“Oh, come on! “
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was visibly angry. The color was rising in his face. Standing in City Hall’s Blue Room alongside Governor George Pataki, Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer and other politicians, Mr. Bloomberg glared at a reporter in the back row who had just shouted out an impertinent question: Did the Senators agree with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo’s recent assertion that Mr. Pataki had failed to provide leadership in the days after Sept. 11?
Mr. Bloomberg struggled to restrain himself as Mr. Schumer offered a tactful answer. When the reporter repeated his question, the Mayor could hold back no longer.
“I’ll take this,” he said. “It’s my press conference. Sorry, we’re finished with that question. There’s no follow-up. Enough! “
The scene perfectly captured one of the most remarkably smooth political relationships New York has seen in a long time: the one between Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Pataki. Mr. Bloomberg had literally stepped forward and, like a basketball player setting a pick for a teammate, helped the Governor shake himself loose from an embarrassing situation.
Mr. Bloomberg’s moment of anger serves as a reminder that the Mayor still feels intensely loyal to Mr. Pataki for what he views as an enormous favor: the Governor’s willingness to offer this onetime liberal Democrat the Republican line in last year’s Mayoral election. In return, Mr. Bloomberg is going to extraordinary lengths to help the Governor, boosting Mr. Pataki’s reelection prospects in ways large and small.
Mr. Bloomberg has placed personal resources, such as his Upper East Side mansion and his private jet, at the disposal of the Governor’s political needs. He has promised to campaign extensively for the Governor and will escort him into Democratic territory in the city. Perhaps most important, Mr. Bloomberg has adopted a sotto voce negotiating strategy during city-state budget talks that, by coincidence or by design, has effectively shielded Mr. Pataki from political fallout in the city during the worst fiscal crisis since the 1970’s.
It is impossible to overstate the glee in Republican circles over Mr. Bloomberg’s cooperative spirit. “Mayor Bloomberg has told me that he will do whatever Pataki wants him to do,” said Sandy Treadwell, the chairman of the state Republican Party. “There will be a huge number of events during the campaign where they will appear together.”
Mr. Bloomberg will be delivering the opening speech at the state G.O.P. convention in late May in New York City, and Mr. Pataki’s advisers say that Mr. Bloomberg has all but placed himself at their disposal for the coming campaign. Mr. Bloomberg, a lifelong liberal Democrat who confessed to changing his party affiliation last year because he didn’t want to run in a potentially nasty primary campaign, has morphed into a full-fledged Republican who plans to be Mr. Pataki’s staunchest advocate in what promises to be a tough re-election fight.
“Having a Republican Mayor who is a friend of the Governor,” said Kieran Mahoney, an adviser to the Pataki campaign, “will manifest itself in literally hundreds of decisions from now until November.”
Mr. Bloomberg has already proved useful in all kinds of ways. When Mr. Pataki needed to go to Washington, D.C., for a pro-Israel rally in early April, Mr. Bloomberg, who did not attend the event, lent the Governor his private corporate jet. Mr. Bloomberg has ceded the stage to the Governor on the city’s biggest capital project in a generation: the redevelopment of lower Manhattan, an undertaking that will figure prominently in Mr. Pataki’s re-election campaign.
Perhaps most helpful of all, as Republican strategists privately note with immense satisfaction, is Mr. Bloomberg’s efforts to lower-not raise-expectations during budget talks with Albany. He has declined to use City Hall’s bully pulpit to pressure the Governor for huge amounts of state aid, opting instead for back-channel diplomacy that has had the effect, intended or not, of keeping the political waters placid for Mr. Pataki.
Mr. Bloomberg’s refusal to pound the table during budget talks is driving Democrats crazy. They argue that Mr. Bloomberg is deliberately lowballing his request from Albany, allowing the Governor to spread around budget money to shore up support in areas upstate-a traditional Republican stronghold where Democrats have been making inroads in recent years because of the region’s flagging economy-without paying a political price in the city.
