Mission Control

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POLITICS JULY 2, 2001

Mission Control

The young woman clutching a video cam appears in grave danger of having her eyes pecked out. She dodges and weaves and backs slowly away but cannot escape the advancing (and quite pointy) nose of Bill Cunningham, spokesman for Michael R. Bloomberg. It's June 6, and Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman turned New York mayoral candidate, is making his first official campaign appearance at an interminable awards breakfast on the Harlem campus of City College. The entire New York media is there to document the event. So is Elizabeth Mazzini, an opposition researcher sent to videotape the candidate's first day. But not if Cunningham has anything to say about it. "Are you with the media?" he barks, extending his arms to prevent the terrified tracker from fleeing. "You're not from the media, and you didn't pay to be here. Are you with the opposition?" Mazzini takes a step back; Cunningham steps forward. She slips left; he follows. "Who is your boss?" he demands. "Is he a Democrat? Who is your boss?"

To some degree, every political campaign is about control. Controlling access. Controlling images. Controlling information. But control is particularly important when your candidate is a billionaire tycoon with zero political experience, a longtime Democrat who turned Republican simply because the primary is less crowded, and an oft-described "guy's guy" accustomed to saying whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Under these conditions, maintaining tight-fisted control--over the press, the opposition, and the candidate himself--is not simply the Bloomberg team's best chance of winning the election. It's their only chance of not unraveling altogether.

Which is strangely appropriate. Because even before his political ambitions surfaced, no one understood the value of control better than Mike Bloomberg, a guy who literally built his fortune on the control of financial information. Since its founding in 1981, his eponymous company's profit center has been its customized computer terminal/software system (now an online data feed), which lets clients instantly access, analyze, and compare historical data on stocks, bonds, and commodities. Today "Bloombergs," as the machines are known, are a must-have for everyone who's anyone in the markets. Coincidentally, "control" also defines Bloomberg's model of corporate leadership: He owns close to three-quarters of the corporation's stock and is known for putting the "cult" in "corporate culture." With Mike--absolutely everyone calls him Mike--total loyalty is paramount. The hours are long, the pace is frenetic, and commitment to Mike's "vision" is a must. As one former Bloomberger (and Mike fan) puts it, it's "my way or the highway."

Such corporate idiosyncrasies are assuming larger significance these days as candidate Mike repeatedly tells New Yorkers he would run their city as he has run his business. As he boasted in his announcement speech on June 6, "Our customers think we walk on water, and we do. And I can do that for the city." Before performing this particular miracle, however, Mike must first get himself elected. And to do that, the consummate controller will have to become the controllee--a carefully packaged, meticulously managed product for sale to the public. It won't be easy.

Candidate Mike likes to tell voters that he personifies the American dream--and that as mayor, he will help them achieve it as well (on a smaller scale, of course). The mogul does, in fact, represent an updated version--slightly cleaner, faster, more glamorous--of the rags-to-riches tales of old. Born on Valentine's Day 1942, the child of middle-class parents in Medford, Massachusetts, young Mike was one of the few students from his public school to attend college. ("Vocational training was the main mission," he recalls in the redundantly titled autobiography Bloomberg by Bloomberg.) With help from student loans and part-time jobs, Mike paid his way through Johns Hopkins University, then headed off to Harvard Business School. Graduating in 1966, he was turned down for military service because of flat feet and instead wound up in a low-level job with the trading firm Salomon Brothers. A self-described "up-and-coming star," he rose through the ranks to become a general partner in 1972. Then, in 1981, disaster struck: The firm was bought, and Mike was fired. In his autobiography, he recalls that many people believed he was canned because of his arrogance--specifically for mouthing off that he could run the firm better than his bosses. Whatever the reason, Mike took his $10 million severance package and immediately launched a new venture.

