Bloomberg's Double Deal
One of the most impressive chapters in Michael Bloomberg's mostly charmed political life was his swift upending last fall of the city's term-limits law. Within a few short weeks of his first raising an eyebrow at the mention of a third term, a law twice approved in popular referendums and in effect for 14 years vanished from the books.
Bloomberg's public position—then and now—was that he did so at the urging of citizens alarmed at the prospect of his departure. A swarm of supporters took up his cause and descended on City Hall to convince the City Council to let Mike keep on keeping on. Staff members took days off to help. Former aides volunteered. Employees of city-funded groups showed up out of pure civic concern.
When the mayor's top political operative, a former labor adviser named Patrick Brennan, arranged a City Hall press conference for a group of powerful union leaders to urge the Council to pass the mayor's bill, he too was simply volunteering his time, Bloomberg's people insist.
Brennan helped run Bloomberg's 2005 campaign and served as his commissioner for community assistance before going off to do consulting work, an unspecified portion of which involved the mayor's abortive presidential run.
But like so much in the mayor's ever-expanding political operation, Brennan's voluntary term-limits work was one more Bloomberg sleight of hand. At the same time that he was mustering troops for the Council vote, Brennan was also engaged as the well-paid coordinator of another Bloomberg campaign, this one kept well below the radar.
Records that did not become public until mid-January show that even as Bloomberg was seeking to convince the overwhelmingly Democratic Council to gut the term-limits law, he was self-financing a major push to keep the state Senate in the conservative grip of its longtime Republican majority.
The Senate campaign was quietly launched just as Bloomberg was letting it be known that he would seek a third term. Between August 25 and October 24, he pumped $1.2 million into the state's tiny Independence Party. The donations—by a factor of about 25—were its largest ever. The money produced palm cards, posters, mailings, and foot soldiers, all praising Republican incumbents. In a devious but perfectly legal stunt beloved by parties of both left and right, the campaign was declared to be mere "issue advocacy." This allowed donations and expenditures to stay under wraps until long after Bloomberg's term-limits victory was achieved.
The operation focused on the Queens races of Republicans Serf Maltese (who lost) and Frank Padavan (a narrow winner). The major vehicle for the effort was Brennan's consulting firm, Greyfield Strategies Inc., which pulled in $575,000 to handle ads, mailings, and outreach. Bloomberg pollster Doug Schoen got $75,000 to target voters. Korinne Kubena, another former Bloomberg aide who also worked for Karl Rove in the Bush White House, received $42,000 to handle day-to-day organizing.
The plan to hire these consultants, acknowledged Independence Party chairman Frank MacKay, was worked out with Bloomberg Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey, whose chief portfolio has long been the mayor's political fortunes.
"In many ways, we are the party of Bloomberg," said MacKay, who was an active champion of the mayor's failed presidential bid.
The campaign's timeline closely mirrored Bloomberg's term-limits push: Brennan came on board at $15,000 a month in early September. On October 18—the day before he shepherded the clutch of pro-Bloomberg union officials up the City Hall steps—Brennan was paid $40,000 for "consulting and live-issue calling" in the Senate campaign.
MacKay said it was all fine with him: "I would be thrilled if they doubled up on doing anything to help the mayor," he said.
Brennan wouldn't discuss his work for the Independence Party, or anything else. Howard Wolfson, a Democratic stalwart now backing Bloomberg, spoke on his behalf: "He was a volunteer in conjunction with the term-limits activities," said Wolfson. "It is not unusual for consultants to have more than one client or be involved in more than one thing at the same time," he added.
He's right. But the dividing line between Bloomberg political chores gets murky fast. Take the consultant Brennan, hired for the Queens campaigns to put up posters and distribute literature. Taharka Robinson, whose mother, Annette, is a Democratic assemblywoman in Brooklyn, had previously worked only for Democrats. He said he gladly took on the Republican Senate campaign for the same reason as other recent Bloomberg recruits: "I've got kids," he said.
Robinson was investigated three years ago by both the Brooklyn District Attorney and the Commission on Judicial Conduct after the Voice reported that he had received almost $100,000 from a Brooklyn judicial candidate with no opponent. No charges resulted, and he's since worked admirably on neighborhood issues of violence and merchant price-gouging. In the Independence Party operation, Robinson and Hubert Frye—a consultant who works closely with him—were paid a total of $55,000 for three weeks' work.
In the midst of the campaign, Robinson also showed up at City Hall for the term-limits hearings. His arrival coincided with that of a few dozen New Yorkers who won early access to the Council chambers and were able to commandeer seats in the front rows, where they held pro-Bloomberg signs throughout the hearing. The men and women refused to identify themselves to reporters. Several were spotted later across the street receiving cash from an unidentified individual.
"Someone told me they saw Taharka bring people in a bus," said one Council official who knows him. "I said to him, 'So you're working for the mayor now?' He just laughed."
Wolfson said Robinson played no role in the term-limits drive, and Robinson also denied any involvement. "I was just down there like everyone else, checking out the lay of the land," he said last week.
A few weeks earlier, Brennan and Robinson had overlapped in another state Senate campaign, that of Brooklyn Council member Simcha Felder, who lost his bid against incumbent Kevin Parker in a mostly minority district. In another happy coincidence, Felder happened to be chairman of Governmental Operations—the committee that held the term-limits hearings and whose approval was crucial to the mayor's bill. Felder didn't declare his position until the hearings were over, but no one was surprised when he voted the mayor's way. That's because Bloomberg was Felder's most prominent backer, giving him a strong last-minute endorsement.
Felder paid Brennan's Greyfield Strategies $38,000 for his work. He paid another $68,000 to Robinson's associate, Hubert Frye. At his election night concession speech, Felder singled out Robinson for special thanks and a public hug. "I know his mother," Felder said last week. "We're pretty tight. It was a minority neighborhood, and you look for people who would be supportive." Felder said he wasn't sure whether Robinson was paid, but he said he's never heard of Frye. "I don't know who that is," he said.
Robinson, whose Victory Consulting Group is based in a one-family home owned by Frye on Albany Avenue, refused to describe the duo's working relationship. "We're in the same place, that's it," Robinson said. Frye didn't answer calls.
For his third-term bid, the mayor has vowed to spend some $80 million. Brennan, Kubena, and Wolfson are among his key consultants. The line of once Democrat-only political advisers to Bloomberg's campaign goes around the corner. "I've got to eat," explained one.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.