On the night of the Democratic Mayoral primary, as red and blue balloons fell on Mayor Michael Bloomberg and thousands of his cheering supporters at a swank campaign rally, Stu Loeser hunched intently over his BlackBerry, anxiously studying election results to see who his opponent—and quarry—would be.
The small screen showed, however prematurely, that Fernando Ferrer had broken the 40 percent threshold necessary to avoid a Democratic primary runoff, and Mr. Loeser, the ursine spokesman for the Mayor’s re-election campaign, looked up with an ever-so-devious gleam in his brown eyes. “Bring him on,” he growled.
Mr. Loeser, a political veteran at the age of 31, now dedicates the bulk of his tireless energies to knowing, and sharing, everything negative there is to know about Mr. Ferrer. He is widely seen as the city’s foremost practitioner of the dark art known as opposition research. And while his cherubic face, perpetual 5 o’clock shadow, schlumpy dress and frenetic manner run contrary to the slick and polished image of the political spokesman, he has nevertheless stepped out of the backroom and into the limelight.
It is unlikely, to say the least, that Mr. Loeser would have made the embarrassing mistake that the Ferrer campaign recently did, claiming falsely on the campaign’s Web site that Mr. Ferrer had attended public school for most of his life. (He attended Catholic school and New York University.)
In fact, it was Mr. Loeser who caught the flub, and he knows a lot more than where Mr. Ferrer went to school. Over coffee on a recent Sunday evening, he exhibited an encyclopedic grasp of Mr. Ferrer’s positions on school reform, housing and a host of other subjects through the years. He may know more about Mr. Ferrer than do Mr. Ferrer’s own campaign managers and consultants.
“There have been a number of people who have done a lot of hard work to educate themselves and each other about Freddy’s record,” said Mr. Loeser, referring to his colleagues in the campaign. “That said, I’m the point person.”
On this Sunday evening, he wore scuffed black shoes, blue jeans clipped with holsters for his BlackBerry and beeper, a striped, buttoned-down shirt that stretched over his belly, a baseball cap and his one fashion flourish, omnipresent designer eyeglasses.
His desk in the Bloomberg campaign headquarters is similarly messy, but its location suggests an uncluttered and highly valued mind. Seated adjacent to the campaign’s top brass—Kevin Sheekey, William T. Cunningham and Patricia E. Harris—Mr. Loeser clearly is a valued member of the Bloomberg brain trust.
Next to his computer is a Bloomberg sign in Hebrew and a photo of his mentor and former boss, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. His desk is decorated with a pair of flip-flops adorned with Mr. Ferrer’s smirking visage, a souvenir from his days as research director for Mark Green, who defeated Mr. Ferrer in the 2001 Mayoral primary runoff, before losing to Mr. Loeser’s current boss.
Indeed, Mr. Loeser comes to the Bloomberg campaign from the other side of the political aisle, and had delved into Mr. Bloomberg’s past during the 2001 campaign. By hiring Mr. Loeser, the Bloomberg campaign not only added to its rich arsenal, it removed a potential threat.
“I’m sure it had something to do with it,” Mr. Loeser chuckled, referring to his research on Mr. Bloomberg four years ago.
But surely so does his ability to juggle about a dozen e-mails, instant messages and telephone conversations with reporters, sprinkling just enough dirt or injecting just enough stridency to tempt or bully a reporter and spin a story in Mr. Bloomberg’s direction.
“I like campaign environments. I like the pace, I like the back-and-forth,” said Mr. Loeser, clenching a napkin in his fist and dismissing his critics. He recalled Harry Truman’s reply when a supporter in 1948 told the embattled incumbent to “give ’em hell.”
Mr. Loeser noted that Truman said he wasn’t giving his critics hell. “I just tell the truth,” Truman said, “and they think it’s hell.”
“I’m not giving them hell,” Mr. Loeser said. “I’m telling the truth.”
But not everyone thinks of Mr. Loeser as a simple messenger of the truth.
