If you ask Hilda Peltz about Michael Bloomberg’s television commercials, the septuagenarian has near-perfect recall. “I saw how he started when he was a little boy, and then when his father died early,” she said between mouthfuls of salmon and kasha at the Young Israel senior center in Queens. “And he was a self-made man. He made all the millions. And now they’re opening up in different places. He must be a trillionaire now.”
Mr. Bloomberg had just spoken to the lunchtime crowd at this Forest Hills senior center. The mah-jongg set–Giuliani Democrats almost all–had just peppered him with questions from crime to education. And they liked what they saw and heard: “Very well informed … very well spoken … a very nice man,” they said.
So is Mrs. Peltz going to vote for Mr. Bloomberg? “Mmm, I don’t know. I’m not a Republican, so that makes me already leery,” she said. Across the table, a woman in her 70’s, who didn’t want to give her name, piped up: “He was originally a Democrat. Why did he switch to the Republican Party? I’m not voting for him for that reason, and I think he had a nice presentation, a nice personality–but I don’t like the switching business.”
Is anyone at this table voting for Mr. Bloomberg? No hands were raised. “We’re still doubtful,” Mrs. Peltz’s lunchmate said.
This is what $8.1 million has bought.
Five weeks into his “official campaign,” Mr. Bloomberg’s more than $1 million a week in voter-targeted spending has bought some name recognition and a bit of public interest. In a blitz of ads and mailings, he has carefully dolloped out enough information to let voters know that he exists.
At the same time, he is being forced to let voters know things he clearly would have preferred not to–information about his personal finances and his campaign expenditures.
Yet after all this, recent private polls cited by his Democratic rivals show that Mr. Bloomberg is still languishing with fewer than 30 percent of the vote against any of them–unchanged from the public polls taken just after he got into the race. Even the public polls taken in mid-June show any of those Democrats beating him by a margin of 2 to 1, or more, in a general election.
Forthis,Mr. Bloomberg has already spent $5.3 million on television and radio ads and direct mail alone. He’s spent close to $1 million on consultants–$250,000 to strategist David Garth, $374,000 to pollster Doug Schoen (and another $50,000 to John Zogby, who also polls for the New York Post ),$105,000to spokesman William Cunningham, $100,000 to adviser Maureen Connelly, $53,000 to CUNY professor Alan Gartner. (Barnard professor Ester Fuchs and New York University professor Mitchell Moss have not yet been paid.) Mr. Bloomberg has also given nearly $200,000 to the Republican and Independence parties.
On communications with the voters alone, in five weeks Mr. Bloomberg has already hit the cap that Democrats–all of whom face limits under the city’s tough campaign-finance laws–can spend for the entire primary. He is paying his campaign staff generously, with mid-level staffers making a Bloomberg reporter’s salary at the very least ($60,000 and up), and most of his staff advisers drawing salaries of $150,000 and more–higher than most Bloomberg editors.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bloomberg’s aides say the campaign is “on target.” In political speak, that usually means “we’re not out of it yet.” And, to be sure, the candidate’s visit to the Young Israel senior center contrasted markedly with another sojourn five weeks earlier, the day after he launched his Mayoral bid, to a different Queens senior center.
At that event, a floundering Michael Bloomberg spoke obscurely about “every human being counting.” Almost none of the would-be voters there had heard of him–the most well-informed knew “he runs a company, something like that–doesn’t he?” No one had an opinion.
In Forest Hills, most voters knew who he was before he showed up, and they had a generally positive opinion of him.
Even an aide to one of Mr. Bloomberg’s would-be Democratic rivals, speaking on condition of anonymity, asserted that Mr. Bloomberg could hope for little more at this stage, even after his massive spending.
“It’s summertime!” the aide said. “What do you expect? No one is focused yet.”
Independent pollster Lee Miringoff, of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, agreed. “I think he’s not going to do a whole lot in July in a race where voters are not engaged. But he can’t show up in September without having laid the foundation, so he’s introducing himself. But I don’t think he’s going to make inroads until the primary approaches,” Mr. Miringoff said.
Mr. Bloomberg, on the campaign trail, is giving himself more positive ratings. “At the beginning, you gulp and you say, ‘Golly gee whiz, am I going to be able to answer that?'” Mr. Bloomberg said of his campaign style. “And as you go out, you experience different groups and different venues, and it comes across. I’m much more comfortable today–not as comfortable as the professional politicians, but I’m learning.”
Yet even as he begins to establish himself as a contender in the voting public’s mind, he is reluctant to shed too much light on himself–or more precisely, on his personal wealth. A central issue of the campaign for Team Bloomberg has been how much to disclose. For even though Mr. Bloomberg has removed himself from running his eponymous company, Bloomberg L.P., the media mogul is reluctant to do anything that could affect its worth–such as parting with the details about where his money comes from, and how much of it there is.
“We live in a society where, if you make your money honestly and you spend it to do good things, generally people like you for it,” Mr. Bloomberg said in explanation during his Forest Hills foray. “I grew up in Massachusetts, and the Kennedy family came from Massachusetts, and Jack Kennedy … his father certainly helped finance his campaign. We live in a state here where Nelson Rockefeller financed his own campaigns, and I think the Kennedys have done a lot for this country, and I think it’s an admirable thing to do.”
Thus, reporters were given a five-hour window on Friday, July 13, to view a four-inch thick binder containing mock-ups of Mr. Bloomberg’s last four years of tax returns. No more viewing will be allowed. (Since the readership of Saturday papers, especially in the summer, is low, Mr. Bloomberg’s “disclosure” session was obviously intended to attract little attention.)
