What’s the point of having a front group if you can’t stay behind the curtain?
That’s the question that the West Side Stadium opponents over at the New York Association for Better Choices have been asking since Nov. 12, when they opened their newspapers to find that their main financial backer, Cablevision chief executive James Dolan, had paid to publish a full-page open letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg which argued the anti-stadium case over his own swooping signature.
Now the elected officials and West Side activists who make up the association are worried that their most generous ally could be losing the battle for them. Several key stadium opponents told The Observer that their campaign is in danger of being overshadowed by the rumpled, goateed Mr. Dolan, who has apparently decided to take his case against Mayor Bloomberg mano a mano, tycoon to tycoon.
“They’ve gotten into a personal pissing match with each other,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, a member of the New York Association for Better Choices, of Mr. Dolan and Mr. Bloomberg. “It frankly muddies the water around the facts. And the facts are strongly, in my opinion, on the side of the people opposed to the stadium deal.”
Another elected official who is a member of the coalition was blunter: Mr. Dolan is “a rich guy who wakes up in the morning and is pissed and does something,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It may feel great, but it’s not exactly the way to win a political battle.”
Others, however, stressed the vital role that the Dolans’ support has played. “It is true that M.S.G. has helped give voice to NYABC,” said Whit Clay, a spokesman for the anti-stadium coalition, “but if it had not, City Hall would have steamrolled the stadium through. The Jets and the Mayor would like to confuse that support with selfish motivations, but NYABC has thousands of members and is growing. NYABC will continue to be the voice for the more than 77 percent of New Yorkers opposed to a taxpayer-subsidized football stadium.”
This is among the most important battles of Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure. At stake is the city’s and Jets’ bid for a $1.4 billion Olympic stadium, the fate of perhaps the most valuable piece of real estate in the city, and the renewal of a desolate 60-acre neighborhood-as well as the scope of Mayoral power. It’s a fight that has engaged the city’s entire political apparatus, with public-relations agencies, lawyers and consultants feeding eagerly at the rich troughs offered by Mr. Dolan and his father Charles on the one side, and by the New York Jets and their labor-union allies on the other.
The two sides’ strategies had appeared clear: The anti-stadium forces raised questions about the use of $600 million from the city’s capital coffers, while Mr. Bloomberg attacked the motives of stadium opponents, and dismissed NYABC as an Astroturf product of Dolan money and the Dolans’ desire to protect the value of Madison Square Garden. Depending on whose vision you buy, NYABC is either a small local group standing up for its neighborhood and for fiscal responsibility, or it’s a distraction in the war between a visionary Mayor and a pair of the city’s least popular millionaires-men who have thrived on city tax breaks while they (as the litany goes) raised cable rates, blocked Yankees games from Cablevision, and led their two teams, the Knicks and the Rangers, from ignominy to ignominy at ever-higher ticket prices.
“It’s smart for the Mayor to make it about the Dolans and about Cablevision and about the money they’ve made over the years in public subsidies,” said Jonathan Bowles, the research director of the Center for an Urban Future, a city think tank that has been critical of the stadium plan.
“The Dolans have totally fallen into it,” said another stadium opponent of Mr. Bloomberg’s personally combative approach. “They’ve taken the bait.”
Not to say that this is just a matter of tactics. The battle is also personal, a political feud within the small world of New York’s ultra-rich. Mr. Bloomberg and the Dolans were once allies, working together on the city’s bid for the Republican National Convention at the Dolans’ Madison Square Garden. Last March, Mr. Bloomberg was offering his heartfelt thanks to Mr. Dolan at a Gracie Mansion press conference, where the Mayor was a local hero for getting Cablevision and YES, the Yankee network, to agree on terms before opening day. (The deal promptly collapsed, though it was repaired by the end of the month.)
The men’s wealth gives them a lot in common: James Dolan’s daughter, like Mr. Bloomberg’s, is a top equestrienne, for example. But people close to the Mayor say that he has nothing but scorn for a money-losing cable giant that seems creaky in comparison to his own nimble financial-services company.
“It’s hard to imagine the Mayor having a lot of respect for him on any level,” said an aide to Mr. Bloomberg. “Dolan inherited his wealth and then made a mess of the family company. And to make things worse, he is the opposite of a good corporate citizen.”
This is the public-relations battle Mr. Bloomberg would like to fight. But the conflict didn’t start out on these terms. This spring, stadium opponents seemed to have claimed the high ground of policy and public priorities.
The Mayor’s first foray appeared in print March 29.
“The biggest guys that are making a fuss here are, plain and simple, Cablevision-the Dolans,” Mr. Bloomberg told Newsday. “It is an outrage that you let your own personal economics, or economic interests, stop a major project in this city.”
The Dolans declined to comment for that story. But they were readying a response. On May 25, the broad set of anti-stadium elected officials, activists and business interests formed NYABC; one day later, the association announced the launch of an ad campaign that questioned the wisdom of the project’s $600 million public subsidy at a time when the city is scrimping on basic services. Coalition member Cablevision bankrolled nearly the entire ad buy.
This fact did not escape the attention of Mr. Bloomberg, who immediately framed the entire debate as “Cablevision and the Dolans versus the public interest,” telling reporters: “In order to protect their own commercial interest, [Cablevision] is trying to stop jobs from coming to this city.”
The Dolans went on to decline all interview requests, ignoring the Mayor’s taunts. The Jets, for their part, launched their first advertising blitz on June 2, with two TV ads focusing on the project’s job-creating and environmentally friendly aspects. Although those ads didn’t mention Cablevision, it was only nine days before the team launched another volley of ads that did: On June 11, a TV narrator intoned, in reference to NYABC’s ads, “Who’s behind these misleading ads? Cablevision, owners of Madison Square Garden. They’ll do anything to block a new sports and convention center.”
