Mrs. Mayor: Patti Harris Is the Gatekeeper for a Bloomberg Empire That Extends Well Beyond Government

patty1 Mrs. Mayor: Patti Harris Is the Gatekeeper for a Bloomberg Empire That Extends Well Beyond GovernmentOn a cold weeknight in January 2001, Mike Bloomberg convened his two closest aides, Kevin Sheekey and Patti Harris, for an important meeting. He had been thinking about a run for mayor. The three met at a dimly lit, almost empty restaurant in midtown to talk it over. As they sat down, Mr. Sheekey and Ms. Harris immediately came out against the idea.

For some time, the two staffers had been plotting to talk their boss out of a campaign. The success rate of wealthy candidates winning office was not good. It would cost a lot of money–and possibly his reputation.

But before they could make their case, Mr. Bloomberg waved them off. “We are going to do this,” he ruled.

“Well, I guess we should order some wine, then,” Ms. Harris said, with a laugh. She summoned an elderly waiter and asked him to take their picture. Ms. Harris put her arms around both of them. The waiter fumbled with her camera a bit but captured the moment for history.

Less than a year later, Michael Bloomberg was sworn in as the 108th mayor of New York.

It has been 10 years and three terms since that dinner. Most of the people who joined the campaign and later the administration have moved on and now occupy high-level positions in politics, finance and real estate. Mr. Sheekey, like many favored sons and daughters of Mr. Bloomberg, has returned to the mothership, heading government affairs at Bloomberg LP, which has grown into a global behemoth since Mr. Bloomberg left to work at City Hall. Most of the rest of the original inner circle is gone as well.

But Ms. Harris remains. Her title is deputy mayor. But her influence extends well beyond that, as she’s the keeper of the Bloomberg brand, the one who stands at the gates of the ever-expanding Bloomberg empire and decides who gets to come in–and also who has to go.

“She directs his life,” said Joyce Purnick, the Times columnist who has written a biography of Mr. Bloomberg. “She is not involved in policy, but she is involved in what’s best for Mike, both in his philanthropy and his government–probably in that order. I don’t think there is the thickness of paper between them. Her life is linked to his.”

Mr. Bloomberg agrees. “If I were to disappear today this is a person more than anyone I know who should run the city,” he said in an interview.

But who exactly is Ms. Harris? She almost never speaks to the press, even though virtually no piece of news leaves City Hall without her sign-off. She is the point person on all major staffing decisions, but few around City Hall are able to speak about her in anything but broad generalities.

“She is one of the most powerful people in New York City right now. And she is probably the most powerful women in New York City, ever. And the most amazing thing about her is that absolutely nobody seems to know anything about her,” Kevin Sheekey said. “She has this incredibly important role in the city, but you hardly ever see fingerprints. It’s one of the great parts of her story.”

In the 15 years since Ms. Harris first entered the Bloomberg orbit, Mr. Bloomberg has grown from media mogul to mayor to a national figure courted by princes and presidents. His sway over city politics, to say nothing of state and national issues, is unparalleled by any mayor in the city’s history. But as Mr. Bloomberg has been acquiring clout, an odd thing has occurred: The rest of the city has shrunk relative to him. In other cities, the mayor can be beholden to a company, or a university, or an industry. In New York, especially with the collapse of the financial sector, there are so many industries competing for air space–finance, real estate, insurance, entertainment, fashion, tech, media–that the modern mayor operates in his own stratosphere.

“With all of these competing industries, the mayor gets to run the show,” said Mitchell Moss, an N.Y.U. professor and Bloomberg policy adviser. “Anna Wintour, George Steinbrenner, they all want something from the mayor. Other places, the mayor responds to people like that. Here, they seek him.”

And behind the sprawling Bloomberg empire and this shrinking city stands Patti Harris.

 

 

TALL AND SLENDER, with blond tinted hair cut straight at the shoulders, Ms. Harris is 55 and known around City Hall for being immaculately put together, even at her peril. At an October news conference on the roof of a housing project in the Bronx, the mayor’s press office warned reporters against wearing fancy shoes or high heels. Ms. Harris, however, stood in her usual spot in the background, sporting sharp, three-inch heels and staring at the mayor “like she would take a bullet for the guy,” as one administration observer put it.

Ms. Harris arrived at Bloomberg LP in 1994, after working for Ed Koch, where she went from being a college intern for the then-congressman to serving as executive director of the city’s Art Commission when he was elected mayor.

Mr. Koch remembers her as a straight shooter with an uncanny ability to read people. “With people in government, in many cases they will just tell you what you want to hear. She would never do that. She would tell you the good and the bad so you would have the facts, and she was always able to predict with total accuracy how people would react. She would say, ‘You are going to run into a beehive here if you want to do this.’”

Ms. Harris grew up on the Upper East Side, where she continues to live, and attended Fieldston, the elite private school on the Upper West Side. From there, she attended Franklin and Marshall, where she studied government.

In 1988, she married Mark Lebow, an attorney who is similarly public-service-minded, at the Pierre. She is famous around City Hall for neither apologizing nor agonizing over the times she is forced to dash out of the office for her kids’ sports or school events.

At City Hall, Ms. Harris oversees interests befitting her uptown roots: cultural affairs, landmarks, parks, the mayor’s community service initiative. But her real power in the administration extends well beyond that, and comes from her de facto role as the gatekeeper of Bloomberg World, a universe bigger than City Hall, one that includes philanthropy and finance and media, and is still growing.

“Let me put it this way,” said a former administration official who now works in the private sector. “Even when you leave, you stay in the family. None of us are anywhere where the mayor and Patti wouldn’t want us to be.”

Not only does Ms. Harris decide who enters Mr. Bloomberg’s orbit, she largely decides what they do once they arrive, and how long they stay. She is the patient zero through which everyone else in the vast Bloomberg empire can trace their lineage. In the late 1990s, on a tip from the late newsman Tim Russert, she recruited Mr. Sheekey. For the first campaign, she hired superstar political veterans like Bill Knapp and Doug Schoen and lured campaign consultant David Garth out of retirement. She staffed the first term with veterans of the Koch administration. By the second term, they were Bloomberg loyalists. For the third, she brought in ex-Clintonland spokesman Howard Wolfson; Robert Steel, a former official in the Bush Treasury Department; and Stephen Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis.