention last year, there were fewer of these long-distance phone calls. It was a matter of leaning on his own circle of civic-minded local moguls. Mr. Bloomberg kicked in $7 million of his own money and called on real-estate titans William Rudin and Jerry Speyer, and even Democrat Jonathan Tisch. But as the bitter November Election Day approaches, as President Bush grows less popular in New York and as costs mount, his focus has shifted. Mr. Bloomberg, the de facto fund-raiser-in-chief, has spent hours in the City Hall bullpen calling Republican political donors whom he hardly knows, like San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos.

Such donors “have very little to do with promoting New York,” said Steve Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute. “They’re people who are promoting the national Republican Party.”

The reliance on Republican loyalists has introduced Mr. Bloomberg to a world of political fund-raising that he frequently denounces, spurring a charge of “hypocrisy” from a leading Democratic rival, Fernando Ferrer. The Mayor, who has compared campaign contributions to “bribery,” has become one of the most reliable cogs in the G.O.P.’s money machine, dutifully hitting up Republican millionaires to pay for the convention’s balloons and bunting.

“Mayor Bloomberg has led by his example and his hard work,” said the convention’s co-chairman, former Republican National Committee finance chief Lewis Eisenberg.

Since New York’s city and state governments spent $21 million on the Democratic National Convention in 1992, the events have been transformed from publicly financed expressions of civic pride into channels for banned “soft money.” This year, the roles of the three top New York Republicans-former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Governor George Pataki and Mr. Bloomberg-provide a glimpse into the dynamics of the fund-raising operation. Mr. Giuliani, a national celebrity, has attached his name to fund-raising letters which have brought in somewhat less than $1 million, said a convention planner. Mr. Pataki has lent the host committee his own polished fund-raising operation, viewed as one of the nation’s best and run by Mr. Pataki’s top fund-raiser, Cathy Blaney.

Mr. Pataki’s fund-raising staff has assembled lists culled from campaign-finance databases, and Mr. Bloomberg’s aides have solicited donor names from Republican operatives outside New York, two Republicans said. Almost every day, Mr. Bloomberg places calls to the names on these lists, asking for $1 million from each.

“He’s been very good in terms of making the lion’s share of the calls,” said a Republican involved in convention planning.

The people on these lists include top Bush campaign fund-raisers, “pioneers” like Cincinnati banana magnate Carl Lindner and San Diego’s Mr. Spanos.

“You have to make personal calls when you ask people to give a lot of money,” said Natalia Orfanos, a spokeswoman for Mr. Spanos, who she said gave $1 million. (The New York host committee has published a partial list of donors, but will not make public donation amounts until a legal deadline in October.) “It was like a three-minute call, because Mr. Spanos was very willing to help the convention, and the city of New York and the Mayor,” Ms. Orfanos said.

The focus on Republican political donors is no surprise to political professionals.

“There’s a lot of support for the President among Republicans, and you go to your base when you’re raising money, obviously,” said Wayne Berman, a lobbyist and vice chairman of the host committee.

Mr. Bloomberg’s reliance on lists of Republican political donors, however, buttresses the case of critics of convention fund-raising, who say it has turned into an alternate channel for banned “soft money” to flow to political parties and candidates. Political conventions were long viewed as exercises in civic pride, and their host committees relied on a combination of federal funding, local tax dollars and donations that were limited to local businesses.

The old rules were “necessary to ensure that such donations are commercially, rather than politically, motivated,” the Federal Elections Commission stated in 1979.

At that time, people like Mr. Tisch-“Although I might not agree with the agenda of the Republican Party when you focus on politics, what we all can agree on is that an event such as this is very important economically,” he told The Observer -were the mainstay of convention fund-raising.

But the F.E.C. gradually weakened the restrictions on raising money for conventions, and in 2003 it dropped the ban on non-local donations. The effect was dramatic. The two parties’ conventions in 1992, for example, had raised $8.4 million in private donations, according to a recent study by the Campaign Finance Institute, a non-partisan campaign-finance-reform group. This year, the two conventions aim to raise $103.5 million in private contributions, and the reliance on partisan political donors has spurred critics to call for closing the convention loophole in campaign-financing regulations.

“There’s no basis for these committees to be called charities and for the people who give the money to get a government subsidy” in the form of a tax break, said Mr. Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute, a non-partisan group that favors tighter limits on campaign cash.

Although the host committee is technically a charity, not a political operation-that’s why Mr. Bloomberg can raise money from his City Hall desk-Mr. Bloomberg’s critics also accuse the Mayor of hypocrisy. Earlier this year, he scolded City Council Speaker Gifford Miller for raising money from organizations the city itself finances.

“When you ask somebody for money, nobody gives you money without expecting something in return,” Mr. Bloomberg said in June.

“There’s more than a little hypocrisy involved here,” said the former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, a likely contender in the 2005 Mayoral race. “You can’t have it both ways in this blizzard of fund-raising and personal generosity. You can’t distance yourself from the policies and behind the scenes not only endorse them but fund them generously.”

But Mr. Bloomberg’s press secretary, Ed Skyler, argued that Mr. Bloomberg is simply doing his job.

“The city made a commitment to the R.N.C. to fund this convention with private money, and the Mayor is going to make sure we keep our word,” said Mr. Skyler. “Jobs and spending know no party. This event will be a valuable economic boost, filling hotel rooms, restaurants and Broadway shows during what traditionally is a slow time in the summer.”