After this November’s election, win or lose, Democratic ad man Bill Knapp will wrap up his “John Kerry for President” account. He’ll file away the combative television advertisements he helped create, with lines like “George Bush’s wrong choices have weakened us here at home” and “George Bush: Denounce the smear. Get back to the issues. America deserves better.”
Then Mr. Knapp, one of the Democratic Party’s most sought-after operatives, will start work on next year’s most lucrative client: New York’s Republican Mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
In a bitterly partisan time, Mayor Bloomberg has stubbornly refused to take sides in the national debate-or even to acknowledge that there are sides. The next six weeks, and the year’s election cycle beyond, will be a test of his ability to stand with one foot on either side of a widening gap. Earlier this month, he was riding in a limousine away from Madison Square Garden with President George W. Bush. Soon, he’ll have one of the President’s most capable attackers on the payroll-hardly a standard move for one of the nation’s most prominent Republicans. Though Mr. Bloomberg has said he’ll vote for Mr. Bush, his stances on most issues are closer to Mr. Kerry’s, and he has surrounded himself with Democrats. (And, after all, would anyone would if he actually pulled the lever for Mr. Kerry in the curtained-off voting booth on Election Day?)
It’s not just his personal views and his choice of aides that bind him to Mr. Kerry; Mr. Bloomberg also stands to gain from a Kerry win. Democratic administrations typically spend money in big cities, and New York Mayors like the Republican Fiorello La Guardia have turned that spending to their advantage. The Bush tax cuts-though they poured money into the city’s economy-seem not to have won the Mayor or the President much local support. Replacing Mr. Bush, some speculate, would also be a boost to New York’s hopes of hosting the 2012 Olympics, dominated as the International Olympic Committee is by Europeans who are hostile to the President. A re-elected Mr. Bush, meanwhile, could also be a drag on Mr. Bloomberg’s own re-election bid.
“Bush’s re-election would be a good thing for the local Democrats,” said Fred Siegel, a Cooper Union historian. “If Bush wins, they’ll use it to tar Bloomberg.”
Democrats also suggested that Mr. Bloomberg could be hurt by a wave of Democratic anger, money and talent migrating north from Washington if Mr. Bush is re-elected. A Kerry victory, by contrast, would defuse the anti-Bush sentiment that’s particularly pronounced in New York-and might even draw some of his Democratic rivals to jobs in Washington.
” If George Bush wins, Democrats are going to be more furious and focused than ever, and in New York they’re going to be looking to take it out on their local Republican elected official,” said one prominent Democratic strategist in Washington.
That drumbeat has already begun, as Mr. Bloomberg’s likely Democrat rivals reveled in his exposure at the Republican National Convention.
“The guy Bloomberg’s been supporting, and the party he’s been supporting and earning his stripes in, has been awful for this city,” said former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. “The public record is replete with evidence that he’s supported him in a full-throated way.”
“Mike Bloomberg would be hurt by a George Bush win, because New Yorkers know that the Mayor’s fellow Republicans turn their backs on New York City every chance they get,” said Stephen Sigmund, the spokesman for City Council Speaker Gifford Miller.
Mr. Bloomberg’s spokesman, Ed Skyler, shot back that it’s a tribute to the Mayor’s record that Democrats are attacking him on his party affiliation.
“If that’s all they have, bring it on,” he said. “To quote John Kerry.”
At the convention, however, Mr. Bloomberg worked to counter the perception that he marches in step with President Bush, whose approval rating in New York City stood at a subterranean 25 percent in August, with 70 percent disapproving, according to a Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters. Though the Mayor has said he backs Mr. Bush’s approach to terrorism and to Israel, “we made it clear to the Bush camp and the convention people that we were not seeing the Mayor’s role as a surrogate,” said a Bloomberg aide. “It was very clear: Don’t put us on Crossfire to talk about Iraq.”
