When New York’s Olympic Dream died, the chief Olympic Dreamer wasn’t even in the room.
In a pair of hopeless meetings on June 5, one in a little room off the Roosevelt Hotel ballroom and the other at City Hall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his deputy mayor for operations, Marc Shaw, threw a last round of incentives at Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, who conceived the bid for the 2012 games in 1994 and nearly rammed it through New York’s procedural tangle, had become a target of Mr. Silver’s animosity and a liability to his own project. He could only wait in his City Hall office while his boss, Mr. Bloomberg, and his City Hall rival, Mr. Shaw, made a last-ditch plea for his dream.
The intertwined stadium and Olympic projects were always deeply, unusually personal. They followed Mr. Doctoroff into city government and absorbed much of his time and passion after he arrived at City Hall from the secretive, quick-moving world of private equity. But many of the same attributes that allowed the Wall Street dollar-a-year man to turn the Olympic Stadium into a central focus of Mr. Bloomberg’s post-9/11 Mayoralty served him poorly in the obscure new field he was forced to enter: politics. There, Mr. Doctoroff’s originality looked, in the end, more like naïveté, and the people he rubbed the wrong way turned out to be just the wrong people.
“We have let America down,” Mr. Bloomberg declared on June 7, a day after the stadium failed in a vote of an obscure state board, the Public Authorities Control Board. His spokesman, Ed Skyler, said it was still uncertain whether the Mayor would travel to Singapore, as planned, for the International Olympic Committee’s July 6 vote. To skip the vote would be to cut himself free, politically speaking, of the Olympics and of Mr. Doctoroff.
In the upside-down world of an election year, the Mayor’s first real defeat may be a decisive political victory, depriving Democrats of a key issue as they press their case against Mr. Bloomberg. But in the day-to-day of governance, this is the first time Mr. Bloomberg has been defeated in a project into which he poured his own time, energy and credibility. His embrace of Mr. Doctoroff, who said through a spokesman that he will stay in his job, and their joint defeat, offers a glimpse of some of the weaknesses amid a success that was largely unexpected when he came to office. Mr. Doctoroff had been seen by many as a possible successor to Mr. Bloomberg as Mayor. Now, his isolation in the realm of state politics that he set out to conquer, and even in Mr. Bloomberg’s own administration, may serve as a lesson for his boss in the distance from Wall Street to City Hall.
Mr. Bloomberg entrusted the two key projects of his first term to Masters of the Universe built in his own mold: men of modest Jewish origins, like him, who came to government from the boardroom and who were schooled in the art of the high-stakes deal. Joel Klein, the former prosecutor who runs the Education Department, is one. The other is Mr. Doctoroff, whose state mission of “economic development and rebuilding” didn’t limit an ambitious agenda that included international travel and endless lobbying of the sports bureaucrats who will vote on the location of the 2012 Olympic Games.
Mr. Doctoroff’s strategy for winning approval for the stadium looked, at first, brilliant. It was an end run around the institutional players in the City Council and, significantly, the power machers in Albany who have been blamed for the state government’s notorious policy gridlock.
Mr. Doctoroff arranged a financing plan that didn’t require City Council approval or an act of the State Legislature. The stadium’s site on rail yards owned by a state-controlled authority-the Metropolitan Transportation Authority-meant exemption from the tedious city land-use approval process. And the Jets’ lobbyists won the support of a long list of state legislators and City Council members, over their leaders’ ambivalence and opposition.
But the end run ran smack into unexpectedly nimble opposition. The real Albany power brokers, Mr. Silver and his Senate counterpart, Joseph Bruno, never yielded to the arguments put forward by the Mayor and Mr. Doctoroff. Governor George Pataki nominally supported the project, but Mr. Doctoroff was widely disliked among the Governor’s aides-”Some people respect him, some people fear him, and everybody doesn’t like him,” said one state official-and Mr. Pataki spent little of his own capital pressuring the legislative leaders.
As with Mr. Pataki’s nominal backing, the long, long list of legislators and City Council members who supported the project turned out to be far less than the sum of its parts. Some of the legislators followed Congressman Charles Rangel with public or private renunciations of their support for the project. Others made clear to their leaders that they wouldn’t put themselves on the line for the project.
In the end, the list of supporters read like a publicist’s list of party guests: heavy wishful thinking and empty tables.
