By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
When Mike Bloomberg named Bradley Tusk to run his $80 million re-election campaign in December, the mayor took pains to explain that his new 35-year-old hire was not tainted by his most prominent prior employer—Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who had been arrested just three days earlier.
Tusk "never had anything to do with parts of that administration," Bloomberg told the Times. He knew this, he explained, because Tusk, Blagojevich's first-term Deputy Governor, had told him so, bringing it up himself "to make sure we were aware of the issues" before he was given the all-powerful campaign manager post.
Since Bloomberg made that announcement, he has derisively dismissed press questions about the campaign as if it were unconnected to him. The message from him is clear: The self-vetted Tusk is now in charge, handpicking, for example, the most expensive collection of advisers ever assembled under a single city campaign.
That team of seasoned consultants, including the face of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, Howard Wolfson, now all report to the youthful Tusk, who has never worked on a campaign, even at the most junior level. Tusk's career—other than his four years as Blagojevich's top aide—consists of five years of leash law and litter policy at the New York City Parks Department, two years as a spokesman for Senator Charles Schumer, one year as a low-level adviser at the start of Bloomberg's first term, and nearly two years as a lobbyist for another 2008 debacle, Lehman Brothers.
Since the Blagojevich job is Tusk's only significant managerial experience, it oddly becomes the rationale for his hire, an uncomfortable reality for a mayor known to pick the best talent available. Having shunted aside Kevin Sheekey and Bill Cunningham, who steered Bloomberg's prior campaigns, the mayor settled on Tusk, says Wolfson, because he wanted "a fresh perspective." (Maybe it's the mayor who's grown stale.)
Tusk is now in charge of an operation that has promised—on the front page of the Times, no less—to spend $20 million on attack ads against anyone who dares get in the way of the mayor's trifecta. While many New Yorkers will never come to know who Tusk is over the course of the coming months, his message for Mike will be coming at us in our living rooms and mailboxes at a peak rate of millions of dollars a week.
If Tusk succeeds, his strategy will shape the city's public life for the next four crisis years. He's not the mayor, of course, but he is, right now, the second most important player in our politics, orchestrating the frontrunner's every move, dispensing a fortune in a time of scarcity, studying the best polls about our fears, and guiding our fingers invisibly toward whichever column carries Bloomberg's name on November's ballot.
That's why it's important to know all about the last sale Tusk made: helping to re-elect Rod Blagojevich in 2006 from his post at the helm of Blagojevich's government. And that's why Bloomberg's embrace of him—without any independent examination of his record in Illinois—raises questions about a mayor who increasingly appears to act and speak on impulse, having traded in the open mind for thoughtful detail that characterized him when he first ran for mayor.
Unlike so many other onetime Blagojevich supporters, Tusk has yet to say one critical word about the former governor. Though communications jobs have been a big part of his biography, he doesn't talk to the media now, an indication, perhaps, that there are too many questions that he prefers not to answer.
The Voice submitted several broad questions to Wolfson, and he eventually e-mailed a partial reply. He said that Tusk had done "policy, budget, operations, legislation, and communication" for Blagojevich, not "procurement, appointments, hiring, or grants," a separation so artificial that no one who has ever spent a day at a top executive level in a large government would make it. This story shows how misleading that answer is, and how the Blagojevich experience compromised the young Bradley Tusk.
The Chicago Sun-Times compared Tusk to Karl Rove, the Tribune called him "the center of gravity," Crain's said he was "as inside as you can get," and Republican State Senator Kirk Dillard called him a "junkyard dog protector of the governor" with "immense power and influence."
"Love him or hate him, Tusk was your governor in the first term. He made everything happen, and those of you on this committee who knew him knew that to be true," wrote Bob Arya in a nine-page letter to the Illinois House impeachment panel recently. Arya is an Emmy-winning television journalist who has covered Blagojevich and became his communications director shortly before Tusk left.
Even Tusk was less modest than he is now about the scope of the job that lured him away from Bloomberg's City Hall in 2003: "If anything, it ended up being bigger than I expected," he said in a departing interview at the end of 2006. "I don't know of any policy decisions that got made without me involved." And perhaps more disquieting, as late as 2005, he was telling reporters he was "pretty dedicated to this guy," adding that he and Blagojevich had "hit it off so well."