Bloomberg Maneuvers to Crown a Kennedy


When I see Caroline Kennedy, I think Mike Bloomberg. In the contest for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, Kennedy is to Bloomberg what the City Council was to the mayor in his term limits battle—a partner in the spoils, yes, but, ultimately, little more than a pawn in his power grab.

If David Paterson makes Kennedy a senator despite her stumbling performance, spare résumé, and nose-diving poll numbers, credit should go to Bloomberg, an ally the unelected governor does not want to displease before his own probable race against Rudy Giuliani next year.

A Kennedy selection, should it happen, would become the prelude to a more formal alliance, or at least a non-aggression pact, between Bloomberg and Paterson that will carry through the 2009 mayoral election and the 2010 gubernatorial and senatorial races. Since Paterson, like most governors, is the leader of his state party, such a coalition would undercut any serious challenge this year to Bloomberg, a registered Independent.

Bloomberg made his fortune as the founder of a monopoly supplier of computerized corporate data. It should come as no surprise that he believes in monopoly politics as well—with him, of course, as the CEO, a post usually reserved for governors in New York’s hierarchy. Should Paterson choose Kennedy, he is said to be considering signing up with Knickerbocker SKD, the political consultants already tied to Bloomberg, Kennedy, Chuck Schumer, and Christine Quinn, all of whom are up for re-election this year or next. (Josh Isay, Knickerbocker’s co-founder, tells the Voice: “I don’t believe that will happen.” Isay also told the Voice that his firm has had no
conversations with Paterson about representing him)

It was Bloomberg’s term limits triumph that set the stage for the Kennedy candidacy. The mayor announced his decision to introduce a City Council bill overturning term limits—scuttling the votes of 1.2 million New Yorkers in two plebiscites—on October 2, the morning after a largely unnoticed dinner at a Bronx restaurant attended by the mayor; his girlfriend, Diana Taylor; Paterson; and the governor’s wife, Michelle. Three weeks later, first-term Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens, a close Paterson associate, cast a swing vote in favor of the extension, though she’d been frequently mentioned as a possible speaker if term limits were kept in place and 35 Council members were forced to leave. Dickens not only voted against her own immediate interests, but she appeared to counter the public admonitions of her Harlem Democratic co-leader, Congressman Charlie Rangel, who assailed the extension at first, only to disappear when the opposition grew so loud that it appeared it might be defeated (the final vote was 29 to 22). Eleven of the 14 blacks in the Council, including three first-termers who did not directly benefit from it, voted for the Bloomberg bill, despite the fact that its defeat might well have led to the election of the city’s second black mayor, Comptroller Bill Thompson.

If Paterson had stood with Thompson, the bill would probably have been defeated. Bloomberg might not have even introduced it if Paterson had told him at the dinner at Enzo’s, or anytime earlier, that he would oppose it. After four consecutive Republican wins in mayoral elections, Paterson certainly had reason to contend that it was time to give a Democrat like Thompson a chance. But if Paterson rejected Bloomberg’s third-term ambitions, he ran the risk of facing Bloomberg himself in 2010, an implied threat that hung like a dark cloud over the governor during the term limits debate. No wonder Paterson told reporters that he would “love to have the mayor around” for four more years, though he was officially neutral on the Council bill.

Had Thompson, like Paterson, been raised as a son of the Harlem Gang, instead of a son of one of Brooklyn’s most powerful black families, he might have been able to count on other benefactors along 125th Street to safeguard his interests, but all that matters now to the ancient oligarchy that rules Harlem is keeping its accidental governor in place. (No one has actually witnessed the initiation rites of the Gang, but they are said to involve nocturnal arson at the brownstone of a randomly selected Bed-Stuy elected official; such was the treatment dished out to a Brooklyn-led mayoral coalition in 1985.) With Barack Obama in the White House and Malcolm Smith now the majority leader of the New York Senate, Paterson associates tell me they see Thompson as one black political star too many at the moment, who should simply seek re-election as comptroller and wait his turn.

The success of the mayor’s coup has led, predictably, to an attempt at a second one—the installation of a Bloomberg-friendly U.S. Senator. Although Bloomberg had just spent the recent election season trying—in vain—to hold on to a GOP state senate majority, he and his advisers saw no reason why he couldn’t insert himself almost immediately into the selection of the state’s next Democratic senator.

