When the City Council’s Republicans voted against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s property-tax increase last year, an angry Mayor froze them out of the West Wing of City Hall.
But in a sign of the shifting political landscape, this year Mr. Bloomberg is seeking out Republicans to stand next to him at press conferences. The Council’s Republicans, however, are making it clear that they want no high-profile endorsements from the poll-challenged Mayor.
At a lunch last month, the leader of the three-member Republican minority, James Oddo, told the Mayor’s senior adviser and house Republican, Vincent La Padula, that if Mr. Bloomberg wants to endorse them, they’d prefer he did with a quiet press release. The Republicans also skipped Mr. Bloomberg’s City Hall endorsement last week of a Council candidate from the Upper East Side.
“It’s not a good situation to put us all together, because the questions are obvious,” Mr. Oddo, a Staten Islanderwho clashed with Mr. Bloomberg ontheproperty-tax
increase, told The Observer. “Our focus should be on creating a good, everyday working relationship with the Mayor. I don’t know if that’s necessarily helped by having an awkward press conference.”
Mr. Oddo is running for re-election in this year’s limited off-year Council elections, and his reluctance to be on the receiving end of the Mayor’s blessing puzzled Ed Skyler, Mr. Bloomberg’s spokesman. “I can’t imagine that the Council member would say that, considering how little problem he has sitting next to the Mayor whenever he travels to Staten Island to make press announcements,” Mr. Skyler said. Staten Island is the most Republican borough in the city and helped provide both Mr. Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani with their first-term margins of victory.
The Republicans’ demurral highlights the persistent gap between Mr. Bloomberg and G.O.P. voters, whom he’s trying to charm back to his camp with an effort that has included a sudden, intense focus on Staten Island’s neighborhood concerns. Mr. Oddo’s decision is also a worrying sign for the Mayor’s ability to survive a possible Republican primary challenge in 2005. In recent weeks, political insiders have speculated that the Mayor may face a challenge from people like Representative Vito Fossella of Staten Island, and former Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik. Former Council member Thomas Ognibene already has thrown his hat into the ring.
A loss in the G.O.P. primary might not be fatal-in 1969, incumbent John Lindsay lost a Republican primary to State Senator John Marchi of Staten Island, but he won re-election running on the Liberal Party line. But a primary defeat is not an appealing prospect for a man who certainly will face a strong Democratic challenge in two years. And if Staten Island’s Republican elected officials won’t stand next to the Mayor, it figures that he can’t count on the borough’s Republican-leaning voters.
The Republicans say their constituents are not happy with Mr. Bloomberg.
The Mayor “should be concerned” about a Republican primary, said another Republican Council member, Dennis Gallagher of Queens. He added that he didn’t want the Mayor’s endorsement because he doesn’t have a competitive election in November. “Among the middle-class taxpaying citizens, like the ones that were in my district, there’s a sense that government doesn’t understand how the middle class feels and how difficult it is to make ends meet.”
Mr. La Padula has organized a spate of press conferences to highlight Mr. Bloomberg’s endorsements of various Republican candidates as part of an effort to protect the Mayor’s right flank. But that series won’t include any of the three Republican incumbents-Mr. Oddo, Mr. Gallagher or Andrew Lanza of Staten Island. Mr. La Padula declined to comment on future endorsements. Mr. Oddo and Mr. Lanza said they’d welcome a press release from the Mayor, a method usually reserved for minor officials or groups a politician doesn’t have time for.
With the Council members taking a pass on his press conferences, Mr. Bloomberg reached down to the B-list in early October for a rare endorsement on the steps of City Hall. There, the Mayor lavished praise on Jennifer Arangio, a long-shot challenger to Council Speaker Gifford Miller. The Mayor did so over the objections of some aides, insiders said. And the press conference turned out as Mr. Oddo predicted: awkward.
