Will Bloomberg Run? Test-Markets Himself as Potential Mayor

031207 article classics Will Bloomberg Run? Test Markets Himself as Potential MayorLike any shrewd businessman, Michael Bloomberg knows the importance of test-marketing a new product—especially if the product in question happens to be himself. So Mr. Bloomberg, the billionaire media mogul who is considering a run for Mayor on the Republican line, is conducting a series of focus groups to determine, in part, whether New Yorkers will buy his main selling point: that his experience as the founder of a global financial-news service gives him the management experience necessary to run the unwieldy enterprise known as City Hall.

Mr. Bloomberg has begun high-profile hiring in preparation for a campaign and has resigned as chairman of his company’s board and has been talking with academics and political insiders about public policy and the mechanics of a citywide race. But some of the most important consultations are taking place not in back rooms, but in a small auditorium on lower Fifth Avenue. There, on a recent afternoon, three dozen New Yorkers gathered to watch a videotape of Mr. Bloomberg as he explained his electoral rationale. Sitting in a comfortable armchair in front of a calming backdrop of books, he answered questions from an off-camera interrogator. As he spoke, each focus-group participant used a small dial to register moment-by-moment reactions—approve, turn right; disapprove, turn left—to Mr. Bloomberg’s performance.

These sessions provide a glimpse of Mr. Bloomberg’s strategic deliberations as he weighs a run for City Hall. The question at the core of Mr. Bloomberg’s quasi-candidacy is this: Can he be the Jon Corzine of New York City? Is it possible to do in New York what Mr. Corzine did in last year’s New Jersey Senate race—that is, spend gobs of personal wealth on a campaign without being tarred as a vanity candidate?

At the Fifth Avenue focus-group session, which took place in mid-February, Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers test-marketed responses to the questions he will inevitably face about his wealth, which is estimated at $4 billion. According to a participant who reconstructed the scene for The Observer on condition of anonymity, Mr. Bloomberg’s off-camera inquisitor asked whether he thought New Yorkers would vote for a businessman-candidate for Mayor.

Mr. Bloomberg’s answer suggests that he’s trying to frame his Horatio Alger personal story—he is a bookkeeper’s son from a blue-collar suburb of Boston who went on to build an immense media empire—to show that he is not out of touch with the everyday concerns of voters. On the videotape, Mr. Bloomberg discussed his modest background, his hard-working father, his early struggles to make money even after being denied a credit line, his identification with struggling New Yorkers and his belief in New York as a city of limitless opportunities. The audience listened respectfully, dialing in their reactions for possible future use by Mr. Bloomberg’s strategists.

At another point, the participant recalled, Mr. Bloomberg was asked to reveal his net worth. He said he wouldn’t divulge an exact figure, but the question was moot because he intended to leave his fortune to charity—save for small trust funds for his two children.

“They have a candidate who’s reluctant to announce his net worth, and they think it will be raised against him,” Republican consultant Roger Stone said of Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers. “The conventional wisdom is that Corzine’s money hurt him. They’re trying to formulate a response.”

The session was revealing in other ways. The focus-group participant who spoke with The Observer said that in the video, Mr. Bloomberg sounded conciliatory in talking about the Reverend Al Sharpton; offered several ideas about keeping trucks out of midtown during peak traffic hours; and recounted the history of several sexual-harassment lawsuits against his company. (Two lawsuits were dismissed; the other was settled.)

On the latter issue, Mr. Bloomberg must have acquitted himself well, because the audience apparently reacted positively to his explanation. “When that segment was over,” the focus-group participant recalled, “a guy came in and said, ‘I can’t believe you guys didn’t react negatively!’”

William Cunningham, a veteran of New York’s political wars who serves as a senior adviser to Mr. Bloomberg, would not discuss the focus group, which was conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. Mr. Bloomberg declined an Observer request for an interview.

Mr. Cunningham said that Mr. Bloomberg’s wealth, far from being a political liability, would be an asset. As a self-financed candidate, he would not be indebted to traditional interest groups and power brokers. He added that Mr. Bloomberg’s lack of experience in city government was similar to that of outgoing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who was a federal prosecutor who had never held elective office before becoming Mayor in 1993. “One guy was a career federal prosecutor; the other guy built a business,” Mr. Cunningham said. “They were both successful at what they did. If voters see that you’re successful, they will listen to what you have to say in a Mayoral race.”

At the very least, Mr. Bloomberg will command attention because he is an entertaining character. He is a self-described liberal Democrat who changed his registration to Republican rather than deal with a bruising, crowded Democratic primary. The 58-year-old Mr. Bloomberg flies his own plane and helicopter and has gained a reputation as a man about town and a patron of the arts. The headquarters of his media empire, at East 59th Street and Park Avenue, resembles the deck of a busy space station. More than 2,000 employees buzz around the building constantly, eating for free in the company’s food court or sitting in glass-enclosed conference rooms. The building has no traditional, walled-in offices; even Mr. Bloomberg’s desk is out in the open on the 15th floor. The 7,000 employees who work in the company’s 79 offices around the globe carry electronic identification cards that make it possible for managers to determine, with the click of a computer button, their exact whereabouts.

