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

The city’s political reporters enjoy a casual relationship with most of the higher-ups in City Hall, enough to ask about families and trade jokes in the moments before a press conference or an event. But not with Ms. Harris, who seems to not even see the New York press corps beneath the dark sunglasses that she is often sporting.

“Ugh,” said a reporter returning to a cluster of reporters gathered for a press conference, after failing to engage Ms. Harris in some small talk. “I like most of the people that work here, but I always get the weirdest feeling with her.”

Needless to say, despite months’ worth of entreaties, Ms. Harris would not agree to an interview for this story, even an off-the-record one.

When told of this posture during an interview at Bloomberg LP headquarters, Mr. Sheekey threw his head back and started clapping.

“I love that,” he said. “God, that is so Patti.”

 

 

THE FIRST TIME The Observer met Ms. Harris was accidental. She and the mayor were returning to City Hall after having rubbed elbows with Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative, and The Observer was perched outside the City Hall bullpen. Told that the paper was working on a profile of her, Ms. Harris turned to the mayor, punched him in the arm and said, “Say something nice, boss.” He reached out his hand, and then the two of them quickly escaped behind the gate that keeps out City Hall visitors.

People close to Ms. Harris say she doesn’t engage in banter or talk to the press, ever, because she doesn’t need to. Friendliness with hungry reporters would signal an openness to follow up on an off-the-record coffee or phone call that, for Ms. Harris, simply isn’t there. And because Ms. Harris has so much quiet influence over City Hall, there is no need for her to tout her accomplishments or make her case about why she matters.

“Why would she talk to the press?” said one administration insider. “She has a constituency of one.”

Added Mitchell Moss, the Bloomberg adviser, “She understands power. Compare her to Rahm Emanuel, who couldn’t help himself to be in the media all the time, or Ray Kelly or Joel Klein, who need to be in newspapers. Patti has enough power and confidence that she doesn’t have to be in the tabloids every day.”

Mayor Bloomberg concurs.

“She is the person I rely on the most,” he said. “I think everybody in the world that we live in understands that if they are talking to Patti, they are talking to me, and if they are talking to me, there is nothing I wouldn’t share with her.

“That’s not to say you agree on everything, that’s not to say where you don’t have times where you say, ‘Dammit, you are wrong,’ but in the end, it’s like any good relationship. It stood the test of the time, and I for one think that the city is phenomenally well served by her.”

Giving her life to ensuring that the mayoralty of Mr. Bloomberg is successful does not come without its rewards. Ms. Harris was paid $400,000 for her work on the campaign, and soon she will devote herself full time to what associates say is her favorite part of Bloomberg World: his foundation. The Post recently ran an exposé over several days claiming that now, even before the term is out, Ms. Harris has been spending an increasing amount of time there and less at City Hall. The mayor’s aides emphatically denied that this was case.

In her current spot, Ms. Harris gets to remake the city. The mayor has had a profound effect on the look and feel of the city, from adding parks that aim to replace the great public spaces of Europe to littering the city with the kind of events that make people from around the world pay attention: The Gates in Central Park, which had languished for 20 years until Harris pushed it through, the Waterfalls from 2008, even making sure that the 9/11 commemoration goes off each year without a hitch. In 2007, she brought in Janette Sadik-Khan to head the city’s Department of Transportation, picking her over a seasoned if uninspiring loyalist from the previous commissioner. By choosing vision over experience, New York now has a network of bike lanes and street plazas that would not exist otherwise.

“She takes the idea that there always have to be interesting things going on in New York City,” says Stu Loeser, the mayor’s press secretary. “Even after rounds of cutbacks, she figures out how to get these things done. She finds the resources. It’s the kind of thing that makes this city matter to the world, that makes people come here to visit and move here.”

Nowhere was this more apparent than at ground zero, or more precisely, the September 11 Memorial. It had been mired in delays, and few thought it would get off the ground until Mayor Bloomberg had Ms. Harris add it to her portfolio. Nobody could fund-raise for it, and the various stakeholders were squabbling about how the names should be arranged. Some companies threaten to pull out unless their company name was included next to the names of the deceased. Mr. Bloomberg, with Ms. Harris’ help, decided to just do the fund-raising themselves. Later, Ms. Harris served on a jury that helped pick the simple and elegant design for the memorial. Now the memorial has raised more than $350 million, and is slated to be completed next year.

After an event for the memorial at its temporary home on Vesey Street, Ms. Harris and Mr. Bloomberg jumped into one of the mayor’s black Suburbans and sprinted off to ground zero. The waterfalls there had just been turned on. It was an unseasonably warm day right before Thanksgiving, and although ground zero was still covered in dust and dirt trucks, One World Trade was finally, slowly rising to meet the skyline behind them. When the two of them first arrived at City Hall in 2002, the fires were still smoldering down there. For a time, it had looked as if nothing would ever get built. But there they were, the last members of the core group of Bloomberg World, watching the city rebound before them. The water cascaded into huge reflecting pools where the twin towers had once stood. Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Harris stood on the edge, looking down. Mists from the water sprayed back at them, and she pointed out the various features of the new design rising at the tip of Manhattan.

“It’s hard to believe,” she said. “It’s nearly finished.”

dfreedlander@observer.com