Bloomberg's Loyal Cult: The Independence Party

Despite mayor's term-limits flip, Independence Party says all is forgiven

In a sign of true affection, Michael Bloomberg kisses his Independence Party friends continental-style, on both cheeks. You can see it in a wonderful clip on their website (independentvoting.org), where he thanks Jackie Salit, the elegant and devoted aide to party leader Fred Newman and the woman who ran both of Bloomberg's Independence Party campaigns: kiss to the left—pause, switch cheeks—kiss to the right. They do not miss a beat. It is a lovely little minuet performed by two regal dancers.

On Sunday, they were together again at the Avalon Hotel on East 32nd Street, where the mayor happily sought the Independence Party's endorsement. The party's executive committee considered no other candidates. The mayor spoke for 20 minutes and then, after the media was ushered from the room, answered questions from the committee for another half-hour. He left, amid another flurry of kisses, without speaking to the press.

It is Bloomberg's third time as the party's candidate, which may be one reason they have the kissing part down pat. The mayor twice ran and won on the Republican and Independence party lines, and he is halfway to that goal again, now that the small third party nomination is nailed down. There are few doubts that he'll get the Republican nod as well. It is just taking a little longer for GOP leaders to get over their hurt feelings after Bloomberg publicly quit their party two years ago.

In all likelihood, New Yorkers will get a ballot that lists Bloomberg's name twice, thus giving voters two cracks at pulling the lever for him. This is called fusion politics. A lot of states don't allow it, insisting that if voters are so slow that they can't recognize the name of their chosen candidate the first time they see it, then they probably shouldn't be in the voting booth at all. In New York, we are more understanding, and fusion tickets are a long and cherished tradition here.

The city's two great reform mayors—Seth Low and Fiorello LaGuardia—owed their elections to fusion parties that gave them this crucial extra ballot line. Both men won enough votes this way to beat the old Democratic Tammany clubhouse tiger into submission. Back then, the Fusion Party was an alliance of good government groups and public-minded citizens outraged by the corruption plaguing city government. LaGuardia got Fusion backing only after the great corruption buster himself—Judge Samuel Seabury—said LaGuardia was his man.

Fusion politics is a little different now. LaGuardia had Judge Seabury, relentless investigator and zealous reformer. Bloomberg has Fred Newman, self-proclaimed philosopher and "social therapist."

Newman has been ailing, and failed to make the Sunday meeting at the hotel. But he was ably represented by his protégés, including Salit, the inimitable Lenora Fulani, and a host of other lieutenants who have loyally followed his lead for many years.

For those unfamiliar with Newman and his many groups, there are ample sources to consult. There is his own basic text, Let's Develop!: A Guide to Continuous Personal Growth, which includes his prescription for what he calls "friendosexuality." Roughly translated, this means that mental health can be reached by sleeping with your friends. There is a more rigorous intellectual explanation in Newman's Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist, which is billed as a tribute to the "brilliant Russian psychologist."

Newman is also a prolific playwright: His works include Diary of a Mad Therapist, Dead as a Jew, and Outing Wittgenstein (Or Sunday in the Park With Ludwig).

There is also a tape of a marvelous interview conducted by NY1's Rita Nissan in 2005 in the midst of the controversy over the party's support of Bloomberg in the last re-election drive. Nissan spoke to Newman in the Bank Street townhouse that he shares with Salit and several other men and women. Newman collected some of these housemates, he acknowledged, after they sought him out as a therapist. One of his live-in friends is the $200,000-a-year president of the All Stars Project, the nonprofit group that received $9.5 million in tax-free bonds from the city with Bloomberg's support after his 2001 election.

"I don't think it's any of the state's business who my dearest loves are," Newman told Nissan.

Many who joined Newman's program after seeking therapy later fled, insisting that his operation is little more than a cult. That is ridiculous, Newman says, citing the scores of folks who readily work with him.

Bloomberg is back for another round with this crew, thanks to the City Council vote last fall to extend term limits. There were some very powerful speeches made by those opposing the move that day. But watching Salit and the crowd surrounding Bloomberg on Sunday at the hotel made you wonder if the most effective speech in the chamber that October afternoon might have been this: "Has anyone here considered the fact that if we approve this bill, we are going to have to deal with Fred Newman and the Independence Party all over again?"

Speaking of the term limits vote, some of the strongest attacks on the mayor at the Council hearings came from Fulani, the feisty self-described "developmental psychologist" who has long been presented by Newman as the Independence Party's public face.

"What a difference a taste of power makes," she testified. "It is one thing to change your mind about an issue, it is another thing to betray the principles that inspired people to support you."

Pretty tough talk. In fact, term limits is supposed to be one of the cornerstones of Independence Party philosophy. It ranks as number two on the party's "Key Structural Electoral Reforms," right after same-day voter registration (the mayor is apparently still thinking about that one). The party's platform is even more explicit: Legislators should get just 12 years in office; executives, only eight.

Salit told reporters after Bloomberg left on Sunday that party members had pressed the mayor about his term limits flip-flop, but that they were satisfied with his explanation that it was a one-time thing. She said he also assured the party that, if re-elected, he will hold a referendum to reinstall term limits.

Asked if the mayor had pledged a specific amount of money to support the party this year, Salit was understandably coy. The mayor had assured them that "ample resources will be brought to bear," she said with a smile. In Bloomberg talk, this is always a seven-figure number. Back in 2003, the mayor spent $7 million on a losing referendum on the party's demand for nonpartisan elections.

That was all her and Newman's idea, Salit wrote in a 2007 memo on the party's website. She said that Newman and she had first put the nonpartisan-elections idea in Bloomberg's head back in 2001 during meetings at the townhouse leading up to their first endorsement. Still, she griped, Bloomberg didn't spend enough to win. He'd spent the entire $7 million on "a direct-mail campaign, though I had asked him to spend much more and to include funding for TV commercials and a ground operation." It was, Salit wrote, "a classic case of too little, too late."

These folks do not come cheap. Neither does the other political figure the mayor spent last week courting, the Reverend Al Sharpton. As Newman himself has acknowledged, back in the early '90s, he spent a lot of time grooming Sharpton's political talents. The Rev later went out on his own, leaving Newman's team smarting that he'd been ungrateful. Now, Mayor Bloomberg is bringing everybody back together under one big, happy political tent. Keep your eye out for lots of smooching on both cheeks.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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