Last month, Steven Rattner, the multimillionaire financier, former New York Times reporter and Democratic fund-raiser, turned heads—and raised more than a few hackles—when he took charge of Democrats for Bloomberg, the incumbent Mayor’s aisle-crossing outreach committee. Mr. Rattner’s role was unveiled less than 14 hours after the polls closed on a lackluster Democratic primary, and he was joined by an elite cadre of wealthy Democrats whom, by and large, he had recruited himself.
In the following weeks, the local Democratic Party seemed too distracted to worry about the klatch of high-profile defectors. Who would dare discipline, or even criticize, a major campaign donor? Call it impunity of the purse. In a recent interview with The Observer, Mr. Rattner flaunted his new leadership role.
“I typically support Democratic candidates, but I think slavery has been abolished in this country and I’m free to make a decision on a case-by-case basis,” Mr. Rattner said, noting that he’d never signed a “lifetime contract” with the Democratic Party.
What’s more, Mr. Rattner added: “I can’t think of a single active Democrat in New York who’s supporting Freddy Ferrer. And when I say active Democrats, I mean the people in our world, who help raise money for Presidential candidates and things like that.”
And, addressing party loyalists, he concluded: “They can’t excommunicate us, because we are the party.”
Those comments, and others, have ignited a firestorm among local Democrats who are trying to elect Fernando Ferrer as Mayor this year. Even those who weren’t surprised by Mr. Rattner’s initial support for Mr. Bloomberg—he is, after all, a personal friend of the Mayor—confess that they are stunned by Mr. Rattner’s criticism of Mr. Ferrer and his suggestion that his fellow wealthy donors may be the only class of Democrats that matters.
“Mr. Rattner’s comments are outrageous and deeply offensive,” said Howard Wolfson, a consultant to the New York State Democratic Party. “That’s the kind of thing a Republican would say. This party belongs to everyone.”
Jen Bluestein, a campaign spokesperson for the Democratic Mayoral candidate, Fernando Ferrer, was also taken aback by Mr. Rattner’s stance.
“Mr. Rattner apparently never learned what most Americans know in their hearts, regardless of party affiliation: that wealth alone doesn’t determine status,” she retorted.
Mr. Rattner, however, made it clear that he is not happy with the candidates who have been wearing the Democratic label in recent Mayoral elections. “It’s disappointing and somewhat surprising to me that, in what might otherwise be considered the heartland of Democratic politics, we haven’t been able to put forward a compelling candidate in almost 20 years,” he said.
“Compelling to who?” replied Ms. Bluestein. “The Democratic Party is more united around Freddy Ferrer than the party has been around a candidate for more than a decade—we can’t speak for the people who Steve Rattner talks to at cocktail parties, but Democrats from Hillary Clinton to Eliot Spitzer to John Kerry know that Freddy Ferrer’s fight … is compelling to those of us who believe in equality and prosperity for all, not just for some millionaires.”
But wealth certainly gets attention. As trumpeted last month by the Mayor himself, the elite membership of Democrats for Bloomberg includes Alan Patricof, an investment banker and a supporter of retired General Wesley Clark’s 2004 Presidential campaign; Roger Altman, who served as deputy treasury secretary during the Clinton administration; and movie moguls Harvey Weinstein and Jane Rosenthal.
Mr. Bloomberg doesn’t need the wealth represented by Democrats for Bloomberg—he is financing his campaign himself—but he coveted the group’s support, because it means that these wealthy Democratic donors won’t be sending checks to Mr. Ferrer.
While Mr. Bloomberg’s new Democratic friends aren’t ready to announce any official events at the moment, they probably have “kind of done our job,” as Mr. Rattner said. In a city were Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly five to one, their support bolsters Mr. Bloomberg’s credentials with other Democrats who are not wedded to the party line.
According to Leo Hindery Jr., the multimillionaire Democrat who is Mr. Ferrer’s finance chair, the media coverage given to Mr. Rattner’s group—admittedly a small, though powerful, group of Democrats—is disturbing, not to mention dirty politics.
“This thing is a hit squad by very wealthy people who have suckered off of the party for a very long time,” said Mr. Hindery. “They have had a position of influence and prominence in the party, and it’s very disingenuous of Steve Rattner to suggest that this is just business as usual.”
“It’s very hurtful,” he added. “It’s very personal, and I think that it’s one of the most unfortunate things I’ve seen in politics, because it’s not ‘Democrats for Bloomberg.’ It’s ‘Friends of Bloomberg Against Ferrer,’ and let’s call it that. It has nothing to do with money because Mike doesn’t need any money. It doesn’t have anything to do with votes.”
Mr. Hindery also tackled a thorny topic that most Democrats have, so far, met with either silence or private grumbling. Her name is Maureen White. Ms. White is married to Mr. Rattner, and she also serves as the finance chair of the Democratic National Committee. Her murky role seems to have gagged the D.N.C., which hasn’t taken any real shots at individual members of Democrats for Bloomberg. Howard Dean, chairman of the D.N.C., did say in a statement to The Observer that he disagreed with Mr. Rattner’s assessment of Mr. Ferrer’s support. “There are lots of people in New York City supporting Freddy Ferrer,” he said. “The Democratic Party is larger than any one individual or group …. I believe Freddy will be a wonderful Mayor for all New Yorkers.”
Ms. White said that she would not take sides in the Mayor’s race. And no one, she explained, seemed particularly upset with her.
“Nobody is calling me screaming at me, absolutely, positively not,” she said.
No Wrist Slap?
But some folks, it seems, would like to.
“I’ve heard from varying sources that they are upset that she’s not even getting a slap on the wrist for this,” said Heather Woodfield, a registered Democrat and the director of Democracy for New York City, a group of Dean supporters.
For Mr. Hindery, the disappointment seemed even more profound. “It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “Maureen has formal standing in the party, you know, and people whom I respect utmost in the world—Harold Ickes, Bob Rubin, others—all of us have said, ‘This is not right.’”
But Ms. White is prepared to defend herself from criticism that, suddenly, she is sleeping with the enemy. “I would’ve thought that we had advanced to the point where people understand, in modern American society, that husbands and wives have different opinions on things, especially things in the public arena,” she said evenly.
On the record, she would only offer one, unsurprising comment on the incumbent.
“My fundamental problem with Bloomberg is that he’s given an awful lot of financial support to national Republicans who don’t serve either the city or the country well,” she said.
And with that, Ms. White paused and put The Observer on hold for a moment, so she could run this last statement by the former journalist in the family: her husband, Mr. Rattner.