Michael Steele, chairman of Republican National Committee, met with Michael Bloomberg at a private reception in midtown yesterday afternoon, then walked outside and told reporters he’s not getting involved in the mayor’s race.
“We don’t endorse at this level. We focus on what the leadership here in the state and county and local level, what they do, because they’re closest to the ground,” said Steele. “They know all the circumstances, the realities, the ups and downs of it. So, I tend to trust their judgment.”
When asked about Bloomberg leaving the Republican Party, Steele said, “Well, it always bothers me when someone leaves the party. If you left the party, if you were in it, I would be upset, because you take it as personal.”
Rudy Giuliani, standing with one foot inside a black Cadillac sedan outside the event, told reporters, “The fact is Mike is an independent. That is what he really is. But the Republican Party has embraced independents before.”
I asked how troublesome it would be for Republicans to back Bloomberg.
“That’s the reason he’s having some trouble getting Republicans. If he hadn’t left the party, this would be a no-brainer,” said Giuliani. “There’s no question that Republicans are upset about that.”
But, he added, “I think they have to put that aside and say to themselves, ‘What’s best for my city?’ I think they’re going to conclude, with very few exceptions, that Bloomberg is best for the city [and] overcome the kind of political hurt they feel.”
The event, held at the Women's National Republican Club headquarters on East 51st Street, was billed as a chance for Republican Party members to meet the new national chairman. Reporters were kept outside as guests lined up to enter, many expressing surprise that there was a line to get into a Republican event in New York City.
Steele told reporters afterward that during the event he chatted with Bloomberg. “I asked him how the city was running," Steele said. "He said 'pretty good.' He asked me how the party was going. I said, ‘Eh, we’re working on it.’”
People who attended the reception said Steele was adopting a Howard Dean-esque stance toward reviving his party.
One attendee quotes Steele as having said, “Leave no neighborhood unvisited—there is no area of the country that is off-limits.”
The attendee added that “the tone and spirit was very similar” to that of Dean, who, as DNC chair, advocated an ultimately successful "50-state" strategy of party building in both Republican and Democratic areas of the country.
Steele told the audience at one point that they they needed to expand the party's outreach, and accept into their ranks those that haven’t subscribed entirely to the party’s orthodoxy. He picked three people in the room at random, and said each one may wear their baseball hat differently—one to the left, one to the right and one backward.
“But what counts is that they all say G.O.P.” Steele said, according to the attendee.
After the event, on the sidewalk with reporters, Steele indicated he was urging the Republican Party to adopt a big-tent approach—primarily out of need.
“We recognize we got independents, we got Democrats, we got others out there that we’re going to need to get. If every Republican in any given district in any given state vote, we still don’t necessarily win the election. That means we got to do that extra work.”
One person leaving the event, Queens County Republican Chairman Phil Ragusa, walked out smiling.
“I thought he was fantastic,” said Ragusa, who said he agreed with Steele’s notion of a big-tent approach. “I think that’s what the Republican Party is.”
I asked if that gave reason for Ragusa, a critic of Bloomberg, to back him for reelection. Ragusa smiled, and his aide, Vince Tabone, stepped in to say there is a screening process currently under way.
Two women who left the event and lit up cigarettes near the front door said they are Republican district leaders and “social conservatives” who have not supported Bloomberg in the past.
They said they were unhappy with the direction in which Steele is leading the party. One of the women said she did not hear Steele actually use the phrase “big tent,” but she added, “We’re social conservatives. We can read the code. Not everybody can. We’re afraid it might be leading to a change in the platform. Because the platform right now is pro-life.”
This woman said Steele spoke at length about the many party members making more than $200,000 annually. “It’s the party of people who want to earn money,” she said. [corrected]
The woman said, “That’s really the problem in New York State. It’s the party of the rich, not the party of the social conservatives.”
Bloomberg left the event after about 25 minutes. With a trail of reporters following him, he walked down 51st Street to the corner of Fifth Avenue, where his S.U.V. was waiting. He ignored questions from reporters. He did, however, stop to give a high-five to a young boy after the boy's mother told the mayor that it was his birthday. Then Bloomberg was off.