The New York Times ‘ Dean Murphy had a photocopier sent to the offices of Mr. Bloomberg’s accountants, where the viewing was taking place. It was rejected. The Daily News ‘ Michael Saul asked to return the following Monday with an accountant. That request was also denied.
“We made it available to the public and you had ample opportunity to look through it, and I have a right to a personal life as well–something that you don’t seem to understand,” Mr. Bloomberg snapped at reporters a few days later. “I’ve told every single source of revenue, every single deduction and my tax rate–after that, it’s just nosiness on your part. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve made a lot of money, and I give it away.”
At the offices of his accountant on July 13, reporters grumbled that the documents were too vague to mean anything. Instead of listing specific income and expenditure amounts, they listed far more general categories of amounts. “More than $500,000,” for example, was represented by the letter “G”–so reporters only knew that Mr. Bloomberg made more than $2 million in a year (his returns are filed quarterly) and paid more than $2 million in taxes a year. (He was taxed at the highest rate of 39 percent.)
The only hard numbers that were released were the combined annual charitable contributions given by Mr. Bloomberg personally, his company and his foundation. Even that led to a dispute.
Mr. Cunningham, the spokesman, had promised to provide reporters with copies of a list of charitable contributions. Reporters took that to mean they would get copies of the charitable-contributions pages in the binders, which included annual totals and a list of charities, but not amounts given to each charity.
Then, later in the day, Mr. Cunningham said he would only release a list, not broken down by year, of all the charities that received money from Mr. Bloomberg. That meant reporters would not be able to examine the contributions to see how Mr. Bloomberg’s giving varied from year to year–especially as he drew closer to his Mayoral run.
After a shouting match with an Observer reporter–which included Mr. Cunningham’s yanking the book away after the reporter removed those pages from the binder–the spokesman relented, and made copies of the relevant pages.
Those pages revealed a generally conservative pattern of giving: lots of hospitals, lots of Jewish organizations, lots of community-based organizations. Cultural institutions permeated the list–including the Brooklyn Museum, which got checks from Mr. Bloomberg in 1999 and 2000 (though not 1997 or 1998), after Mayor Rudolph Giuliani lambasted the institution and threatened to cut off its funding following the1999 Sensation exhibit.(Mr. Bloomberg, in a radio interview broadcast on July 17, not only said he disagreed with Mr. Giuliani’s stance, but that he deliberately stood “literally first in line” to see the exhibit and support the museum.)
The list includes few environmental groups but plenty of journalists’ organizations (including the Investigative Reporters and Editors, a group that promotes the very reporting techniques Mr. Bloomberg has criticized when applied to his campaign). He also takes care of many schools, including the one in Medford, Mass., he attended, and Spence and Princeton, from which his daughters graduated this year.
Altogether, Mr. Bloomberg gave $100,451,454 in 2000, well more than he had contributed in the previous three years ($26 million in 1997, $34 million in 1998 and $47 million in 1999). Among the organizations added in 2000 were the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the Asian American Journalists Association. However, he also gave to Adopt-A-Dog Inc. in 2000 (though not in 1999), as well as the National Horse Sports Foundation and the Hopewell Valley Soccer Club.
Similarly, Mr. Bloomberg’s tax returns showed a fundamentally conservative spender. In all four years, he paid 110 percent of the previous year’s taxes in estimated taxes. Though his wealth has been estimated at $4 billion, he owns relatively few properties (a condo in Vail, Colo., because it was once rented out, is the only property detailed on the tax returns). He has little in the way of debts. Even his stock-market trading has been limited: His 1997 and 1998 returns showed none at all, though in 1999 and 2000 he engaged in a frenzy of buying and selling, took his profits and got out of the market, aides said.
A separate set of documents released–his campaign-finance disclosure forms–also provided insight into Mr. Bloomberg. But like his personal-finance information, they were more difficult to obtain.
Because all the other Mayoral candidates are participating in the city’s campaign-finance program, their disclosures–including their expenditures–were posted on the Internet on July 16 in a searchable database form. Mr. Bloomberg’s were filed with the Board of Elections, which doesn’t computerize expenditures.
“I don’t think there is any information that others have made available that we are not,” Mr. Bloomberg insisted as reporters chased him down Burns Avenue in Queens after an aide cut off questioning at a news conference. “We’ve given out a lot more information about my personal finances than any other candidate as far as I know in the history of the country, certainly anybody who has been successful.”
But the pages do show how Mr. Bloomberg spends money in this campaign: liberally. Mr. Bloomberg paid pollster Doug Schoen $63,000 for a poll last July; the next month he hired John Zogby to conduct essentially the same poll for $25,000, and by October that amount was doubled.
“What he was looking for was an independent analysis, and I am independent,” said Mr. Zogby, reached at his Utica offices. “What he was looking at was, you know, double-checking.”
Pollster Franz Luntz, who has worked for Mayor Giuliani and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was also paid $15,000. And not only does David Garth make $50,000 a month, but Mr. Bloomberg has retained the Democratic firm Squier Knapp Dunn to produce and place television ads. A separate firm, the Baughman Company of San Francisco, handles the direct mail. And there is not just one professor adviser; there are three.
It’s hard to figure out when–or if–Mr. Bloomberg’s prodigious spending will light a fire under the electorate. “He is counting on something beyond his control,” said Marist’s Mr. Miringoff, “and that is a bitterly fought primary that will leave Democrats turned off.”
Still, the billionaire continues, nonplused.
“I have never failed at anything, and I do not intend to fail at this,” Mr. Bloomberg had told reporters on June 6. And maybe he won’t. But for “doubtful” voters, he is far from completing the sale.
–with Beth Satkin and Benjamin Ryan