Bloomberg’s strategy: to box Paterson in again, just as he did on term limits, by offering up an irresistible choice. Kennedy’s selection would subsequently link the mayor to the ultimate Democratic family just as Bloomberg was launching his own re-election effort. While the campaign operatives who advise both Bloomberg and Kennedy have been arguing publicly that Caroline would be an asset for the city in securing aid from Obama, her greater value to Bloomberg would be to get Obama to sit on his hands in the 2009 election.

Paterson’s acquiescence on term limits convinced the Bloomberg camp to use Kennedy to seal their growing alliance with the governor as well. Initially, Kennedy’s candidacy rapidly gained traction, but when a backlash of negative media swelled in late December, a chagrined Bloomberg complained at one press conference that things had gotten “out of control,” which was his way of saying that things had gotten out of his control. A panicky Bloomberg said Paterson should make a decision immediately, which was contrary to the single public promise the governor had repeatedly made: He wouldn’t select a new senator until the old one was confirmed as secretary of state.

With Paterson sticking to his schedule, insiders began to believe for the first time that he might not climb aboard the Bloomberg/Kennedy bandwagon. Paterson’s last great career decision—when he became Eliot Spitzer’s running mate in 2006 and gave up his position as Democratic leader of the senate minority—was just such a roller coaster, with Paterson rejecting Spitzer’s offer more than once, only to reverse himself at the very last minute. Bloomberg’s apparent discontent, plus Kennedy’s sinking polls, suggested that the governor was pulling back from the mayor’s inevitable candidate, opening the door, at least momentarily, to the many other contestants—Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, Congressman Steve Israel, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, and Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand. But then, when Paterson delivered his State of the State address last week, there was Bloomberg sitting next to Paterson’s wife and father, with the governor going on and on about obesity, trans fats, and junk foods—all Bloomberg hobbyhorses. Paterson confirms that he interviewed Kennedy over the weekend, but his office won’t say whether he plans to do the same with Cuomo, who leads the polls for the post and has made his interest in the appointment clear without campaigning for it like Kennedy has.

With a Democratic high tide, nationally and in New York, Bloomberg is suddenly doing all he can to cement his ties to the party. But if that awkward arrangement is going to work, the mayor has to hope that his new friends, like Paterson and Kennedy, don’t look too carefully at the last eight years.

Gone are the days when the mayor called the GOP, as he did at a Manhattan Republican event in March 2005, the party of “honesty, efficiency, compassion, and inclusiveness.” Also inoperative is his 2003 declaration at a Lincoln Day dinner in Staten Island: “We are going to get George W. Bush re-elected as president. We are going to carry New York City and State. Everybody thinks I’m crazy, but I think we can do it.” Dismissed as well are his comments when the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general found that the White House had doctored press releases about air-quality findings at Ground Zero, leading to lung damage for thousands of firefighters and others: “I know the president. I think he’s a very honest guy. It would never occur to me not to trust him.”

Also unnoticed—even as Bloomberg went to Israel last week and derided any criticism of the Gaza invasion as “ridiculous”—is the contrast between that pander and the rationale he repeatedly offered for his refusal to answer questions about Iraq: “It’s not a local issue, and I don’t have anything to say.” This obfuscation—about a war that has cost 55 city residents and 4,204 Americans their lives (as opposed to only four Israeli civilian deaths from Gaza rockets)—was designed to conceal the fact that he has always quietly supported this war, calling for it in a September 2002 speech at the United Nations and openly endorsing it at that Staten Island GOP event, when he said the war was “not only to protect Americans,” but “to protect people around the world who want to be free.” In fact, he connected the war to his support for Israel at a Solidarity Day breakfast, when, shortly after the wind-up of the ground invasion, he declared that Bush was “the best president for Israel in history.”

