Howard Wolfson is now the face of Mike Bloomberg 2009. Most of us have known him for years as not only the face of Hillary Clinton but also the “senior communications strategist for the Democratic National Committee” and even a key consultant to the state Democratic Party.
Wolfson is as skilled an operative as there is in the city and country, but Bloomberg was not just buying a silver tongue when he picked him yesterday to steer next year’s re-election campaign. (See the Voice‘s recent profile of the “new” Bloomberg.)
Bloomberg is using Wolfson to re-brand himself in a city where four of five voters just went happily to their polling places to support Barack Obama, a candidate whom “independent” Bloomberg could never bring himself to endorse.
The selection of Wolfson is designed to make us forget that Bloomberg backed George W. Bush in 2004 and has been the largest New York donor to Republican Party committees — state and federal — for the past seven years.
Just like the recent Bloomberg sponsorship of the Caroline Kennedy Senate campaign, the hiring of the state’s top Democratic operative is an attempt to blur the nakedly partisan side of Bloomberg, who was campaigning just weeks ago exclusively for state Senate Republicans in pivotal swing districts and funneling $70,000 to the Assembly Republicans, a species so close to extinction that the Interior Department may reclassify them in the Obama administration.
Wolfson told the Voice this morning that he voted for the Democratic candidates, Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer, who opposed Bloomberg in 2001 or 2005, and that he has in fact never worked for a Republican or independent candidate before, which are the two lines Bloomberg is most likely to run on.
Though there is chatter now that Bloomberg may run in a Democratic primary, Wolfson said: “I have no sense of that.” Wolfson, who sold his Manhattan apartment and moved to Washington to work on the Clinton presidential campaign, said he plans to start with Bloomberg in January and move back to New York. He said he was unable to vote in the presidential election in November because he was still registered in New York but living in Washington, where his wife is the chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Asked what has changed his mind about Bloomberg, Wolfson said: “It wasn’t a single moment of epiphany. I just think that over eight years, he’s made New York a better place to live.”
Ironically, Wolfson handled Comptroller Bill Thompson’s re-election campaign in 2005 and had talked to Thompson about doing his 2009 mayoral campaign. Eduardo Castell, a top aide to Thompson, said that Thompson and Wolfson had “early conversations about what the future would hold” after Thompson won a nominal contest in 2005 and that they did not talk again about it throughout the protracted Clinton campaign.
“After the primaries were over,” Castell said, “I reached out to Howard and he said he was not looking to get involved in any political race.” Wolfson seemed burned out by the draining Clinton loss.
Wolfson acknowledged that it was “correct” that he’d been talking to Thompson about handling his campaign and confirmed that he told Thompson this summer that he “would not be doing it.” He refused to say why he pulled out of the Thompson effort, but insisted that he did not begin discussing the Bloomberg job until weeks later, when the term-limits extension issue became public.
Wolfson said he called a Thompson staffer and gave the comptroller’s crew a heads-up shortly before he went public with the news Tuesday. (He did not call Anthony Weiner, the other possible major Democratic candidate). Castell said he got a message from Wolfson and, by the time he called Wolfson back, “it was already up on the blogs.”
Castell said Thompson and he were “surprised” by the Wolfson announcement because he’d told them he wasn’t doing any campaigns. “I took him at his word,” Castell said. Asked if he thought Wolfson’s hiring had anything to do with a possible Bloomberg effort to seek the Democratic line, Castell said: “I do not believe he will get the Democratic line. No hire he brings on will change that.” Wolfson said that one of his jobs for Bloomberg will be “to communicate with Democrats across the state,” a somewhat odd emphasis for a city campaign.
Fernando Ferrer, the 2005 candidate, says that Wolfson was “terrific” in 2005, going on NY1 and dropping quotes in the newspapers presenting the Ferrer case (Wolfson was then a consultant to the state party). Wolfson even attacked a major Democratic fundraiser, investment banker Steve Rattner, who told the Times that he “couldn’t think of a single active Democrat in New York that’s supporting Ferrer,” adding that he was only talking about “the people in our world who help raise money for presidential candidates and things like that.”
Wolfson called Rattner’s comments “outrageous and deeply offensive.”
“That’s the kind of thing a Republican would say,” the Wolfson of 2005 added. More recently, Wolfson’s Glover Park Group added Kevin Madden, the Mitt Romney spokesman, to its team, suggesting a more bipartisan tilt to a firm very identified with Democrats.
“I talked to Howard briefly in the beginning of the campaign,” Ferrer said. “I wanted him to come work for me. He said he wanted to do it. That’s at least what he said to me. But he said he couldn’t.” One of Glover’s top clients is the United Federation of Teachers, and Wolfson’s move to Bloomberg may be a signal that the union’s retreat on the term-limits bill in October will be repeated in the mayoral election, with union president Randi Weingarten, who’s often railed against Bloomberg education policies, neutralized or even backing Bloomberg.
Though Wolfson sounded in a NY1 interview last night like a Caroline Kennedy supporter, he said he was “not involved in that effort.” Asked if that meant he was echoing Bloomberg, who maintains bizarrely that he’s not endorsing any candidate in the senate race, or Kevin Sheekey, the mayor’s top political aide, who’s helping to run the Kennedy campaign from City Hall, Wolfson just laughed.
He declined to comment on the widely reported presumption of the forever-nascent Bloomberg presidential campaign that if Wolfson’s candidate Clinton won the nomination, Bloomberg was likely to run himself, especially if either Romney or Rudy Giuliani was the Republican nominee. When Obama and John McCain became the presumptive nominees, however, the Bloomberg pipe dream burst. But now, the spokesman for the target of Bloomberg’s presidential plan has become Bloomberg’s mouthpiece.
Research: Jana Kasperkevic