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Mayor Mike

We take you inside the Bloomberg election camp, as the once-longshot candidate for mayor of New York -- and his foot soldiers -- realize that he might actually win. Wooooooo!

Photos and Story
By Dale Keiger

You gotta have balloons. If you're assembling a big political rally you need balloons, and placards, and lots of young women who can make those high-pitched woooooooo sounds in response to everything your candidate says. At the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan, at 4:50 p.m. the day before New York's mayoral election, I can attest that all three elements were on hand.

The occasion was the final Manhattan rally for Hopkins alumnus, trustee, and benefactor Michael Bloomberg (Eng '64) in his quest to become mayor of New York. That quest may have seemed doomed a month before the vote, but on the eve of the election it was in earnest because Mike--Bloomberg's campaign called itself Mike for Mayor--had made up 22 points in the opinion polling and was now in a dead heat with his opponent, Democrat Mark Green. Twenty-two points is one whopper of a lead going into the last month of a campaign, but Green had somehow squandered it. The New York punditocracy examined surveys and press reports and, for all I know, the entrails of a goat, and pronounced that Green had alienated the Hispanic vote during his primary campaign against a Hispanic candidate, had alienated Al Sharpton, who held sway over a segment of the black vote, and had run a mean-spirited campaign that had alienated the white vote. That didn't leave many among the unalienated. And when Green may have thought things couldn't get any worse, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who in the wake of September 11 was newly beloved and wielded the heaviest mojo in town, bestowed his imprimatur on Bloomberg.

So never mind the skepticism that had attended Bloomberg's campaign because 1) he had never run for--much less held-- elected office, 2) he'd had a few amateur-hour moments during the campaign (such as his acerbic comment that the other candidates had been willing to release their tax returns because they don't make anything), 3) the lifelong liberal Democrat had declared himself a Republican only because he figured he had a better chance of winning as a member of the GOP, 4) Mike-for-Mayor had been portrayed as just another example of a billionaire looking for something to do next. With about 12 hours to go before the voting booths opened, the air in the hotel's Palm Room was crackling because the campaign workers sensed that, of all things, their guy might actually win.

As supporters began to gather, the workers tied bunches of balloons to banisters and taped white-on-blue Mike-for-Mayor placards to every flat vertical surface. At a nearby table, an older woman festooned with Mike-for-Mayor buttons told a friend, "They say it's a horse race now."

Bloomberg had spent the day campaigning in the outer boroughs. Meanwhile, in Midtown, every cabbie's and sidewalk vendor's radio had become All Mayor, All the Time, with campaign ads issuing forth every few minutes. According to the radio spots, Green was for families and kids (who isn't?). Bloomberg said Green represented the past.

As Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra--presumably not representing the past--played on the Palm Room's sound system, people waited patiently for something to happen. Many had tethered balloons to themselves, and the inflated orbs hovered over them like floats marking lobster pots. A nurse named Sharon Pais agreed to a snapshot. "Should I take off my glasses?" she asked.

"Depends on your vanity," I replied.

She took them off and said, "We need a businessman for mayor. We need someone who knows finance. We need someone who knows the big corporations." She didn't know specifically what Bloomberg had in mind should he become mayor, but that didn't bother her, not after September 11. "No one can make promises today. Nobody knows what's going to happen."

Around us the Palm Room filled with people wearing Mike-for-Mayor buttons, Mike-for-Mayor baseball caps, Mike-for-Mayor T-shirts and lapel pins, and these things that looked like the printer's aprons worn by the staff at Kinko's. (Billionaires can afford a lot of campaign material--The New York Times would later report that Bloomberg had spent $68,968,185 on the campaign.) By 6 p.m. the room was packed and getting warm. People fanned themselves with Mike-for-Mayor paddles and improved their positions. If you weren't snug against the riser, someone soon would insinuate him or herself between you and your view of the lectern.

The candidate was delayed. So Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels--you may remember them, the vigilantes in red berets who patrolled the subways in the late 1970s--took the microphone and launched into an odd rant that segued from Flag Day to uniforms on school kids to respect for cops and firemen. Perhaps because they weren't much interested in listening to him, the audience spontaneously began singing "God Bless America."

Finally, at 6:50, the candidate appeared in a blaze of television lights, accompanied by no less than U.S. senator and erstwhile presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona. The night before, the Arizona Diamondbacks had dethroned the Yankees as World Series champions, but McCain looked unfazed. He's a former prisoner of war so he knows a few things about operating in hostile territory. He's also a pro. He made a few graceful jokes, endorsed the Mogul for Mayor, then turned the microphone over to the man of the hour.

Bloomberg declared that there were five boroughs in New York and he was going to hit them all, campaigning through the night. He implored everyone to call all their friends and get them out to vote, because the race was now a dead heat and every ballot counted. "No one has written the story," he said, "but this is the ultimate grassroots campaign. A lot of you marched with me, you gave out literature, you yelled and you screamed and you cheered and you went out at night and put signs up on poles even though it's against the law. We've called literally hundreds of thousands of people and we're going to have to make those calls again."

Then, suddenly, from a door at the left of the riser emerged Rudy Giuliani. The crowd cut loose with cheers and screams and clapping and woooooooo and Bloomberg sensibly stopped talking and handed the microphone to the mayor.

"The enthusiasm in this room is greater than I even remember in times when I've won elections," Giuliani said. "So I know where we're headed: We're headed for a victory tomorrow."

