Bloomberg Gets A Nasty Lesson: Politics Count

On the morning of March 1, Mayor Michael Bloomberg restated his political credo and his greatest selling point:

“I’m 63 years old, and I’m not going to spend my life pandering to anybody,” he said.

But as the second election of Mr. Bloomberg’s career approaches on Nov. 2, the Mayor’s stated disdain for politics is more and more frequently colliding with his desire for a second term. That tension was present through Mr. Bloomberg’s first three years, and some decisions-the signed tax rebates he sent homeowners, for example-always bore the mark of politics as usual. But in recent weeks, as Mr. Bloomberg works frantically to woo back the Republicans who voted for him in 2001, the contradiction seems to be intensifying.

The same day he denounced pandering, his aides were working behind the scenes to placate a truculent Republican power broker by saving a city worker’s job. That same week, Mr. Bloomberg reversed his support for an obscure infrastructure project at the urging of a Queens community on the political fence. And he recently took an uncharacteristic stance against the free market, and on the side of nostalgia and Big Labor, in the Plaza Hotel fight. These days, the politics seem to be winning.

Some of Mr. Bloomberg’s supporters are glad to see him finally coming around.

“Shouldn’t good politics have some role?” asked Henry Stern, the former Parks Commissioner. “That’s something the Mayor will become more and more sensitive to during the campaign.”

But with the Mayor’s apolitical nature standing at the heart of his public identity-“A leader, not a politician” was the line in 2001-his need to endear himself to communities and politicians threatens to undermine that message, to the delight of his Democratic rivals.

“His posture is to seem nonpartisan, but in fact he makes very political decisions designed to help him with votes in specific communities,” said Joseph Mercurio, an advisor to Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields. “Now you’re seeing it develop more in places like Queens.”

One of those places is Staten Island, which gave Mr. Bloomberg a margin of almost 60,000 votes in 2001. Since then, he’s had rocky relations with the borough’s Republican Council members, who have yet to endorse him, but has relied on the backing of the former Borough President, Guy Molinari, and his successor, Jim Molinaro, a Conservative.

And so, on the same Tuesday that Mr. Bloomberg declared himself too old to pander, his staff was damping down a crisis back at City Hall. The budget director, Mark Page, had ended a long-running personality conflict with one of his top deputies, Carmela Piazza, by making it clear that her resignation was expected. He even sent out an e-mail announcing her impending departure from her $111,000-a-year job as director of administration at the Office of Management and Budget, said City Hall insiders.

But Mr. Page hadn’t reckoned on the intervention of Mr. Molinari, a Staten Island power broker and Ms. Piazza’s patron since she managed his first campaign for Congress in 1980. Mr. Molinari was irate to learn that Ms. Piazza, who had worked under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani handling correspondence after the Sept. 11 attack, was being let go.

“Does the Mayor have a political death wish?” Mr. Molinari demanded of Mr. Bloomberg’s chief of staff, Peter Madonia, according to people who later heard the story from Mr. Molinari.

The threat to the Mayor was real. Mr. Molinari is a political maverick with the power to swing wavering Staten Island politicians and voters.

“The administration’s relationship with Staten Island voters is a fragile one, and should Guy Molinari break with the administration, that could be a decisive blow,” said James Oddo, the leader of the City Council’s Republican minority.

Mr. Bloomberg, it seemed, didn’t have that “political death wish.”

Ms. Piazza, who answered the telephone on March 7 at the Office of Management and Budget, was assured of a job elsewhere in city government, city officials said. And Mr. Molinari calmed down.

“She’s the darling of Jim [Molinaro], myself and Rudy Giuliani,” he told The Observer, speaking of Ms. Piazza. “This lady has an awful lot of credits to herself.”

It turned out to be that kind of week for Mr. Bloomberg.

Tunnel Vision

The next night, Mr. Bloomberg found himself in Middle Village, Queens, the political home of his Republican primary challenger, Tom Ognibene. He was standing with a smiling local florist, Tony Nunziato, signing a poster that depicted West Side Congressman Jerrold Nadler, looking bloated and greenish, with a railroad track running out of his mouth.