The Jets cast NYABC as a front for the publicly despised Cablevision. But while the campaign had some of the hallmarks of those now-familiar, corporate-sponsored phony coalitions that pop up periodically to express their love for the insurance industry, this coalition was made up of virtually every elected official whose district includes the proposed stadium site-roughly Eleventh Avenue and 30th Street. They were joined by nearly every “good government” watchdog and urban-planning group in the city-an assemblage that would have been drastically more difficult for the Jets to paint as being greedy and self-interested.
The Dolans silently put up the money, and their allies made their case for them.
“All Cablevision has done is allowed them to fight a fair fight,” said Jeremy Soffin, the director of public affairs for the Regional Plan Association, which opposes the stadium but hasn’t joined any formal coalitions.
Anna Levin, the vice chairwoman of Community Board 4 and an NYABC coalition member, concurred. “My view from the inside is that the Mayor is trying to turn this into something about Cablevision, but in fact we and Cablevision have developed a quite productive, if a little messy-around-the-edges, way of working together. Of course they have their own personal interests, but so do we all. They have been able to give us the resources to reach a broader audience that has advanced the public debate on all this.”
And for a while, the stadium opponents seemed to be winning. A Quinnipiac University poll on June 10 found that voters opposed using tax dollars to fund the stadium by 51 to 41 percent.
Ads from both sides continued to course through the airwaves throughout July, and on July 21 the pro-stadium forces had reason to cheer: A new Quinnipiac poll found that voters approved the use of public funds for the stadium by 51 to 41 percent, as long as the project paid for itself-a question that the earlier poll didn’t ask.
A few weeks later, anti-stadium coalition members started to worry about their communications strategy, said people close to the group. Their first ads, focused on competing priorities, had been produced by David Axelrod, the Chicago-based ad man who had played a key role on the smooth campaigns of Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards and Senator-elect Barack Obama. But with James Dolan taking a hands-on approach to the media message, in early August NYABC hired Arthur Finkelstein, Governor George Pataki’s talented media hit man, to produce the anti-stadium commercials. One of his first spots claimed that the stadium and the Mayor’s West Side project would produce air pollution and some seven million gallons of raw sewage and wastewater every day. The New York Times, in a criticism of the ad, chipped away at the stadium opponents’ moral high ground, saying the ad “breathlessly exaggerates findings in the city’s recent environmental impact statement on the proposed redevelopment of the West Side by conflating the stadium itself with a surrounding project that involves 28 million square feet of office space and 12,000 apartments.”
An anti-stadium coalition member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, conceded that the ad “hurt our credibility.”
Both sides’ advertising campaigns continued to evolve through the next month. The Jets launched their biggest buy yet at the end of September, with a series of ads peopled with local residents, elected officials and even former Mayor Ed Koch-almost all of which continued to take swipes at Cablevision. By the end of October, both sides had spent a total of $11.5 million, according to the watchdog group Common Cause, with about $8.2 million of that sum coming from Cablevision.
Over the last two weeks, NYABC’s tactics have turned toward ad hominem attacks on Mr. Bloomberg himself. One ad uses the Mayor’s own comments from a radio interview bemoaning the city’s budget crisis, and juxtaposes them with his insistence on spending $600 million in public funds on the stadium. The other ad shows Mr. Bloomberg as a boxer, squaring off against an image of himself. “It’s Bloomberg versus Bloomberg!” the announcer calls out.
The Dolans’ pique, to this point, had appeared only in their increasingly combative television spots. But on Nov. 9, Mr. Bloomberg drew the Dolans out from behind their coalition. He blamed the Knicks’ poor start this year on the Dolans’ decision to funnel so much money into anti-stadium ads. This prompted the normally press-shy family to go on the attack publicly for the first time.
“The Mayor is trying to hide a flawed and financially risky plan by taking cheap shots at Madison Square Garden,” M.S.G. chairman James Dolan told reporters. “He talks about debt as if it is free money, but city taxpayers will be forced to pay his hefty stadium bill.”
Three days later, without warning his allies, Mr. Dolan stepped out from underneath the umbrella completely, running the full-page ad in all the major daily newspapers in the form of an open letter to Mr. Bloomberg. “It is time to set the record straight on the position of Madison Square Garden regarding the proposed West Side Stadium,” the letter began. It listed the policy objections to the project, ranging from the question of priorities to the timing of the project in relation to the Olympics, but stadium opponents and backers alike noticed two things: the Madison Square Garden letterhead at the top and Mr. Dolan’s signature at the bottom.
The fight, the anti-stadium campaigners noted with alarm, had shifted to Mr. Bloomberg’s intensely personal turf, where he represents the public interest and Mr. Dolan represents nobody but himself. The Mayor appears to be relishing the turn. He adopted his most combative stance yet in his weekly radio address on Nov. 14, calling on Cablevision and the Dolans to “stop the lies.”
“They are lying to New Yorkers and trying to end their Olympic dreams,” Mr. Bloomberg said.
The Dolans responded swiftly-and once again without consulting their allies. Their spokesman called for bringing the stadium question to a referendum. But even their allies, like Assemblyman Richard Gotfried, told The Observer that they doubted a referendum is legally possible, though other forms of legislative review might be. The Mayor’s spokesman, Ed Skyler, sarcastically dismissed the idea out of hand.
“It’s an excellent idea,” he said. “We should ask the following question: Should we reward the cable company that charges the highest subscriber rates in the country, took the Yankees off the air and is trying to do the same to the Mets, has run the Knicks and Rangers into the ground, and now wants to end our chances at hosting the Olympics, by changing the City Charter to protect their monopoly?”