The rest, as Mike likes to say, is history. As the mikeformayor.com website tells us: "In 1982, Bloomberg L.P. sold Merrill Lynch 20 subscriptions to its financial information computer terminal; 20 years later, Bloomberg L.P. has nearly 160,000 subscribers worldwide." Along the way (in 1990, to be exact), Mike started a news service as a way to boost the company's name-recognition and generate value-added content for the Bloombergs. Bloomberg News has since expanded into a global multimedia conglomerate with 80 bureaus and more than 1,200 reporters and editors. All told, Mike's empire boasts more than 7,000 employees and did an estimated $2.5 billion in business last year.

For Mike, the two keys to success are hard work ("The more you work, the better you do. It's that simple. I always outworked the other guy") and strict loyalty ("[Salomon] was a dictatorship, pure and simple. But a benevolent one," he writes admiringly in his autobiography). Both principles are on full display at Bloomberg L.P. Work schedules are brutal--twelve-hour days are the norm; time away from your desk for lunch is frowned upon--and the pressure to beat the other guy is unrelenting. For instance, when The New York Times picks up a wire story from Reuters instead of Bloomberg, says a former Bloomberger, "you have to do an autopsy on why your copy wasn't used. You have to write a memo and e-mail it to the bosses." Rants from superiors, public humiliations, and similarly heavy-handed management techniques are said to be commonplace.

Hard work is only half the equation. Mike demands total loyalty from his corporate children. And he gets it. Employees describe him in awed tones as a "tireless" (in early, out late), "hands-on" boss who would do anything for his people. But even the most flattering descriptions of Bloomberg--the man and the company--suggest, shall we say, control issues. The Park Avenue headquarters are legendarily swank, with funky fish tanks, elaborate floral arrangements, an endless supply of free snacks, and a giant news ticker running up through the center of the main spiral staircase. But the digs are also equipped with video cameras and electronic card readers that track employees' comings and goings. Employee e-mail messages are subject to review, and the computer system automatically censors profanity from all communiques. There are no private offices--save Mike's modest, glassed-in workspace in the main newsroom--and building security is tighter than Dennis Hastert's trousers. The same is true in other bureaus. In Bloomberg's Washington office, for instance, there is one phone--jokingly dubbed "the Batphone"--located inside a closet; it's seen as the only secure spot for staffers looking to escape Big Brother. "You really had a paranoid feeling that you were watched and questioned on everything you did," says a former Bloomberg reporter. For those who leave the family, retribution is swift and final. The billionaire refuses to attend employees' going-away parties, and deserters can forget about ever being rehired. ("How could we ever again look in the eye the one who stayed if we let the `traitor' come back?" he writes.)

Basically, there's nothing about Bloomberg the empire that isn't a function of Bloomberg the ego. (Just try to find a pencil, notepad, or coffee mug in the joint that isn't stamped with the B-word.) Although Bloomberg News is directly overseen by the very hands-on Matthew Winkler, there is no question in anyone's mind who steers the ship. From London to Tokyo to New York, "it's a very strong and uniform corporate culture that does emanate from Mike," says former Bloomberger (and tremendous "Mike bull") Rob Cox. "Mike has a tightly knit group of people who help him run the company," says another ex-reporter. What they don't help him with, at least to hear Mike tell it, is the empire's public image. "I handle all our firm's internal and external public relations," he boasts in B by B. "It's just too important to give to anyone else."