Only the audacity of billions can explain why a man who endorsed Bush for re-election, who declared with Laura Bush at his side at the dedication of a 9/11 downtown memorial that the Iraq War “started not very many blocks from here,” whose only national Democratic endorsements in 2006 were Joe Lieberman and Rod Blagojevich, and who has broken records by donating $4.2 million to Republican committees since 2000, thinks he can fix the selection of a Democratic senator and, in so doing, neutralize a president he declined to endorse though 77 percent of his city voted for him. With Kennedy, newly recruited Clinton mouthpiece Howard Wolfson, Brooklyn’s city-subsidized Democratic boss Vito Lopez, old reliables Schumer and Quinn, and, potentially, new ally Paterson, Bloomberg would have recast himself as a Democrat in everything but name.

And even that is subject to change. Remarkably, the last two chameleon mayors of New York—who will have run the city for a total of 20 years if Bloomberg is re-elected—have changed registration a combined six times, and every switch has coincided with a career need. Rudy Giuliani became a Republican shortly before Ronald Reagan installed him in a top Justice Department post, and Bloomberg switched only because he didn’t think he could win a 2001 Democratic mayoral primary. Both somehow converted this self-serving inauthenticity into virtue—swinging, at their convenience, between Democrat, Independent, and Republican, even in a city where voters appear to believe, in most elections, that party really does matter. (In fact, at the same time that Bloomberg has been making nice lately with Democrats, he’s been quietly reaching out to Republican county chairs, keeping all of his 2009 options open.)

Bloomberg’s ballyhooed switch to Independent in 2007 for a contemplated presidential run could prove a precursor to a 2009 reversion to the Democrat he was before he entered politics. His term limits play and the Kennedy campaign, if successful, will solidify his position for the 2009 election so much that it could force the two major Democratic contenders, Thompson and Congressman Anthony Weiner, out of the race. Then Bloomberg might well run in a Democratic primary against nominal opponents, with or without changing his registration (three of the five city party leaders can allow a non-Democrat to run). Under those circumstances, Senator Caroline Kennedy would not have to decline to comment about whether she will support the Democratic candidate in 2009, as her handlers recently did, nor would she have to adopt the device that she “fully expects” to back the Democrat, as the same spinners subsequently announced. She could simply endorse her patron, New Democrat Mike Bloomberg.

As candid as Bloomberg was early in his public life, he is now just another player, moving from evasion to spin to falsehood. In fact, the best argument now against renewing the state law that granted Bloomberg control over the school system, which expires in 2009, is the wholesale political exploitation of the Department of Education by Bloomberg to advance Kennedy’s candidacy, including the crafting of a fable of a résumé.

While the mayor doggedly maintains at press conferences that he favors no Senate candidate, his consigliere, Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey—who shamelessly intends to draw his $196,574 public salary in 2009 even as he continues to act as the mayor’s chief political adviser—has been tightrope-walking ethics laws to promote Kennedy’s candidacy right out of his City Hall office, hosting meetings and dialing up backers in apparent violation of Conflict of Interest Board Rule 1-13, which bars the use of city resources “for non-City purposes,” as well as “the performance of private activities” on city time. (It’s also a charter violation for Bloomberg to “request any subordinate public servant to engage in a political campaign.”) With Sheekey, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and Bloomberg’s consultant, Isay, driving the Kennedy candidacy, Bloomberg’s public professions of neutrality are a contemptuous joke.

Sheekey’s New Year’s Eve accusation that Paterson would be guilty of “political malpractice” if he picked anyone but Kennedy was based, astonishingly, on the assumption that she alone among the major Democrats under consideration backed Obama and that the president “has an obligation” to help Kennedy if she is senator. “We need help from our new president,” Sheekey observed, citing the budget gaps, as if Obama would only deliver if asked by a senator who endorsed him. This silly argument—especially coming from someone who works for a mayor who didn’t support Obama—somehow gained traction in media commentaries.

The architect of Bloomberg’s two-year presidential operation, Sheekey went on to take to task “the entire New York political establishment” for supporting Clinton and opposing Obama. He noted that “many of them traveled to Iowa to do it,” a reference that Paterson himself could hardly find endearing. Paterson’s Clinton-financed trip there was with a woman he subsequently acknowledged had been his lover (“I-had-sex-with-that-woman-but-not-on-that-trip” was his defense). Sheekey’s attack on New York Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton (similarly, every Illinois Democrat backed Obama) is the sort of slapstick that would boomerang on any political operative measured by the wisdom of his words, rather than the depth of his candidate’s wallet. But Sheekey, like Bloomberg, still gets master-of-the-universe stroking in the media.

