Michael Bloomberg didn't always walk on eggshells around his most controversial supporter, Lenora Fulani. While the mayor belatedly criticized the leader of the city's Independence Party for referring to Jews as "mass murderers," he stopped short of calling for her ouster from the party, and still accepted its endorsement this year even though it meant working closely with Fulani's allies. It wasn't always thus. Back at the height of the tumultuous 2001 mayoral campaign, the Republican billionaire boldly called Fulani out when she said America bore part of the blame for the 9-11 attacks.
But when Fulani's Independence Party cohorts barked back, threatening in a lawsuit to boot Bloomberg from their ballot line, the tough talk quickly vanished. Instead of the disavowal he'd demanded for what he'd angrily called "anti-American" comments by Fulani, Bloomberg quietly settled for the lawsuit's withdrawal. He then went on to narrowly win the mayoral election with the 59,000 votes he got on the Independence Party ticket. Once in office, he granted Fulani and her self-described mentor, therapy cult leader Fred Newman, a steady stream of favors, including high-level City Hall meetings, tax-free city bond financing, and his personal support for their youth organization.
The details of the all-but-forgotten showdown between Bloomberg and Fulani's supporters remain murky since neither side is interested in revisiting it. Despite being heavily favored to win re-election, Bloomberg has clung to the Independence Party's Row C ballot line like a safety rope, an alternative for true-blue Democrats who may like Mike but despise the GOP too much to pull the Republican lever. Fulani's crew has also prospered from the partnership, with Bloomberg pumping more than $270,000 into party coffers this election.
But records filed in the October 2001 lawsuit, and interviews with those involved, confirm that Bloombergin his first and only direct confrontation with Fulani's shrill tonguemeekly backed down after being confronted with the possibility of losing a ballot line deemed vital to his campaign.
The episode began just four days after the collapse of the World Trade Center, when Fulani wrote in an open letter that the event, while a tragedy, was "all too much the result of how America has positioned itself in the world." In the rush for revenge, she stated, "it is easy to forget that the attack . . . itself was an act of revenge."
First to condemn her remarks was state Independence Party chairman Frank MacKay, then in his own tenuous alliance with Newman's followers, who rushed out a statement criticizing Fulani's letter. MacKay, however, had no control over the local party apparatus which, then as now, is firmly in the grip of Fulani's allies.
Bloomberg's camp also saw a potential for political damage. The mogul's once dismal election prospects were on the rise as New Yorkers suddenly focused more on security needs than governmental experience. Having a campaign ally suggest that the attack was some kind of third-world payback didn't help that effort.
"Absolutely appalling" is how Bloomberg described Fulani's letter in the New York Post on September 20. "Anyone who thinks the United States is in any way to blame for this cowardly attack is out of their mind," he said. He went on to issue an ultimatum, drawing a clear line in the sand. "If the leadership of the Independence Party does not renounce Ms. Fulani and her anti-American views," he vowed, "then I will not campaign on their line, and I will urge people not to vote for any candidate on that line, myself included."
No further public volleys were fired after that. What happened next was described in a "Dear Mike" letter sent by Cathy Stewart, the party's Manhattan chairwoman and a Newman-Fulani stalwart. In the September 26 note, Stewart told Bloomberg she was seeking "clarification" regarding his "intentions vis à vis the Independence Party."
On September 19, Stewart wrote, she had received a phone call from Bloomberg political adviser Bill Cunningham "in which I was instructed that the Independence Party had to 'disavow' " Fulani's comments. "Bill told me that if we did not disavow Dr. Fulani and her statement that you would disavow us."
Stewart said she informed Cunningham that the party would never disavow Fulani because "we respect the right of all of our members to speak out on whatever issues they choose." Shortly after that conversation, Stewart said the party received a call from a New York Post reporter asking for comment on a Bloomberg statement denouncing Fulani. "I presume the intent here was to use the Post, which has been hostile to your relationship to the Independence Party from the start, to reinforce your threat of a disavowal," she wrote.
Stewart then threw down a gauntlet of her own: "We do not permit others to dictate to the party how we conduct our affairs." What remained unclear, she said, was whether Bloomberg's threat to "inflict damage" on the party still stood. If so, she stated, "we will respond accordingly." Just what that meant became clear on October 3, when party attorney and longtime Newman acolyte Harry Kresky filed a lawsuit, Cathy L. Stewart v. Michael R. Bloomberg, in Manhattan Supreme Court. In an affidavit, Stewart said that since Bloomberg hadn't responded to her September 26 letter, the party should be allowed to substitute a new choice for mayor. The suit landed on the docket of a liberal Democratic judge, who scheduled a hearing on the matter for October 9.
MacKay, the state party chairman, said that when he learned of the lawsuit he gave it little chance of success, since it was filed well after the candidate substitution period had passed. What Newman's troops were especially disturbed about, MacKay said, was that Bloomberg's campaign had stopped dealing with Newman's top political operative, Jacqueline Salit, who was working out of Bloomberg's headquarters.
But MacKay soon got a call from "a top state Republican" who had helped arrange Bloomberg's Independence Party candidacy. The GOP figure had originally predicted that Bloomberg's chances depended on having a second party line on the ballot, and he was now anxious for MacKay to get his friends to withdraw the lawsuit before "some Democratic judge" got hold of it. "It's not the worst thing in the world to have a billionaire owe you a favor," MacKay said he was told.
MacKay called Stewart to find Fulani or Kresky, but was told he should discuss the matter only with Newman. MacKay said that when he reached Newman, he passed along the Republican official's plea, including the line about a billionaire owing a favor. MacKay said the guru thought a minute, and then agreed to drop the lawsuit, asking only that Bloomberg restate his call for nonpartisan elections, a key plank in the Independence Party's platform and one Bloomberg had already publicly embraced upon receiving the party's nomination earlier that year. MacKay said he ran it by his GOP source and another person close to Bloomberg who OK'd the agreement.
Records show that on the day of the scheduled hearing, Kresky and Bloomberg campaign attorney Lawrence Mandelker signed a stipulation withdrawing the suit. "I am not at liberty to discuss it," Kresky told the Voice. Asked if Bloomberg got the Fulani renunciation he'd wanted, Kresky chuckled. "There was no disavowal of Dr. Fulani," he said.
The Fulani renunciation "went by the boards," agreed Mandelker, who described the suit as "frivolous."
"We just moved on," said Cunningham, now working for Bloomberg's re- election campaign. He said he believed that in addition to MacKay, "a couple of other" Independence Party officials had also denounced Fulani's statements, but couldn't recall which ones.
Whatever the resolution, Bloomberg showed no ill will, and he never again complained about his allies' "anti-American" attitudes. When he formed a Charter Review commission for nonpartisan elections the following year, he named Kresky to the panel. Last year, when the mayor spoke at the city Independence Party's awards dinner, he twice ceremoniously kissed Salit on each cheek and commended her new magazine, The Neo-Independentwith his own picture on the coverto the audience. This summer, the mayor and the Independence Party filed the formal authorization designating him as its candidate. Signing for the party was its presiding officer, Cathy Stewart.
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.