Mr. Bloomberg had just come out against Mr. Nadler’s cherished cross-harbor rail freight tunnel, a massive infrastructure project whose advocates claim it would remove trucks off the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Its critics warn that it would further pack the Queens neighborhood of Maspeth with trucks and divert money from other citywide projects.

“I think when you get done looking at all the pros and cons, the answer is that we should not build this tunnel,” Mr. Bloomberg said to applause and whistles. “I think in this case you really would destroy neighborhoods-here, in this area-and we just can’t do that.”

Queens officials celebrated what they saw as Mr. Bloomberg’s reversal on the issue. After all, the Mayor-like his predecessor, Mr. Giuliani-appeared to back the project in 2001 campaign documents, and in a 2003 statement that “securing federal funding for a cross-harbor rail freight tunnel is a priority.”

But aides scrambled to argue that Mr. Bloomberg had been against the project before, or possibly while, he was taken to be for it. They found a dismissive reference to it in a Mayoral debate, and a line from campaign materials saying of the tunnel, “Let’s either do these things or not.” They pointed out that a key Bloomberg advisor, Mitchell Moss-who looked on approvingly in Middle Village last week-has been against the project all along.

In any case, the Mayor had won a friend in Mr. Nunziato, the florist, who was pleased with his autographed poster.

“That is a keepsake of Maspeth and Middle Village history,” the florist said.

The quiet, inside drama over Ms. Piazza’s job and the public reversal on the rail freight tunnel were two of the clearest illustrations that Mr. Bloomberg will be as willing to play the game as any of his rivals. But they’re hardly the only ones.

Over on Central Park South, for example, Mr. Bloomberg took a rare dive into a messy labor dispute, coming out against plans to turn the deteriorating Plaza Hotel into a condominium building and winning praise from his old antagonist, Democrat Mark Green.

“Instead of saying, ‘Excuse me, as of right, the owner can do what he wants,’ Bloomberg said, ‘You know, we should negotiate this out, because we shouldn’t just do what the market wants,” Mr. Green said on NY1 News. “A good Democratic Mayor would do that; a pro-labor Democratic Mayor would do that-and it was shocking to see.”

Asked if his union would endorse Mr. Bloomberg, hotel workers’ union president Peter Ward called it a possibility.

“As far as I am concerned, good ploicy makes good politics,” he said.

During the last month, Mr. Bloomberg seems to have focused his political attentions mostly on white outer-borough voters, but in January he also offered a taste of what he can do for the Democrats he’ll have to win over in November, and the black voters who appear likely to decide the contest.

People familiar with the black-church scene say that Mr. Bloomberg has been diligently, and courteously, wooing ministers since before his election in 2001. But incumbent Mayors also have powerful tools at their disposal to win the favor of the most important church leaders, many of whom preside over social-service empires.

Mr. Bloomberg kicked off his unofficial campaign in January at the Greater Allen Cathedral in Southeast Queens, where he won the endorsement of the Reverend Floyd Flake, a former Congressman and Queens power broker.

Reverend Flake praised the Mayor. He also thanked Mr. Bloomberg for a $1.8 million low-interest loan, which saved one of the church’s redevelopment projects.

A spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Carol Abrams, said the city scrambled to persuade Citibank to close with Reverend Flake’s organization last fall on the promise of city financing. According to the City Comptroller’s office, organizations associated with Greater Allen have also received four city contracts since Mr. Bloomberg took office-nothing out of the ordinary, but traditionally an added incentive for support.

Up in Harlem, meanwhile, Mr. Bloomberg has forged an alliance with the dean of the city’s Congressional delegation, Charles Rangel, who came out in favor of the Mayor’s West Side Stadium plan soon after his appointment to a commission aimed at integrating the construction industry.

Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign spokesman, Stu Loeser, defended the Mayor’s policy choices and rejected the notion that there’s a tension between his apolitical identity and his political campaign.

“Mike Bloomberg promised he’d use a critical eye and not a rubber stamp to make decisions, and that’s exactly what he’s done as Mayor,” Mr. Loeser said.