Mayor Bloomberg’s Secret Weapon

bradley tusk flickr via eye on rusko Mayor Bloomberg’s Secret WeaponLast fall, Bradley Tusk helped engineer Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reelection–a race that campaign insiders insist was superlatively run, despite the surprisingly narrow margin of victory. Since then, Mr. Tusk has quietly emerged as the preferred adviser for the candidates and causes closest to the mayor’s heart.

Over the past several months, Mr. Tusk orchestrated the abortive Harold Ford Jr. campaign against Kirsten Gillibrand, a frequent target of the mayor’s ire; he ran the political operation of a group of charter school advocates, working alongside the mayor’s own efforts, to lift the cap on charters throughout the state; and he has signed on as the top adviser to Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, convincing the friend and golfing buddy of the mayor that there’s a Republican path to the attorney general’s office this fall.

Mr. Tusk’s informal status as the mayor’s go-to guy has its benefits for both sides. Mr. Tusk provides the outsource-able political muscle–capable of acting as a cudgel to supplement the administration’s efforts from the outside–and at the same time reaps the returns of a particular, and potentially lucrative, niche on the flank of Team Bloomberg.

“The mayor cares about one thing, and that’s who can get the job done. If you can get the job done, he wants you on his team,” said Ed Skyler, a former deputy mayor and Mr. Tusk’s best friend.

A source close to the mayor puts it more bluntly: “Not only does he want Bradley on his team, he wants him to be a quarterback.”

It was Mr. Skyler who brought his friend into the Bloomberg orbit in 2002 for a one-year stint in the mayor’s office. The two had met at Henry Stern’s Parks Department in the mid-1990s; they had both graduated from Penn the same year, but hadn’t known each other. Mr. Tusk had met Ed Rendell, then the mayor of Philadelphia, in 1992 and had become an intern in Mr. Rendell’s office, which allowed him to forgo the poli-sci department and major in creative writing instead.

“His parks name was Ivory,” said Mr. Stern, who thought Mr. Tusk’s ability stood out even among the young talent in his department.

Mr. Tusk went off to law school at the University of Chicago, studied under Cass Sunstein, and brought back some of the scholar’s social norms theory-including the use of shame to affect social behavior-to Mr. Stern and the Parks Department.

“Ivory thought up a slogan we put on signs: ‘If you don’t clean up after your dog, you don’t deserve to own one,'” Mr. Stern recalled.

He left for Mr. Schumer’s office, and later decamped for a career-making job as the deputy governor of Illinois to Rod Blagojevich.

Mr. Tusk came back to New York to work at Lehman Brothers. When Lehman collapsed, his friends in the mayor’s office recruited him back with the promise they would keep him busy. He ended up wrangling support for the term-limits extension, and then, for the reelection effort, as campaign manager–his first job on a campaign.

It was a strange one.

The idea was to project the inevitability of Mr. Bloomberg’s reelection, even though internal polls showed it to be a close race. The strategy stood to make Mr. Tusk’s $100 million campaign look underwhelming when the numbers rolled in.

“Bradley knew what the margin would mean for him professionally and he could have easily put out stories sort of lowering expectations,” Mr. Skyler said. “Bradley basically put the mayor first and him last. And I think long term, people recognize that.”

But for Mr. Tusk, who is now hanging a shingle as Tusk Strategies, being on Team Bloomberg makes for a unique niche, one that could prove difficult to navigate.

Mr. Tusk’s lusty embrace of the Bloomberg operative-for-hire role has paid dividends for him, but it also irrevocably altered his relationship with the New York Democratic Party, and in particular with the man who may well be the next leader of the U.S. Senate.

“Clearly, there were people who I like and respect, who define the party’s position, who didn’t want me to do that,” said Mr. Tusk of his work for Mr. Ford. “At the end of the day, if I think candidate X is better than candidate Y, and X calls me to help them, I’m going to take it. That’s just the way I am.”

“I think in New York City it has now become fairly common for Democratic consultants to work for an independent candidate, and I think that’s a reflection that a lot of New York voters have voted for an independent candidate,” said Howard Wolfson, the longtime Democratic operative, who now works for Mr. Bloomberg.

But Mr. Tusk’s decision to handle a Republican candidate for attorney general–even a relatively moderate one like Mr. Donovan–is a step across the aisle that many of his fellow Democratic consultants have been unwilling to take.

Mr. Tusk scoffs at the possibility that such blatant party-crossing could cost him the top candidates in both parties.

“Would I love to run a presidential campaign someday? Sure, theoretically, it would be fun. … If some Republican or Democrat who I like and want to work for believes I’m the best person, they’re going to hire me. I firmly believe that.”

“It’s something you can do,” said Hank Sheinkopf, the longtime Democratic consultant who worked with Mr. Tusk on the mayor’s most recent reelection and said the young operative would be in his top-five people to have in a foxhole with him. “When the mayor’s not in office, it will be a little more difficult. We don’t know yet what the Bloomberg legacy will be.”

Mr. Tusk sees his role broader than the Bloomberg orbit. He has unrelated corporate clients and is currently working pro bono on Ed Koch’s New York Uprising campaign for nonpartisan redistricting (it also employs two former Bloomberg aides), and sees his success on charter schools as the first of what could become a model for battling entrenched special interests in Albany.

“What I’d like to do is take that general set of policies and figure out, how do we corral all these different people and resources, who agree on all these different principles, to have one effort to get things done?” Mr. Tusk said.

“The era of the union special interests may be over as we know it–for the time being,” said Mr. Sheinkopf. “So Bradley Tusk may be the right guy at the right time. This may be his moment.”

rpillifant@observer.com