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

Those who have sat across from Ms. Harris in interviews describe an unusual experience. Ms. Harris doesn’t go over your résumé or even talk that much about the job. It is more, as one administration official put it, like “an aptitude test”; Ms. Harris asks applicants to walk through how they would do the job. What she is really sussing out is how well newcomers might fit into the Bloomberg kingdom, whether they are willing to become a part of the family, a culture that demands accountability, collegiality and a serious, ego-suppressing devotion to the principal. In return for that loyalty, you become a citizen of Bloomberg World, seemingly for the rest of your life.

“The tone is set first and foremost by Patti,” Mr. Wolfson told The Observer. “She makes it clear that there are suitable and unsuitable kinds of behavior. She is the gatekeeper of that ethos.”

And that ethos is unexpected for a New York mayoralty, and fairly unique for any administration anywhere. Historically, the Bloomberg administration never has suffered the kind of palace intrigue that engulfs most administrations, where unnamed high-level aides leak to reporters in order to push their agenda, or where deputies bitch in the press about some difficulty personality or another. Like Ms. Harris, Bloomberg World is relentlessly tight-lipped and revolves entirely around the mayor. “She screens out prima donnas,” said one ex-official.

Ms. Harris has even been known to reach fairly far down into city agencies, to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a given hire, or sign-off on an annual raise. Administration observers, for instance, see her fingerprints all over the selection of Cathie Black as schools chancellor, considering, if nothing else, the secrecy that surrounded the appointment. Ms. Harris’ and Mr. Bloomberg’s desks face one another, and there is no question where the buck stops. Those who are difficult find themselves cast out, as Ms. Harris is known to just strike a difficult figure’s agenda from her portfolio.

Bill Cunningham, who was communications director for Mr. Bloomberg’s 2001 campaign, recalls getting into a conflict with another staffer during the hectic days of the campaign.

Ms. Harris insisted that the two go out for lunch.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to have lunch with that guy. I mean, Jesus.’ She said, ‘That’s the Bloomberg way. You go out to a nice lunch and you talk it over. Remember, we are here for Mike.’ You almost feel as if you didn’t take her advice, you would be hurting her feelings.”

 

 

ADRIAN BENEPE REMEMBERS the “Velvet Hammer” of Ms. Harris from the days they worked together in the Koch administration. At one point, Mr. Benepe was starting to adopt the brusque manner of many who work in government, especially around Ms. Harris’ staff at the Art Commission.

“Basically, I was behaving like jerk,” he said, until one day he received a phone call from the young Patti Harris.

“She asked me in a very nice way if her staff was being unprofessional,” said Mr. Benepe, now the city’s parks commissioner. He was taken aback and said that no, they were acting fine.

“So why are you being so rude to them?” Ms. Harris asked.

“She totally disarmed me. She could have called and said, ‘How dare you speak to my staff that way!’ But no, she completely won me over. She knows how to read people and what buttons to push and how to get people to do things that the city needs to get done.”

None of the more than three dozen current and former officials interviewed for this article could recall ever hearing Ms. Harris so much as raise her voice.

“It’s literally a glance,” said one current Bloomberg official of Ms. Harris’ demeanor. “She makes it very clear there are suitable and unsuitable kinds of behavior.”

Said Mr. Cunningham, “She reminds you of your duty, but she does it in a pleasant way. But you know there is a steel behind that velvet. Patti can make a point, and you figure it’s probably worthwhile to follow through on it.”

Mayor Bloomberg said that the key to Ms. Harris’ effectiveness is that she holds people to their commitments.

“You see it often,” he said. “Somebody comes up and says, ‘You know, we were supposed to get this done, but there is problem A and problem B and problem C,’ and Patti just says, ‘O.K., now just get it done.’ And that’s why the administration has been so successful. A lot of people take after her and have developed exactly that attitude. We were hired by the public to get something done. O.K., do it. I know there are lots of problems. If there aren’t lots of problems, it would have been done before.”

But current and former administration officials say that the Velvet Hammer handle isn’t quite right. Ms. Harris is instead more like a traffic cop who keeps various siloed departments in contact with one another. Administration officials say that just the moment when they feel they are being cut out, an email from Ms. Harris will arrive asking for an update. Or she is alternatively described as the den mother–”the den lioness,” Mr. Benepe calls her–the one who gradually adds more and more people to the Bloomberg orbit and the one who advises staffers on how to balance their lives with the demands of government–”always overestimate what time you think you will get home,” she says–and who checks in on hospitals to make sure that sick staffers are being seen promptly.

She has a tight group of loyal aides around her known as “Patti’s Girls,” a circle of well-educated and well-put-together young women who staff the Mayor’s Office of Special Events or other departments in Ms. Harris’ purview and have a reputation around the corridors of City Hall for being a tad cliquish.

“Patti gets that people can’t spend their whole life in government,” said an ex-official, who noted how Ms. Harris helps staffers figure where they will land next. “Except Patti’s girls. Patti’s girls can’t leave.”

Yet despite a being a central figure in a global brand, Ms. Harris remains an almost Garboesque figure around City Hall. She is the mayor’s shadow, running City Hall when he is running around the city, and trailing him to events when her presence is requested.