There’s media tycoon Michael Bloomberg on the cover of Business Week. There he is being profiled in Newsweek, in the Times of London, even Variety. Not bad, the kind of publicity you can generate when you have a few billion dollars and start talking about running for political office.
Ask Donald Trump, who dangled his possible presidential candidacy before a mesmerized media last year—just in time to promote his new book. Awestruck boxing impresario Don King, who knows something about drawing a crowd, called Trump’s brief bid “one of the greatest promotions of all time.”
In fact, at this stage of Bloomberg’s aborning mayoral campaign—that is, pre-announcement, pre-endorsements, pre-position papers—there’s little to distinguish him from any other fabulously rich businessman running for office.
Stop to think about it, aside from the accent and a few zeros in their net worth columns, what’s the difference between Bloomberg and New York’s other rich, frank-talking businessman candidate, Abe Hirschfeld?
And lo, here’s Abe now, on the phone from the Queens House of Detention, where he’s finishing up his one-to-three-year sentence for conspiring to do away with a former business partner. Abe’s got a ringing endorsement.
“Bloomberg? His accomplishments are tremendous. He runs such an efficient organization. If he runs the city, he will do it the same way. Do I support him? Absolutely 100 percent. No question about it. I back him. A rich man only has success. What he can do for himself, he can do for others.”
Nor should Bloomberg worry about spending too much running for office, Hirschfeld advised. “If he wants to spend the money in the election and that’s the law of the nation, then God bless him. At least he is not going to spend the money on girls like President Clinton,” said the 81-year-old inmate, who offered $1 million to settle Paula Jones’s sex-harassment lawsuit against the former president (the check bounced).
From the prison pay phone, Hirschfeld lapsed into a string of off-color jokes about Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. But never mind, this was the voice of experience talking. Over a 25-year span, Hirschfeld ran for office eight times, including three tries at the U.S. Senate and campaigns for state comptroller, lieutenant governor, and Manhattan borough president. Once he was even elected—as a Miami Beach city commissioner.
Despite his chronic zaniness, Hirschfeld has always been taken quite seriously by party leaders and elected officials for the simple reason that he writes large checks. In the ’70s, grateful Democratic state officials named him treasurer of the party and a member of the electoral college—ego-stroking positions that kept him happy, while well away from the engine controls. Even years after Hirschfeld began showing signs of extreme dislocation (spitting at people, etc.), some of the nation’s top political consultants remained all too happy to work for him. As late as 1997, when Hirschfeld was already under state indictment for tax fraud, Republican campaign whizzes Ed Rollins and Kieran Mahoney went on Hirschfeld’s payroll to pilot his hopeless run for Manhattan borough president (he had the Republican and Independent lines). Last spring, as Hirschfeld was being tried and convicted of trying to hire a hit man to kill his business partner of 20 years, the state Conservative Party happily accepted his $10,000 donation.
But on that score, experience has made Hirschfeld wiser. He’s not the easy mark he may once have been, he insists. The Polish-born parking-garage magnate has lost weight in jail, but he’s lost none of the vigor that made him chase the elusive political prize so often. In February, Hirschfeld was dragged shouting out of a Queens courtroom, where he was accused of bilking a co-op complex, after he began showering insults on the judge and his own lawyer. “[Bloomberg] should listen to himself—not the consultants,” urged Hirschfeld. “Consultants—those are the mistakes I made. I don’t want to complain about them, but they really did nothing, with all my millions they took.”
Hirschfeld’s money (estimate: $100 million) came from his string of parking garages and a hugely successful health club. Bloomberg’s wealth (estimate: $4 billion) comes from a growing financial news and technology empire. Bloomberg has said he won’t spend as much on his race as New Jersey’s billionaire senator, Jon Corzine, who shelled out $65 million last year. But Bloomberg might spend as much as $20 million.
For now, Bloomberg isn’t saying what he’s paying anyone. And he doesn’t have to until his first financial filings are due with the city’s Board of Elections this summer. But his consultant payroll is already loaded with high-paid talent. David Garth, who helped put John Lindsay, Ed Koch, and Rudy Giuliani into City Hall, is in charge overall. When he was being interviewed by other candidates last year, Garth’s asking price was $25,000 a month and 15 percent of the cost of TV ads. Insiders say Garth is charging the billionaire much more. Also aboard is Clinton’s former polling firm, Penn and Schoen, and public-relations expert Maureen Connelly.
“I don’t know what they are being paid, and we won’t be saying until we make our required filings,” said Bloomberg spokesman Bill Cunningham, another seasoned vet, who worked for former senator Pat Moynihan.
At this point, Bloomberg’s handlers are keeping the would-be candidate away from most reporters except those from national magazines. The man who wrote in his 1997 autobiography, Bloomberg by Bloomberg, that, as a bachelor trader, he “had a girlfriend in every city” shoots from the hip, and no one’s taking any chances at this point. Not since Bloomberg gave a what-me-worry interview to the Times‘ Elizabeth Bumiller in January has a local political reporter won a sit-down with him. In the interview, Bloomberg cried foul at being referred to as a billionaire. “Would you rather elect a poor person who didn’t succeed?” he demanded. Asked about what he does with his money, Bloomberg grew testy. “I don’t have to answer questions about the size or spirit or duration of my philanthropy,” he said.
A curious answer from a guy who is said to have given $100 million last year to more than 500 organizations. There’s certainly no reason to doubt Bloomberg’s charity. As a young stock trader, he was a volunteer literacy teacher in poor neighborhoods. But, as with his campaign expenses, aides are holding back details about his income and philanthropy.
The only public documents currently available on Bloomberg’s donations depict someone whose concerns are more Upper East Side than East Harlem. The Michael R. Bloomberg Family Foundation Trust’s report to the IRS for 1999 lists $9.5 million in contributions, more than half of it to the exclusive private girls’ schools attended by Bloomberg’s two daughters. The Spence School on Park Avenue got $5 million and the Purnell School in New Jersey got $250,000. The foundation gave $2.5 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, $1.25 million to the Jewish Museum, $333,000 to Hadassah Medical Relief, and $100,000 to the United Jewish Appeal. It also doled out $110,000 to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team Foundation.
Bloomberg’s aides say the foundation represents just a small part of a big picture that will soon be revealed. In another openhearted gesture, the would-be mayor made news last month when he said that if elected, he would take just $1 in pay. That just shows he has a lot to learn, said the gray-haired sage of the Queens House of D. “That was a big mistake. He shouldn’t say he will take only $1. Give it your full time, get paid—then do with the money what you want. Spend it on charity, girls, whatever.”