Hopeful and confident: Two of Bloomberg's faithful take a breather. Election Day morn, the opinion polls gave each candidate 47 percent. I turned on the television and from a newscast learned that at three in the morning Bloomberg had taken a break and gone bowling in Queens. Rolling a few frames and getting on camera doing it might have been part of a campaign consultant's steely-eyed calculation, but it was hard not to like the style of a billionaire in a bowling shirt. Bloomberg looked not the least bit tired as he obligingly knocked down some pins for the television folks. I was starting to think Mark Green was in real trouble.

It was clear, however, that Green had won the Manhattan placard war. Everywhere I walked, from Midtown to ground zero, the only signs in evidence were for the Democrat. Except for the pink chalk on the sidewalk at Broadway and 76th that read Voting Doesn't Work. There's always one sourpuss.

The Bloomberg election party was an invitation-only affair at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill on West 42nd. On the way over, my cabbie, Frank, reported the results of his own opinion polling. During the day he'd surveyed 10 of his fares, and every one of them was voting for Bloomberg. The city was worried about its economy, Frank said, and was receptive to a businessman turned mayoral candidate.

And who did he want to win? "Either one will be a disaster," Frank said sourly. I checked his fingers for pink chalk dust.

The party was to commence at 8 o'clock, but the media had been let in early to set up. By 7:45 a firing squad of 13 television cameras faced the stage, and reporters were busy ignoring pleas from the caterers ("Sir, we're not serving until eight!") and pillaging trays of Ham & Cheese Croque Monsieurs, Barbecued Pork on Mini Yam Biscuits, and Goat Cheese and Grilled Vegetable Wraps. The doors opened, and for the next two hours a few hundred people milled around drinking beer, eating, and bobbing their heads to the music, which ranged from John Mellencamp to "Moon River."

At 10:02, the DJ cut the music and everyone turned to giant monitors for the first returns. With 8 percent of the vote counted, Green led by five percentage points. Three minutes later, Bloomberg had cut the lead to two points. As revelers cheered, the station cut to a street interview conducted by an aging female reporter with the unfortunate last name of Crone.

At 10:30, Curtis Sliwa delivered much the same rant as the day before, and then someone else promised that Bloomberg would be on his way to the party soon. No one really believed this, but the news photographers began staking out their positions, just in case. A diminutive cameraman from Japan's NHK News had brought his own fold-up step stool and planted himself right in front of me. At 10:51, Fox News reported Bloomberg ahead by two points, but nine minutes later the race was dead even. The DJ cued up some Latin pop, and people began to dance, green glowsticks looped around their necks. Those of us 45 and older found places to sit down or lean. We waited and watched the monitors.

11:32--Too close to call.

11:33--Dead even, but Green ahead in the popular vote by a few thousand.

11:34--Talk magazine editor Tina Brown interviewed outside the club, vowing support for Bloomberg. Had Green even alienated the Brit-glam-editor vote?

11:35--Slender young women in black dresses dancing. The gentlemen of the press attentive.

12:03--Word suddenly whips around the room that Green is about to concede. Bloomberg is up by 5,000 votes with 95 percent of precincts reporting. A huge cheer resounds. People hug and the slender young women go woooooooo. A union boss named Norman Seabrook grabs the microphone and shamelessly takes credit for delivering the election to Mike. TV reporters check their makeup and begin filing stand-up reports.

12:28--Green does indeed concede: "We gave it our all, but it wasn't enough."

Flanked by Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, and others, Bloomberg claims his mayoral victory. Remarkably, the media mogul was now mayor-elect, and a new race was on to share the stage with him. Burly local politicos seemed to spontaneously materialize, pushing their way to the front of the riser where the cameras would catch them rubbing elbows with the winner. They were determined, but careful not to knock over Bloomberg's mom, Charlotte, a sweet-faced little woman who couldn't stop grinning. In an instant there were at least 20 people on the stage, watched nervously by security men who all had the tough, alert, terrier faces of ex-cops. New York Governor George Pataki was up there. Sliwa and Seabrook were up there. Guys who looked like politicians from a hundred yards away were up there. And Rudy was up there, appearing pale and drawn. Beside him, holding up his hands to quiet the crowd, Bloomberg looked like he'd just had 14 hours' sleep. The man was indefatigable.

"This may be a blues club," he said, "but nobody's singin' the blues tonight!"

The next morning, I woke up with Wild Mushroom Beggars Purses and several Heinekens on my breath. The morning papers didn't seem to give Bloomberg much credit for winning. All they wanted to know was, how had Green lost? Dave Saltonstall, writing in the Daily News, said, "There were not enough hands in the Democratic Party last night for all the finger-pointing that surrounded Mark Green's loss to Mike Bloomberg--the media mogul who was supposed to be a pushover."

And I wondered: Were I a media mogul who was supposed to be a pushover, and now I had greeted the dawn as the mayor-elect of New York, what would I do? Bloomberg apparently had no doubt or hesitation. During the campaign, a Brooklyn security guard named Anthony Santa Maria had complained that his Bensonhurst neighborhood never saw a politician unless he was after a vote. Bloomberg had promised Santa Maria that the morning after the election, no matter what, he'd be at 79th Street in Bensonhurst to see him. I turned on the television and by god there Bloomberg was, standing at the entrance to the 79th Street subway station, looking composed and rested, smiling for Today on NBC and conducting an amiable remote chat with Katie Couric. Billionaire politicians are different from you and me. They don't need sleep.

I didn't watch the end. But I'm sure that once Michael Bloomberg, the new boss of New York, told Couric it was nice talking to her, a young woman in the background said woooooooo.

Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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