The Bloomberg Blowout That Wasn't

History's richest campaign wins by a nose

A lot of New Yorkers were still scratching their heads about last week's election results when the mayor's campaign brain trust arrived at the NY1 TV studios the day after the vote to talk about the fine job they'd done. Their candidate, a popular two-term incumbent, had just spent somewhere north of $90 million on his re-election—the most by any local politician in history.

The net result? Nearly 200,000 fewer votes than Mike Bloomberg got the last time he ran.

This impressive shortfall was achieved even though they were up against a candidate who only got pulses racing by shouting, "Eight is enough!" Outgoing city comptroller Bill Thompson's only clear vision of where he wanted to lead the city was that it wasn't where Bloomberg was taking it. Whatever his message, Thompson was sadly outgunned in media buys: 14 Bloomberg bucks were spent for every dollar the comptroller scraped together. Despite those handicaps, the Democrat came in nipping at the mayor's heels, less than 5 percent behind the mighty billionaire. This was after every poll—including the mayor's own internal surveys—had Thompson running behind by double digits, from 12 to 18 percent.

Stan Shaw

Given those facts, you might have expected Team Bloomberg to take their seats at the table with host Michael Scotto looking a little spooked by the near-fatal miss they'd just had on the election highway. If so, this shows you are woefully out of touch with the current craft of bully politics as practiced by modern campaign professionals. Humility is treason, punishable by death or lack of political clients, which is the same thing.

Bloomberg campaign manager Bradley Tusk, communications chief Howard Wolfson, and field director Maura Keaney were as smug and satisfied as if they had just brought an underfunded long shot across the finish line in first place.

"One of the great things about this campaign and our success was making sure that we had a comfortable lead and margin throughout," said Tusk.

High fives all around! We spent the annual budget of a Caribbean nation and managed to barely beat a campaign that never even got to first base!

Tusk's last candidate was a politician named Blagojevich in Illinois who is now hoping not to spend the remainder of his second term in the Leavenworth federal penitentiary. For his Bloomberg work, Tusk has so far been paid $247,000. Another couple of paychecks are due, plus a likely bonus (Bloomberg's last manager, Kevin Sheekey, got a $400,000 reward, plus a $200,000-a-year post on the public's dime as a deputy mayor). Wolfson's firm booked a whopping $440,000; Keaney clocked in at $136,000.

What the Bloomberg Three accomplished for this big money was to barely tread water for six months. The first Marist Institute poll back in May had the mayor at 51 percent and the comptroller at 33. At that point, Bloomberg had already doled out $19 million, more than double Thompson's entire campaign purse. Fast-forward to election night: Bloomberg came in at the same 51 percent; Thompson hiked his tally to 46 percent of the vote.

The way this breaks down when data-driven executives like Bloomberg start crunching the numbers is this: The additional $71 million he spent in the six months between May and November produced absolutely nothing, other than a 13 percent boost for his opponent.

Tusk and company naturally scoff at such math. It is the old way of thinking, they say. It completely ignores the vicious anti-incumbent riptide that was surging through the electorate this year. Just look at what happened to poor Jon Corzine, a fellow billionaire, across the river in New Jersey. That was the Bloomberg Three's mantra: Voters were mad as hell this year, and we alone bucked the tide.

This is another silly fiction adopted at the last minute by people who lack all class. In Corzine's case, the soon-to-be ex-governor was wildly unpopular, and was always viewed as a tough bet. Bloomberg boasted approval ratings that hovered around 60 percent. Corzine fought back to within striking distance, falling just short at the polls; New York's billionaire squandered a nearly 20 point lead.

But enough already about these sore winners. The real debate is taking place on the other side of the fence, where Democrats are still kicking themselves and each other about what might have been. The suspect most frequently cited is Barack Obama, who couldn't even bring himself to do a quick arm-around photo-op with Thompson. Whatever the thinking in the White House, this doesn't say much for party loyalty. But the bigger culprit is even closer to home. The state Democratic Party, under the control of Governor David Paterson, was also AWOL.

"They were totally silent," said Stu Appelbaum, the leader of the retail workers union and one of Thompson's most active supporters. At one point, Appelbaum offered to pick up the cost of a Wolfson-style attack dog for the Democrats to deploy as a counter to Bloomberg's anti-Thompson onslaught. Party officials shrugged.

"This was the biggest, most significant race in the state, and they were missing in action," said Appelbaum. "They should've been out there, revving people up to participate. They could have been involved in fundraising. They did nothing."

Of course, both Paterson and Obama were encouraged to stay out of it by the parade of Democratic stalwarts—unions, politicians, consultants—who backed the candidate of the Republican and Independence parties. All cited the mayor's inevitable victory as their excuse. "I have children to put through college," said a consultant who took the Bloomberg short money after feeding off Democrats for 30 years.

Another stumbling block came from the city's Campaign Finance Board, whose zealous bureaucrats rigidly enforce rules about so-called "coordinated" expenditures by a candidate. Bloomberg, of course, thumbs his nose at the public campaign finance system and spends his fortune any way he wants. Thompson supporters had to constantly look over their shoulders. "We wouldn't even call campaign headquarters," said Scott Sommer, a leader of United Auto Workers Local 2110 (the Voice's union). "We'd look at the public website to see what events were planned."

One of those who never bought the Bloomberg Blowout theory was Arthur Cheliotes, the gentle, goateed leader of a city employees union, Communication Workers Local 1180. Cheliotes often goes his own way. Last year, as a procession of labor officials eager for City Hall favors testified in support of the mayor's term-limits coup, Cheliotes alone took the mic to denounce it.

This year, his members conducted a telephone survey of voters in districts where term-limit support was high. "We connected with 25,000 people. Fifty percent of them said they were voting for Thompson; 2 percent said they were for the mayor. Our numbers showed a close race."

With his executive board's support, Cheliotes independently mounted a series of caustic TV ads. Crafted by adviser Scott Levenson, they lampooned the plutocrat mayor and his pals. One featured a cocktail party of haughty Bloomberg backers; another portrayed an imaginary New York in 2021—with Mayor Mike still in charge. The humor was heavy-handed, but the points hit home. The local, with all of 10,000 members, spent $500,000 to put them up. "They were happy to do it," said Cheliotes. "I'm incredibly proud of them."

How did his labor union colleagues respond to his mini-campaign? "I got slaps on the back. They said, 'Hey, that's a real ballsy move, Cheliotes.' I said, 'Well, I wish a few others were out there with me.' "

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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