At the root of the lingering tensions between Mr. Bloomberg and the Republicans is the question of taxes. The three incumbent Republican Council members voted against the tax hike, hanging tea bags from their microphones to recall the Boston Tea Party. It was the Democrats, led by Mr. Miller, who drove the 18.5 percent increase through. At a celebratory dinner this January, Mr. Bloomberg praised the Democrats’ “courage” and pledged his support for them-prompting Mr. Oddo and his Staten Island colleague, Mr. Lanza, to storm out after the salad.
Outside City Hall on Oct. 10, Mr. Bloomberg didn’t want to dwell on his old promise or Mr. Miller, and the press conference turned weird not long after the Mayor smilingly escorted a visibly pregnant Ms. Arangio down the sunny steps.
“She’s got a career-a White House Fellow,” he told reporters.
“White House former intern,” she corrected.
“Intern,” Mr. Bloomberg repeated. “I’ve been to the White House a couple of times-it’s very impressive. So congratulations on that,” said the Mayor.
Asked about his pledge of support to the Council Democrats who voted for the tax hike-and were loudly announcing their feelings of betrayal over his endorsement of Ms. Arangio-Mr. Bloomberg appeared a bit irritated.
“I’ve tried to work very hard to help anybody that’s done what’s right for this city, including people that were at any dinners that I’ve ever been at,” he told reporters. “That doesn’t mean I can’t endorse people.”
While Mr. Bloomberg did his best to make the Republicans feel loved-“She first came to my attention because she is a Republican, I might point out, the party that gave me the opportunity to make a real difference,” he said-he couldn’t bring himself to criticize Ms. Arangio’s opponent.
“I think Gifford Miller has done a good job as the Speaker of the City Council,” Mr. Bloomberg said, standing beside Mr. Miller’s challenger.
A Chase Scene
The exchange, which culminated with reporters chasing Ms. Arangio back up the steps as she dodged questions about her position on the property-tax vote, provoked a rare, sharp counterattack from Mr. Miller’s camp, which has generally avoided taking on Mr. Bloomberg directly.
“Given that he’s less popular than Gray Davis, we’re not terribly concerned,” Mr. Miller’s communications director, Christopher Policano, told reporters after watching the spectacle from a seat on the steps.
This was exactly the sort of thing Mr. Oddo was looking to avoid when he declined Mr. La Padula’s invitation. The feud between the wiry 37-year-old Republican and the Mayor’s staff has been a source of entertainment in City Hall since Mr. Oddo attacked Mr. Bloomberg’s communications director, William Cunningham, in an open letter. Mr. Cunningham, a Democrat, “would not know a Republican principle if he tripped over Abe Lincoln and fell into Ronald Reagan’s lap,” he wrote.
“My sense of the problem always [concerned] certain people around the Mayor, and I don’t think that’ll ever change,” Mr. Oddo said this week. Nonetheless, he says he’s trying to repair his frayed relationship with the Mayor and was afraid a contentious press conference would derail that effort.
Mr. Bloomberg, animated by a new political energy, has also been working to repair the divide, lending Mr. Oddo public support on the key local issue of overdevelopment on Staten Island. Blocking new construction is hardly an ideologically Republican stand-or typical of Mr. Bloomberg’s approach-but it’s the hot issue on the island, and the Mayor’s tour of construction sites over the summer was welcomed by some officials there. “It’s a big positive,” Mr. Oddo said.
But while the Republican incumbents are shy of the Mayor, several challengers already have accepted Mr. Bloomberg’s endorsement publicly, or soon will. Mr. Bloomberg recently endorsed a Queens Republican, Phil Ragusa, and a campaign official said that he expects an endorsement soon for a Brooklyn Republican, Patrick Russo.
“He is the Mayor of New York, and all agencies report to him-when I get elected, I want to have a good relationship with him,” Mr. Ragusa said. “I disagree with him on the tax increase, but I think I can work with him.”
Other challengers on the right aren’t so sure.
“I don’t think a Mayoral endorsement would help me. He’s certainly not very popular in our district,” said Patrick Hurley, a social conservative running against Democrat Eric Gioia in Woodside, Queens. “I would welcome an endorsement from Mayor Giuliani.”