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Michael Bloomberg arrived at the Working Families Party mayoral forum last Thursday evening, determined to add one more bauble to his political collection. New York's wealthiest man strolled confidently into a hall packed with union members and community organizers.
He carried a red binder and was trailed by a retinue of aides. There were a lot of them because Bloomberg is the best-paying employer in politics. Above all else, he is a magnificent salesman, and one of his top selling points is this: You, too, can have a piece of me.
This pitch has already won him endorsements by the Republican and Independence parties, both of which he has scorned in recent years. Persuaded by the mayor's high poll numbers and always tantalizing wealth, those parties quickly got over any hurt feelings. Did the mayor say two years ago that political parties "don't stand for anything"? Did he shed his Republican registration as if he were scraping gum off his shoe? Well, what of it? That was then, and this is now.
Now it's the turn of the Working Families Party to face this mayor's seductive charms, and even this high-minded organization is having a tough time of it. Party leaders insist that a Bloomberg endorsement is the longest of long shots. The real question, they say, is whether Bloomberg's low-key rival, city comptroller William Thompson, can get the designation, or whether the little party's mayoral ballot line will remain safely blank, just as it was in 2005 when the last Democratic candidate, Freddy Ferrer, faced off against the free-spending Bloomberg.
But the same officials—who got a taste of Bloomberg largesse last summer when four of his closest friends donated $60,000 to the party—refuse to rule out a possible Bloomberg nod. Others, with ties to some of the powerful unions that sit on the party's decision-making committee, adamantly maintain that when Working Families chooses a candidate this Thursday, it will be none other than Michael R. Bloomberg.
If so, it will be a consumer fraud on par with Bernie Madoff's investment earnings reports. Just 10 months ago, when the mayor decided he wanted to change the rules so that he could win the third term he is now seeking, no group stood taller in opposition than Working Families. The law was clear, the party maintained, confirmed by two separate public referendums.
"This is a power grab, plain and simple," party director Dan Cantor thundered at a City Hall rally in October. "This is about the rules of the game and that, in our democracy, you don't get to change them in the fourth quarter just because you want to keep playing."
Inside the City Council, the fiercest resistance to the move came from the party's closest allies: Bill De Blasio and Tish James, both of Brooklyn, held repeated press conferences and joined lawsuits against the mayor's legislation. James is the only member of the Council to have won election on the Working Families line alone; DeBlasio is now its candidate for Public Advocate.
The party formed a coalition with good government groups equally appalled by the mayor's heavy-handed maneuver. They dispatched organizers into the streets carrying a petition opposing his bill. They posted the mayor's own comments on term limits, uttered just three years earlier, prominently atop their website: "I think it would be an absolute disgrace to go around the public will."
But on Thursday evening, at the Hotel Trades Council on West 44th Street, where the party and its troops gathered to hear the candidates, that term-limits rancor was so far in the rearview mirror that party officials never even raised the subject.
Instead, Bloomberg was asked the same questions posed by a panel of party members as Thompson and Queens Council member Tony Avella. It was an open-book quiz. The candidates had the questions well in advance. The only wild cards were follow-up queries by party co-chairperson Bob Master, of the Communication Workers of America, and a last, unannounced "bonus" question, by party chief Cantor.
Members in the union hall were given a blue sheet that listed the questions, and were asked to rank the candidates' responses. "One being the least," emcee Mike McGuire of the Laborers union explained, "and five being the best."
Bloomberg went first, plopping the heavy red binder beside him on the podium. Even by the fairest scoring, from a Working Families perspective, the mayor quickly whiffed on at least six of eight topics. On two others—creating "green" jobs and paid sick days for all workers—he merely punted.
No, he was not interested in promoting prevailing wage rules—a key party demand—to cover all of the city's projects. "It's just not possible," he said.
No, he wasn't about to fire schools chancellor Joel Klein, whose sharp-elbowed manner has so antagonized leaders of the city's teachers union, another key party constituency. "We've got the right guy," said Bloomberg.
No, he had neither explanation nor apology for party member Annette Jimenez, who complained that her daughter's successful Harlem public school was being pushed aside to make way for a charter school.
No, he wasn't going to change his position on extending federal housing vouchers to the homeless, despite the fact that family homelessness has soared under his watch. His deputy mayor for social services didn't think it was a good idea. Oh.
No, he didn't want to reform city rent regulations that have helped spawn the city's affordable housing crisis. "It is pretty hard to get evicted," the mayor told a stunned-looking Kenny Schaeffer, housing expert and Working Families stalwart.
No, he would not substitute an added tax levy on wealthy New Yorkers for the regressive sales tax he's now seeking, the mayor told Al Luzzi of the Communications Workers. "Albany raised taxes already," Bloomberg said in obvious distaste to members of a party that was the sparkplug behind that effort.
As for non-partisan elections—the measure aggressively promoted by the cult-like Independence Party and defeated in a bitter 2003 referendum by Working Families and its allies—the mayor forthrightly said he was still for them.
Bloomberg gave equally short shrift to Cantor's final inquiry. Would he not consider public campaign financing—another key party goal—since "your great personal fortune turns what should be a fair fight, politically speaking, into an uneven contest"?
"I made every dime I have," the billionaire haughtily responded. "You can't ever have a totally fair election," he added, using his fingers as quotation marks. "Some people went to better schools than others; some people are luckier in the families that they're born into." So that's the reason.
Sitting in the audience, Lillian Gorman, a longtime party loyalist and East Side tenant activist, circled a steady series of "1's" indicating "Very Bad" on her score sheet. "The arrogance of it," she said, shaking her head. What would she do if the mayor got the party's nomination, she was asked. She looked startled. "Well, I'd quit," she said.
A few minutes later, Bill Thompson took the podium. He did not set the room afire, often reading his answers. But he did have this comment which had to resonate even with those Working Families officials so eager to give their ballot line to a generous mayor overwhelmingly favored to win: "This line means something," Thompson reminded them. "It has principles. It has core beliefs. I believe I represent those beliefs."