By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
There's media tycoon Michael Bloomberg on the cover of Business Week. There he is being profiled in Newsweek, in the Times of London, even Variety. Not bad, the kind of publicity you can generate when you have a few billion dollars and start talking about running for political office.
Ask Donald Trump, who dangled his possible presidential candidacy before a mesmerized media last yearjust in time to promote his new book. Awestruck boxing impresario Don King, who knows something about drawing a crowd, called Trump's brief bid "one of the greatest promotions of all time."
In fact, at this stage of Bloomberg's aborning mayoral campaignthat is, pre-announcement, pre-endorsements, pre-position papersthere's little to distinguish him from any other fabulously rich businessman running for office.
Stop to think about it, aside from the accent and a few zeros in their net worth columns, what's the difference between Bloomberg and New York's other rich, frank-talking businessman candidate, Abe Hirschfeld?
And lo, here's Abe now, on the phone from the Queens House of Detention, where he's finishing up his one-to-three-year sentence for conspiring to do away with a former business partner. Abe's got a ringing endorsement.
"Bloomberg? His accomplishments are tremendous. He runs such an efficient organization. If he runs the city, he will do it the same way. Do I support him? Absolutely 100 percent. No question about it. I back him. A rich man only has success. What he can do for himself, he can do for others."
Nor should Bloomberg worry about spending too much running for office, Hirschfeld advised. "If he wants to spend the money in the election and that's the law of the nation, then God bless him. At least he is not going to spend the money on girls like President Clinton," said the 81-year-old inmate, who offered $1 million to settle Paula Jones's sex-harassment lawsuit against the former president (the check bounced).
From the prison pay phone, Hirschfeld lapsed into a string of off-color jokes about Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. But never mind, this was the voice of experience talking. Over a 25-year span, Hirschfeld ran for office eight times, including three tries at the U.S. Senate and campaigns for state comptroller, lieutenant governor, and Manhattan borough president. Once he was even electedas a Miami Beach city commissioner.
Despite his chronic zaniness, Hirschfeld has always been taken quite seriously by party leaders and elected officials for the simple reason that he writes large checks. In the '70s, grateful Democratic state officials named him treasurer of the party and a member of the electoral collegeego-stroking positions that kept him happy, while well away from the engine controls. Even years after Hirschfeld began showing signs of extreme dislocation (spitting at people, etc.), some of the nation's top political consultants remained all too happy to work for him. As late as 1997, when Hirschfeld was already under state indictment for tax fraud, Republican campaign whizzes Ed Rollins and Kieran Mahoney went on Hirschfeld's payroll to pilot his hopeless run for Manhattan borough president (he had the Republican and Independent lines). Last spring, as Hirschfeld was being tried and convicted of trying to hire a hit man to kill his business partner of 20 years, the state Conservative Party happily accepted his $10,000 donation.
But on that score, experience has made Hirschfeld wiser. He's not the easy mark he may once have been, he insists. The Polish-born parking-garage magnate has lost weight in jail, but he's lost none of the vigor that made him chase the elusive political prize so often. In February, Hirschfeld was dragged shouting out of a Queens courtroom, where he was accused of bilking a co-op complex, after he began showering insults on the judge and his own lawyer. "[Bloomberg] should listen to himselfnot the consultants," urged Hirschfeld. "Consultantsthose are the mistakes I made. I don't want to complain about them, but they really did nothing, with all my millions they took."
Hirschfeld's money (estimate: $100 million) came from his string of parking garages and a hugely successful health club. Bloomberg's wealth (estimate: $4 billion) comes from a growing financial news and technology empire. Bloomberg has said he won't spend as much on his race as New Jersey's billionaire senator, Jon Corzine, who shelled out $65 million last year. But Bloomberg might spend as much as $20 million.
For now, Bloomberg isn't saying what he's paying anyone. And he doesn't have to until his first financial filings are due with the city's Board of Elections this summer. But his consultant payroll is already loaded with high-paid talent. David Garth, who helped put John Lindsay, Ed Koch, and Rudy Giuliani into City Hall, is in charge overall. When he was being interviewed by other candidates last year, Garth's asking price was $25,000 a month and 15 percent of the cost of TV ads. Insiders say Garth is charging the billionaire much more. Also aboard is Clinton's former polling firm, Penn and Schoen, and public-relations expert Maureen Connelly.
"I don't know what they are being paid, and we won't be saying until we make our required filings," said Bloomberg spokesman Bill Cunningham, another seasoned vet, who worked for former senator Pat Moynihan.