“Without pressure from New York City, the Governor can put more resources into upstate, where he’s vulnerable to either Democratic candidate,” said State Senator David Paterson of Harlem. “Mayor Bloomberg is sparing Governor Pataki from widespread criticism in the city, making it a lot easier for Pataki to be a candidate this year.”
Mr. Paterson’s comments drew a sharp retort from Bill Cunningham, Mr. Bloomberg’s communications director. “Nobody should ever pay him to be a political analyst,” Mr. Cunningham said. “To suggest that a Republican Governor is vulnerable in upstate New York shows a distinct lack of understanding. This is 25-cent political analysis that has nothing to do with our budget problems. It’s not our job to tie the Governor down; it’s our job to help the city of New York.”
Mr. Cunningham added that Mr. Bloomberg’s non-confrontational approach has actually smoothed negotiations with the state. “For us to raise a battle flag and yell and scream and ask for things we know we can’t get would be counterproductive,” he said. “The Mayor’s job, as he sees it, is to get as much cooperation as he can from Albany on behalf of the city of New York.”
Friends and Rivals
While it’s always possible the honeymoon between the Governor and the Mayor will fade if Mr. Pataki wins re-election, thus far the two men are rewriting New York’s usual upstate/downstate political narrative. Mayors and Governors, even-or especially-if they are members of the same party, usually get along about as well as the Red Sox and the Yankees in mid-September. The offices are generally occupied by politicians with big ambitions, and each tends to regard the other as a competitor-for publicity, for higher office-or as an impediment to greater glory. As he prepared to run for President in 1931, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a state investigation into the corruption allegations surrounding Mayor Jimmy Walker, leading to Walker’s resignation and his exile in Europe. Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay-both of whom harbored Presidential ambitions-constantly tried to outduel one another. So did Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch, two Democrats who ran against each other in 1977 and 1981.
It’s hardly a secret that Mr. Pataki’s relationship with former Mayor Giuliani was in the traditional mold, which is one reason the Governor’s aides are so pleased to have Mr. Bloomberg on their side. Mr. Giuliani endorsed Mr. Pataki’s opponent, Mario Cuomo, in 1994, and then constantly battled Mr. Pataki for the spotlight, to the point of blocking some of Mr. Pataki’s pet projects in the city. Mr. Bloomberg, by contrast, has happily ceded leadership of the downtown reconstruction project to the Governor. (It’s noteworthy that Mr. Bloomberg appointed members to the board overseeing lower Manhattan’s redevelopment only after he was criticized in the press for having no control over the process.) Where Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Pataki squabbled for four years over the fate of Governors Island, it took Mr. Bloomberg all of two months to reach a deal with the Governor on the island’s future. Mr. Pataki’s campaign can now add re-development of Governors Island to his list of accomplishments.
In raw political terms, Mr. Giuliani has been a liability for Mr. Pataki in the city, because the former Mayor alienated many minority voters. Mr. Bloomberg, by contrast, won nearly half the Latino vote-a crucial swing constituency aggressively courted by Mr. Pataki-and Republican strategists are hoping that Mr. Bloomberg’s pragmatic, non-ideological posture will make it easier for Mr. Pataki, a centrist Republican, to woo minorities.
“Mayor Bloomberg is not as polarizing as the previous Mayor,” said one Republican strategist who advises the Pataki campaign. “He is not going to have that kind of baggage.”
The contrast is equally stark on fiscal questions. Mr. Giuliani hounded Mr. Pataki regularly when he felt that Albany had shortchanged the city. While that approach didn’t exactly win support for the city in Albany, it made it tougher for Mr. Pataki to make fiscal decisions that rewarded his supporters in the suburbs and upstate at the expense of the city.