Mr. Bloomberg did greet the President heartily in his opening speech: “The President deserves our support. We are here to support him, and I am here to support him,” he said. But the Mayor never appeared in public with Mr. Bush. Photographers caught him in the shadows, seated in a limousine with Mr. Bush standing outside. During some of the convention’s more rabid speeches, Mr. Bloomberg sat stone-faced, hardly clapping as the Republican faithful around him exploded in applause. He also made a point to attend only a handful of Republican Party events: one for gay Republicans, one for Republicans who support abortion rights, and one for the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC.
At the Sunday event of the gay group, the Log Cabin Republicans, Mr. Bloomberg took a shot at the Federal Marriage Amendment, which Mr. Bush supports.
“I don’t think we should ever use the Constitution to drive wedges between us,” he said. And he seemed to get more rebellious as the week progressed, telling reporters, “I certainly disagree with the administration on a lot of things.”
Mr. Bloomberg then absorbed what seemed from City Hall’s perspective a gratuitous slap from the White House: the President’s high-profile endorsement from the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which is locked in a bitter contract fight with the city, but whose members also served as a nice reminder of the President’s visit to Ground Zero soon after Sept. 11, 2001. On the convention’s final night, Mr. Bloomberg was the rare Republican official who turned down an invitation to sit in the President’s box just above the convention floor.
Even as Mr. Bloomberg keeps his distance from the President, however, he’s not a complete maverick. He’s told his mostly Democratic staff not to campaign for Mr. Bush’s rivals.
An irritated Mr. Bloomberg first took notice of the issue this winter, during the Democratic primary race. That’s when his Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, Gretchen Dykstra, traveled to New Hampshire to volunteer for Gen. Wesley Clark’s short-lived bid for the nomination. It was a visible role in Democratic politics for a visible member of his administration, and while it didn’t violate city ethics rules, Mr. Bloomberg drew a line.
On Wednesday, Feb. 25, the Mayor summoned all his agency chiefs to City Hall’s Blue Room for a morning meeting. There, according to people in attendance, he repeated a promise not to inquire into anyone’s party affiliation, and joked about his own tenuous links to the Republican Party. But then, with Ms. Dykstra’s case in the air, he reminded the officials that they are public figures, and that their political actions could embarrass him. The implication was clear, and Mr. Bloomberg’s aides have stayed well below the political radar since then.
A week later was the Democratic primary; three of his five deputy mayors-Dennis Walcott, Dan Doctoroff and Patricia Harris-quietly cast their votes in a race that Mr. Kerry carried with 66 percent of the vote.
The Democrats on the Mayor’s staff have largely followed his tacit instruction to keep their politics quiet. Though some of his aides have contributed to Democrats in the past, only Ms. Dykstra did this time around, giving $500 to General Clark in February and $200 to Mr. Kerry in May. The administration’s few Republicans have apparently felt less restrained. Two of Mr. Bloomberg’s aides, Community Affairs chief Jonathan Greenspun and senior advisor Shea Fink, have given money to Mr. Bush’s campaign, as have the Mayor and his daughter Emma.
As Mr. Bush leads in the polls, local Democrats continue to take some consolation in the thought that his re-election might damage Mr. Bloomberg. But perhaps the Mayor can take heart in the story of Mr. Knapp, the Democratic ad man-he’s been down the same road. In 2001, he spliced together footage of prominent city Democrats attacking Mr. Bloomberg’s rival, Public Advocate Mark Green, to create one of Mr. Bloomberg’s most effective advertisements. At the time, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe, angrily chided the consultant.
“If I have anything to say about it, people who partake in those activities will no longer get business with this committee,” he thundered.
But election-year passions soon faded, and Mr. Knapp-who also played a key role in the campaign of Al Gore-was welcomed back into the fold. Before coming to Mr. Kerry’s campaign in May, the consultant was on retainer for a nominally independent anti-Bush group, the Media Fund.
Mr. Knapp’s first spot for the Media Fund had the Bush campaign crying foul. But effective as it was judged, he’ll have to shift gears for Mr. Bloomberg’s self-financed campaign next year, whose slogan is unlikely to be the Media Fund’s rallying cry: “It’s time to take our country back from corporate greed.”