On 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.
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.
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.”
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