Mr. Bloomberg has entirely rejected that approach. He has not asked Mr. Pataki to reinstate the commuter tax, for instance, which would bring in $500 million a year for the city but is despised by suburban voters. He has refused to consider asking Albany, which approves most tax increases, to allow the city to pass even a modest tax hike, even though the city is slashing services to plug a $5 billion hole in the budget. “Let’s just get serious,” Mr. Bloomberg has said. “Albany, in an election year, is never going to raise taxes. Period.” One way of translating this, however, is that Mr. Bloomberg won’t ask Albany to raise taxes in an election year, because it would create political complications for the Governor.
Finally, to the delight of Republicans, Mr. Bloomberg has been extraordinarily solicitous of the state’s fiscal predicament as he advocates for the city. The Mayor has asked for a combined total of $800 million in state and federal aid-a large sum in comparison with previous years, perhaps, but not all that dramatic when you consider that the city is still reeling from Sept. 11. Rather than hammer away at Albany for not coming through at an unprecedented moment in the city’s history, Mr. Bloomberg, at his executive budget presentation, instead noted that the city shouldn’t count on Albany to offer extensive financial help in this moment of distress.
This negotiating tactic surprised even the most scrupulously nonpartisan fiscal observers. “I think he was mistaken to let the state off the hook,” said Diana Fortuna, the president of the Citizens’ Budget Commission, a business-backed group. “I was surprised at how much he’s lowering expectations from the state. He ought to be raising them.”
Just Being Reasonable?
Mr. Bloomberg has argued that his request is reasonable given the state’s fiscal crunch, which is being exacerbated by a $1.1 billion shortfall in state revenue collections. But Republican strategists happily note that this approach also allows the Governor to be seen as delivering the sum requested by the city-making it impossible for Mr. Pataki’s political opponents to blast him for shortchanging the city.
“It’s pretty tough to make the case that the city is being screwed by the state when the Mayor says, ‘We’re O.K. with that,'” noted one senior state Republican.
That’s undoubtedly true. And making matters more worrying for Democrats, Mr. Bloomberg is also in a perfect position to shield the Governor from what is emerging as an attack line of choice: that the Governor failed to show leadership after Sept. 11. Mr. Cuomo shook up political circles several weeks ago when he charged that Mr. Pataki had been overshadowed by Mr. Giuliani in the days after the attack, claiming that Mr. Pataki had merely “held the leader’s coat.”
“Bloomberg is the perfect response to Cuomo’s charge,” the Democrat conceded. “If a popular Mayor says, ‘He’s standing up for New York City,’ that takes the edge off that attack.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Bloomberg has already proven to be extraordinarily helpful on the fund-raising front. He has personally donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state Republican Party, and has already made his Upper East Side mansion available to the Governor, who invited President George W. Bush to a fund-raiser in February. Republicans credit Mr. Bloomberg with helping to dramatically expand Mr. Pataki’s donor base. The Mayor has huge fund-raising capacities, because he combines the fund-raising prowess of City Hall with the Rolodex of a billionaire.
“Bloomberg helped Pataki take the old donor base and add an entirely new group of people,” said one of the Governor’s closest political confidantes. “Now you have liberal Republicans, moderate Democrats in business, previously disinterested professionals. Bloomberg has an extensive array of friends who hadn’t been called on to provide financial support in the past.”
Senior Republicans are hoping to enlist Mr. Bloomberg in an activity that has been considered a political liability for decades: having a statewide candidate campaign upstate alongside a downstate Mayor. Given the intense interest in the city after Sept. 11, Republican strategists are hoping that the novelty value of Mr. Bloomberg will play well in the upstate towns and hamlets that could once be relied on to view New York City Mayors with suspicion. Mr. Bloomberg has already told Republicans that he is prepared to campaign for the Governor outside the city-even though he hasn’t yet been asked. Bob Davis, the chairman of the Erie County Republican Party, recalled recently inviting Mr. Bloomberg to Buffalo for a visit.
“He said, ‘If I can go up and help the Governor, I’ll be there,'” Mr. Davis recalled.
He paused, then added: “I hadn’t even mentioned the Governor.