“I think that his role is as opposition research guy, that is why he brings a lot to the table for them,” said a member of the Ferrer campaign. “He is willing to be unduly aggressive in his statements. They are marked with such vitriol, they are unusually aggressive and unusually personal …. You get the feeling that this guy just hates Freddy.”
Actually, he spreads the venom evenly. After Congressman Anthony Weiner bowed out of a potential runoff with Mr. Ferrer after the Democratic Mayoral primary, Mr. Loeser let loose with a characteristic barrage. “It’s pathetic that after presenting himself as such a reformer, Weiner took a back-room dive for the party bosses,” he said.
But Mr. Loeser’s defenders include some of the most important players in New York government, and many of them are Democrats. His wife, Jessica, is a district manager for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
“He can be very tough in the political wars but he is fundamentally a really sweet guy,” said Senator Schumer. “Being in politics for 30 years, I can say there are few people who understand politics as well as he does. He understands New York inside and out.”
But some of Mr. Loeser’s critics, and they are legion, suggest that the rough and tumble world of New York politics and venomous Mayoral races have overly hardened Mr. Loeser, a former community-service activist, Holocaust-awareness advocate and AmeriCorp booster.
But Mr. Loeser wasn’t always like this.
Born in October 1973 on Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., Mr. Loeser moved around a bit before settling in Commack, Long Island, when he was 9. Relocating was a part of recent family history. His Jewish grandparents had fled Germany before World War II. His mother’s father moved to Washington Heights and worked in pencil factory. His parents met at a Jewish summer hotel in the Catskills, where his father worked as a handyman and his mother a camp counselor.
Mr. Loeser exhibited his first interest in politics, however fleeting, by habitually wearing a Michael Dukakis pin during his sophomore year in Commack High School.
“He seemed to always be friends with everyone, the cool kids and the smart kids,” said Alan Van Capelle, executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay-rights group, who went to high school with Mr. Loeser. Mr. Capelle said that Mr. Loeser’s infamous sartorial style already was in place by the time he was a teenager. “Stu has not changed one bit, he has exactly the same look. If they had queer eye for the straight political operative, I would certainly put him atop the list,” Mr. Van Capelle said.
After high school, Mr. Loeser enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania, where he became committed to the idea of community service.
“Knowledge is power but for what? For what? To do good. How do we do this?” said Mr. Loeser in his typical rapid-fire delivery. “I felt at the time that all the problems of the world could be solved by national service.”
That led him to Washington, and to the Corporation for National and Community Service.
“As it turned out, they knew a lot more about service than I did and I learned a lot about politics,” Mr. Loeser said.
Within two weeks, he was writing Congressional testimony for his bosses at the Corporation for National Service. According to a friend there, Joe Bongiovanni, Mr. Loeser set up key meetings and used his detailed knowledge of the constituencies of individual members of Congress to redouble support for the fledgling program on Capitol Hill.
“He’d have these obscure references to politics and current events; we had no idea and we’d say, ‘Oh, Stu!’ I remember saying that often,” said Mr. Bongiovanni.
After graduation, he served as the rapid-response researcher at the Corporation to address charges of excessive costs and alleged involvement in political activity against its AmeriCorp subdivision by the new Republican Congress. He then briefly worked on the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign in 1996 before joining Governor Jeanne Shaheen’s successful re-election bid in New Hampshire.
There he began developing his taste for politically motivated research. He visited local newspapers to find old articles written by one of Ms. Shaheen’s opponents.
“I remember his phenomenal memory for people and details about them,” remembered Jonathan Petropoulos, a former research director at the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets, where Mr. Loeser worked after Ms. Shaneen’s re-election. “He seemed to know everyone in Washington and beyond.”
A Gore Guy
But Mr. Loeser had gotten a taste of campaign politics, and he wanted more. So he jumped when consultant Nick Baldick invited him to work on the 2000 Presidential campaign of Al Gore, and excelled in its campaign press research division. Mr. Baldick, as fortune would have it, is now helping to run Mr. Ferrer’s campaign against Mr. Bloomberg.