Mr. Doctoroff’s tactic of a high-pressure, high-speed sell with tight deadlines, no back-up plan and little room for compromise could have gotten shovels into the West Side ground in record time. Instead, it left some officials suspicious. The stadium and the Olympic plan were rolled into a circle, in which the stadium was necessary for the Olympics, yet the Olympics seemed to be the main justification for the stadium.
“I feel a little like I did about the Iraq war-I don’t really understand what’s driving it,” said David Yassky, a Brooklyn City Council member who proposed making the stadium’s approval contingent on winning the Olympic bid. “Why not take that plan?”
Meanwhile, the tactic alienated the two men who mattered most. City officials thought they “don’t have to deal with me,” Mr. Silver told The New York Times. “They found out they were wrong.’”
Mr. Bloomberg had courted Mr. Silver relentlessly since before he took office and had won the Speaker’s backing to take control of the school system. He shared kosher meals with Mr. Silver and even attended two of his grandchildren’s brises.
But Mr. Silver’s high regard for the Mayor, the Speaker’s associates say, was undermined by his intense dislike for Mr. Doctoroff.
“It came down to having the wrong attitude in terms of dealing with Shelly,” said a Democrat familiar with Mr. Silver’s views. “Given that he likes the Mayor, if Dan had handled the relationship with Shelly right and worked with him instead of in spite of him, he would have figured a way how to work this. Instead, Dan condescended to him.”
Mr. Doctoroff’s blitz of Mr. Silver’s members was a sharp contrast to the approach taken by the stadium’s opponents at Cablevision, who personalized the conflict by hiring intimates of the three key players as lobbyists: Mr. Pataki’s mentor, Alfonse D’Amato; Mr. Bruno’s son; and Mr. Silver’s former chief of staff, Patricia Lynch.
Mr. Silver’s speech on June 6, when he declared the stadium dead, gave full expression to the intensely personal battle that had been taking place behind the scenes. The Speaker appeared on television to explain himself and several times spat out the words “deputy mayor” like a curse.
When it comes to tallying the winners and losers, the stadium’s defeat is full of ironies. For Mr. Bloomberg, the apparent loser, it’s likely an electoral boost, as a key campaign aide, Bill Cunningham, was pointing out even as the dust cleared from the rubble of the proposal.
“Now that Shelly has removed it from the table, they don’t have the issue,” Mr. Cunningham told The Observer of Mr. Bloomberg’s Democratic rivals. “Now what are you going to run on? You don’t have education; you don’t have crime. Now everybody is forced to look at the Mayor’s record, which is where we always wanted this race to be.”
For Mr. Silver, a backroom pol who was transformed into eloquent orator and lion of The New York Times, victory is less than clear. Mr. Bloomberg quickly pulled from the table the incentives he had offered Mr. Silver’s lower Manhattan district. The crucial part of the West Side plan wasn’t the stadium, but a rezoning that could allow 24 million feet of office space to be built a few miles north of the struggling lower Manhattan business district.
The only clear loser is Mr. Doctoroff, the man completely identified with the Olympic project.
Many of his rivals in state government are enjoying his defeat. Around City Hall, where Mr. Doctoroff’s unpopularity outside his own set of agencies is a running joke, the knives are being sharpened.
But within his arm of government, which includes everything from economic development to urban planning and small-business services, the main frustration is that the Olympics and the stadium fight have overshadowed a remarkably dynamic period in city government. On his watch, the Department of City Planning has turned rezoning into a key development tool, and construction is booming across the city.
“It’s Doctoroff’s fault,” said Jonathan Bowles, whose think tank, the Center for an Urban Future, recently released a report praising the administration’s economic-development initiatives across the city. “They’d like to say that the media has only focused on the stadium, but if you go around and listen to Doctoroff, the Olympics are the first words out of his mouth most of the time.”
“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when so many economic-development projects were on tap simultaneously in all five boroughs,” Mr. Bowles said, adding that the stadium may in the end be just a footnote in Mr. Bloomberg’s legacy-even on the West Side of Manhattan.
“Rezoning the West Side will have a far bigger impact than people realize,” he said.
Now, the speculation around City Hall is over how long Mr. Doctoroff will stay. Many expected him to leave if New York won the Olympic bid; now they wonder if he will stay on to shape a non-Olympic legacy.
“Of course the Mayor wants him to stay,” Mr. Skyler said, citing Mr. Bowles’ report on the array of projects from Staten Island to the Bronx. “Those are legacy projects that Dan’s been the quarterback on.”