Klein made a national appearance on CBS for Kennedy and even penned an op-ed for that championed her candidacy, which was reprinted in a newsletter published by the Department of Education. Because Kennedy’s 22-month stint between 2002 and 2004 as Klein’s chief executive of the newly created Office of Strategic Partnerships is the only job she’s ever held—a (very) part-time, $1-a-year position—the chancellor is literally the only employer she can turn to for a recommendation letter.

His gushing has been so embarrassing that even Kennedy has tried to play it down. According to the Times, Klein “credited her with bringing in a $51 million gift from the Gates Foundation,” the largest donation in school system history. But Tom Vander Ark, a nationally renowned educator who ran the Gates program and made the grant, told the Voice that “she didn’t have anything to do with it.” Asked what her role was in another $50 million in smaller grants that Gates gave the city between 2003 and 2005, Vander Ark, who is hardly a Klein enemy and praised him for his innovation, said: ” ‘None’ would be an overstatement.”

Within moments of the Voice posting Vander Ark’s comments on our website last month, Klein’s spokesman, David Cantor, called to offer a strange clarification. He said that “no one was saying” that Kennedy had done “the heavy lifting” on this grant, conceding, as two Voice blog posts had contended, that another Klein executive, Michele Cahill, had actually done that grant work. But he contended that “the Gates people insisted that Caroline be the face” at the announcement, prompted by the fact that Klein himself, as a Justice Department attorney, had brought a successful antitrust lawsuit against Bill Gates’s Microsoft. That was hardly inconsistent with the thrust of the Voice blog posts, which contended that her DOE role was simply to add an aura and presence to Klein’s fundraising efforts, making it less a measure of her performance than another salute to her lineage.

When the Times subsequently got an extended interview with Kennedy, the reporters asked about Klein’s original claim that “she brought the Gates grant in,” wondering: “Do you feel like maybe the people who are fans of yours have been trying to bolster you perhaps a little too much, and maybe giving you too much credit for the fundraising?” Her answer, which the Times published in a transcript but did not cite in its story, was: “I think it was important to Bill Gates that I was there” at the announcement (Vander Ark says he believes it was the first time they ever met). Kennedy still claimed that she should get “some of the credit” for the grant, contending that she only participated “right at the end” because “it coincided with the time I came into the department.” In fact, the grant was made in September 2003, a year after she started and more than halfway through her brief tenure.

Both Klein and Kennedy also tried to hype her role at the Fund for Public Schools, a nonprofit set up to receive private donations to the system that is chaired by Klein. Kennedy has stretched her less-than-two-year DOE “job” into six years in her recent media interviews, without mentioning that she’s counting the four years since she left the department only because she’s continued to serve as one of two vice chairs of the Fund. The other vice chair, Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman, made a $1.5 million grant to the Fund, but Lara Holliday, the Fund’s director, told the Voice that Kennedy, personally worth at least $100 million, “has not contributed financially” at all to the city schools.

One of Kennedy’s principal assignments when she worked at DOE was to oversee the Fund, yet its 990 forms, which are filed by law with the IRS, indicate that she only worked an hour a week in 2003, and two hours since, a calculation that Holliday dismissed as merely “a reporting procedure.” The same forms, however, require the Fund to estimate the worth of Kennedy’s “donated service,” and, though the Fund typically listed hundreds of thousands in that broad category of non-cash donations, Holliday concedes they never claimed a cent for Kennedy. “We have not placed a dollar on Caroline’s service, as her contributions to the Fund and the DOE would be very difficult to value,” said Holliday. Both the Voice and have cited unnamed DOE sources who say Kennedy was rarely there, consistent with both of these submissions on required federal forms. The Times finding that she was curiously exempted from the financial disclosure requirements that came with her high-level executive post adds to the evidence that she has a less Senate-worthy service record than Klein has suggested.