The company keeps the work environment verbally clean by filtering curses and racial epithets out of internal e-mails between employees. If you try to send an e-mail with a prohibited word—such as “asshole”—the computer instantly shows a message: “The following word is considered to be inappropriate in the context of business correspondence.” (“Dick” is permitted because it’s a name, “wop” because it’s a stock-ticker abbreviation for Woodside Petroleum, and “bimbo” because it’s the symbol for Grupo Bimbo, a Mexican pastry company.)

Mr. Bloomberg has hired a team of well-known advisers to help him if he decides to emerge from these high-tech surroundings into the grubby world of New York politics. In addition to Mr. Luntz, he has enlisted pollster Doug Schoen; Maureen Connelly, a onetime adviser to former Mayor Ed Koch; Kevin Sheeky, a onetime adviser to former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan; and David Garth, the legendary consultant.

“The first time I met with Bloomberg, close to a year ago, he asked me whether he had a chance,” said Mr. Koch. “I said no. But now, based on the way the other candidacies are going, I think he has a good chance. He can run as a businessman who is going to keep the good things that Giuliani and Koch did, and not let the city revert to the days of spending and radicalism.”

Mr. Koch, who is supporting City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, also told The Observer that he would be open to supporting Mr. Bloomberg in a general election should Mr. Vallone lose the Democratic Primary. “I’m not making any commitments,” he said.

No Great Issue?

Not everyone agrees with Mr. Koch’s assessment of Mr. Bloomberg’s chances. “I don’t see him connecting with the public,” said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, who advised Mr. Giuliani during his successful 1993 Mayoral run. “I don’t think he knows much about the city. Why would we turn to someone not involved in city government? There’s no great issue right now that could propel an outsider candidate into Gracie Mansion.”

If history is any guide, Democrats lose control of City Hall only in the wake of major demographic shifts or amid severe crises of Democratic leadership. Mr. Giuliani won because the city seemed to be collapsing amid disorder and civil unrest; the youthful John Lindsay won because of population shifts that swelled the rolls of young and minority voters; and Fiorello La Guardia rode to power amid a wave of revulsion at the corruption of Tammany Hall. And neither La Guardia nor Lindsay—the only two Republican Mayors besides Mr. Giuliani in the 20th century—groomed a Republican heir-apparent. Lindsay, in fact, became a Democrat before leaving office.

Mr. Bloomberg’s chances could be further complicated by political machinations unfolding far away from Mr. Bloomberg’s midtown redoubt. Conservative Party chairman Michael Long, who owns a liquor store in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, told The Observer that he is talking with several possible candidates interested in running for Mayor as a Conservative. Mr. Long said that one of the people under consideration is a conservative political pundit who “has been on TV a number of times and who has some celebrity status.”

Mr. Long declined to name his mystery candidate, but the New York Post reported on March 6 that National Review editor Richard Lowry is considering a run. In past Mayoral elections, the Conservative Party candidate has won up to 30,000 votes—a small number, considering that Mr. Giuliani collected nearly 800,000 votes in 1997, but certainly enough to cut into Mr. Bloomberg’s support among Republicans. Mr. Long’s opposition may have cost Mr. Giuliani the extremely close 1989 election against David Dinkins, when the Conservatives ran cosmetics heir Ron Lauder for Mayor. Mr. Giuliani overcame opposition from the Conservative Party in 1993 thanks to overwhelming support from disaffected outer-borough residents—a crowd that may not connect with Mr. Bloomberg.

“I don’t know if he embraces Republican values,” Mr. Long said of Mr. Bloomberg. “I don’t know if he possesses any core values. I would hope you possess some of the values of the party you converted to. If he converted just for political expediency, it will haunt him.”

Perhaps not, because Mr. Bloomberg most likely will run as a pragmatic, non-ideological Republican, one who will keep government clean and continue Mr. Giuliani’s managerial successes. He may try to run on both the Republican and Liberal Party lines, as Mr. Giuliani did, so he can position himself as a centrist even as the Democrats compete for the left in their own hard-fought primary.

“I think that there’s a center-right Giuliani constituency that’s still up for grabs—blue-collar ethnic Catholics, conservative Jews, law-and-order voters—but it’s more center than right,” Mr. Stone, the Republican consultant, said.

Mr. Bloomberg’s quasi-candidacy is not about sounding grand ideological themes so much as selling himself as a manager, as someone who wants to offer incremental solutions to niggling, prosaic urban problems. For instance, the focus-group participant said, Mr. Bloomberg talked about relieving traffic congestion by imposing fees on trucks that come into the city during peak traffic hours. On education, he suggested several novel, if sketchy, ways for aggrieved parents to share their opinions of the school system with education officials.

For his part, Mr. Bloomberg seems to have little patience with the view that being Mayor is, as John Lindsay’s re-election campaign of 1969 stated, the second-toughest job in America. Not long ago, he described the job this way:

“It’s getting everybody, explaining it to them, holding their hands while they do it; it’s picking the right people, attracting good people; it’s delegating to them; it’s making sure that they’re coordinated and work together.”

Nothing to it.