When Mr. Gore lost, Mr. Loeser set his sights on New York, where he came into his own.
In 2001, Mark Green needed a research director to gather information about the slew of opponents jostling for the Mayoral nomination, and against Michael Bloomberg. Mr. Loeser came aboard.
“If there is such a thing as an all-night foxhole, he’s the guy you want with you,” said Mr. Green.
Mr. Loeser said that Mr. Ferrer wasn’t perceived as a threat to Mr. Green because the Green campaign believed he had only a small base of support. But the dynamics changed after the 9/11 attacks, which forced the postponement of the primary. When the election took place two weeks later, turnout was heavier than the Green campaign had anticipated. “We under-calculated the extent to which Freddy can motivate his base,” said Mr. Loeser. “We underestimated.”
From then on, Mr. Loeser studied Mr. Ferrer. He scoured the weekly newspapers in the Bronx, where Mr. Ferrer had served as a Council member and borough president, and hit the city archives, gaining all sorts of the information that made him so attractive to the Bloomberg campaign.
But first they had to woo him away from his mentor for the last two years, Senator Schumer.
Mr. Loeser lights up when talking about the Senator and worshipfully uses terms like “Schumerian theory.” They had hit it off from the minute Mr. Loeser interviewed for a job with the Senator. After telling Mr. Schumer that he came from Commack, the Senator suggested that the area was predominantly Irish and Italian. Mr. Loeser told him that there were now Jews and South Asians there, too.
“And I said, ‘You know, I’m really surprised you don’t know that. You’re like this extraordinarily skilled politician, and you know that Suffolk County is the biggest swing county in the state. It’s the same county that votes for Gore, narrowly, and then votes for [Governor George] Pataki. This is very important to you,’” Mr. Loeser recalled. “So like the second question, I’m insulting him, I’m telling him off …. He said something like, ‘Well, maybe that’s why I should hire you.’” He did, naming Mr. Loeser as his press secretary.
The Senator said that in return for Mr. Loeser’s insight into Long Island politics, he fixed his new press secretary’s speech. “He used to mumble a lot and he doesn’t do that anymore,” the Senator said. But it was one thing to fix Mr. Loeser’s diction. His dress was another matter. Mr. Schumer recalled the outfit Mr. Loeser chose for his wedding last April.
“He was in purple!” the Senator recalled.
After the wedding, during a two-day honeymoon, Mr. Loeser moved from the West Village to the Lower East Side district of his wife’s boss, Mr. Silver. His wife is an orthodox Jew, and Mr. Loeser himself has became an observant Jew again, wearing his Hebrew initials on a gold chain and a tzitzit under his shirt.
As for moving from Mr. Schumer to Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Loeser argued that it really wasn’t much of a switch. “There’s not necessarily a great deal of difference between these guys —aside from the technical party labels,” he said. Indeed, Mr. Schumer’s wife, Iris Weinshall, works as Mr. Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner.
His critics say that it is money, about $140,000 a year, which drew him over across the partisan aisle, but Mr. Loeser said that the Mayor’s financial independence frees him from the special interests that he himself is paid to scrutinize.
“With Mike Bloomberg, that entire world, the majority of the universe for the researcher is not there,” he said adding that he is a lot more realistic now than in his college and AmeriCorp days. “That was a young vision. I don’t necessarily hold to that anymore,” he said.
Mr. Ferrer can attest to the real sting of Mr. Loeser’s political gifts.
That disappoints some of his old fans like Mr. Petropoulos.
“Stu never seemed mean-spirited. I don’t see him as someone who would deliver low blows,” said Mr. Petropoulos. “The fact that he knows that dirt doesn’t surprise me, but that he would use it does surprise me.”
But Mr. Loeser said that he is in fact performing a public service by putting Mr. Ferrer’s feet to the coals.
“He has never had someone out there saying, ‘Wait a second, you state your position is this but your position is also that,’” Mr. Loeser said. “He has never had to go through this process, which is a great thing.”