Kennedy told the Times that the Fund was a mere “pass-through,” collecting “an average of $2 million a year” before she got there. “We kind of re-launched it and revitalized it, you know. Now, we’ve raised $238 million since then,” she said. Klein’s CNN article said that Caroline “took over an office that previously oversaw donations to PTAs and alumni associations and re-created it around a model of a public/private partnership,” claiming that “under her leadership, the Fund has raised more than $240 million.” But the Fund’s tax forms show that the $11.2 million it raised in Caroline’s first fiscal year—which ran from July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003 (she started the job that October)—was very similar to the $10.7 million raised the year before. The total actually dropped to $10.9 million in 2003-2004, the only full fiscal year that Kennedy was on staff. It grew to $14 million when she left, and then exploded nearly two years after she was gone, to $39.6 million. Kennedy and Klein’s figures of $238 million and $240 million credit her for everything the Fund raised for the four years that she was merely a board member, an absurd exaggeration.

Holliday notes that the Fund’s IRS filings do not include the $81 million raised separately for the Leadership Academy, which are collected by a related entity. Klein did include those contributions in his $240 million Fund figure and has variously attributed $65 million or $70 million of it to Kennedy personally. That, too, is dubious, since corporate giants like Jack Welch and Richard Parsons led its board, and the Partnership for the City of New York was by far its largest donor ($30 million). Partnership president Kathy Wylde hardly needs Caroline Kennedy to get her organization’s bluebloods to give to a venture it helped create, especially with Time Warner’s Parsons an officer of both the Partnership and the Academy. (Holliday e-mailed at press time, saying the Fund was “speaking with our auditors and lawyers” to resolve “inaccuracies” in the IRS submissions.)

While Klein has his own relationship with Kennedy, who went to college with his wife, his inflation of the Kennedy bio is unmistakably Bloomberg-sanctioned, since the mayor himself has pointed to her DOE achievements when he salutes her readiness for the Senate. No one, meanwhile, seems to mind that Bloomberg and Kennedy have combined to politicize a chancellor in a way that has not occurred in years, feeding the critics of mayoral control of the schools who regard the office as an anti-democratic concentration of school power.

The dissembling that misrepresents Kennedy’s DOE service has been extended to every phase of her life. She told the Times: “I’ve written seven books—two on the Constitution, two on American politics.” But she’s penned only two (both with a co-author who is, unlike her, a legal scholar), and edited five others that were collections of everything from her mother’s favorite poems to other writers’ essays about political courage. She has repeatedly referred to herself as a lawyer in her recent appearances, though she’s never practiced law and even let her registration with the Bar Association lapse for years.

Though she wrote in A Patriot’s Handbook that “the day I feel most proud to be an American is not the Fourth of July, but Election Day,” she’s missed half of the elections since 1988. She even failed to vote in 1994 for her in-law Mario Cuomo, when at least four other Kennedys campaigned for Cuomo in the race of his life. She skipped the Democratic primary in 1989, when David Dinkins was the first black person nominated for mayor, and the general election in 2002, when Carl McCall was the first black person ever to appear on the statewide gubernatorial ballot as the candidate of a major party. She didn’t vote when Liz Krueger broke the three-decade hold the GOP had on the East Side state senate district in two 2002 elections (a February special and a November general) that propelled Paterson to become minority leader later that year. Yet she expects the state’s first black governor to put her in the Senate, ignoring the contradiction between her published declaration—written at the very same moment that she missed the 2002 election—that the “right to vote is perhaps the critical right in a democracy, an opportunity as well as an obligation.”

The campaign that she and Bloomberg have conducted for this appointment is a campaign of prevarication. Its assumption is that David Paterson, who was first installed in the Senate two decades ago by a Harlem-based Democratic county committee when the incumbent died, and who rose to governor when another incumbent quit in disgrace, is too weak and uneasy about the challenge that awaits him in 2010 to do anything but knuckle under to their cabal. They believe Paterson will see Bloomberg and Kennedy’s political marriage as a lucrative source of potential contributions for his own campaign, though Kennedy has given almost as little to New York Democrats as she has to its public school children, and Bloomberg has only bankrolled Republicans.

While they would never have mounted a Kennedy campaign in a normal election year, with a candidate so raw and uncertain, they clearly see Paterson’s appointment process as tailor-made. It is, after all, precisely the kind of democracy Bloomberg likes best: a decision made by one man—or, in the case of term limits, by a small and vulnerable council—in the sort of moment when the power of titans always seems to prevail.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 14, 2009

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