This, needless to say, is generally not the way political campaigns are run. And, while Mike's estimated $4 billion has helped attract an impressive cadre of political gurus (Cunningham, David Garth, Doug Schoen, Lawrence Mandelker, Maureen Connelly), it's not clear whether they'll be able to steer Mr. Command-and-Control through a campaign in which any number of factors--opponents, media, public opinion--are beyond his control. Already the campaign's attempts to shield Mike from the garden-variety unpleasantness of New York politics have prompted public sniggering. For starters, there was the decision--a first in New York political history--to announce his candidacy not with a press conference or public event but with a TV spot, launched June 5 as part of a $350,000 ad buy. (The New York Post, describing Mike's evident discomfort before the camera, said the ads resembled "hostage tapes from the Taliban.") The next day brought Mike's much-publicized live announcement, at the Ridgewood Senior Center in Queens, which consisted of four minutes of (stilted, scripted) comments to the old folks, followed by a (stilted, highly scripted) speech delivered to a media-only audience. (A public announcement without the public. How clever.) Better yet, in the wake of Cunningham's morning tete-a-tete with the oppo researcher at City College, aides were instructed to block the tracker's video camera, and the campaign fired off a letter to the state Dems, complaining about this disgraceful (and utterly commonplace) intrusion. As The Hotline, Washington's daily digest of political news, ribbed: "And you think this is bad? Just wait...."

It's small wonder, then, that Team Bloomberg seems to regard the media with a mix of suspicion and fear. While accepting some news coverage as a necessary evil, volunteers at campaign headquarters (not as posh as Bloomberg L.P. offices but far above par) eyeball visiting journalists warily, as though searching for retractable fangs. Press secretary Ed Skyler, a veteran of Rudy Giuliani's mayoral campaign, looks and sounds alternately ready to throw up or pass out from stress. When reporters on the press bus snickered over comments Mike had made about New York public school children ("They don't know how to present themselves," a New York camera crew captured him saying; "[t]hey have personal-hygiene problems"), Skyler jumped in to clarify--with a noticeable edge in his voice. And more than one reporter requesting an interview with the candidate on his first day of campaigning was brusquely informed, "Well, I'm not going to put you in the car with him." The New York media quickly began grumbling that the campaign was playing favorites, denying interviews to the reputedly combative local press while granting access to presumably less well-informed national and international correspondents.

Ultimately, however, controlling the media may be a breeze compared to controlling the candidate. Mike, it seems, has a hard-earned reputation for mouthing off at the most inappropriate moments--which, while colorful in a business mogul, can prove hazardous on the campaign trail. Even with careful management, Mike still gives advisers fits. There were, for example, his ill-advised remarks to London's Daily Telegraph, in which he compared himself to JFK and said his billionaire status would make him more appealing to voters because "[i]t's like when a woman sees a model in a women's mag or if you're a man you see the football player out on the field.... [Y]ou want to identify." (The campaign declined further comment.) Another reporter eventually "put in the car" with Mike later noted that his handlers clearly wanted to toss her out almost from the get-go because the candidate just kept saying all these things he wasn't supposed to. Even more recently, Mike told The New York Times that, when annoyed by a reporter's queries during the National Puerto Rican Day parade, he had responded with a stream of profanities aimed at derailing the article's publication.

Mike's loose tongue, in fact, (allegedly) played a role in at least one of the three sexual harassment suits filed against him in recent years. In 1997 a former sales executive charged that, among other crude statements, Mike greeted news of her pregnancy with the response: "Kill it." Ultimately, the case was settled for an undisclosed sum and no admission of guilt from the billionaire. (Another case was withdrawn; a third, dismissed when the plaintiff failed to meet court deadlines.) In preparation for his mayoral run, Mike took a lie-detector test to prove his innocence. Of course, the campaign has declined to release the results (and now suggests there could be legal barriers to such), so voters must simply take the campaign's word that the candidate was exonerated.

Gaffes and profanity aside, Mike--unaccustomed to following orders--periodically has trouble staying on message. Take his response to a reporter's inquiry about how he would approach the current negotiations under way between the mayor and the teachers' union. His basic impulse, Mike allowed, would be to lock the mayor and the head of the union in a room together, put them on a "hunger strike," and not let them out until they cut a deal. Then there was his repeated praise of Hillary Clinton's candidacy (unwise for a Republican, even in New York). And although Mike is being frantically tutored by a distinguished and eclectic group of experts, it's not always clear that everyone is on the same page. For instance, one tutor, lefty policy maven Ester Fuchs, recently told The New York Observer that she and the candidate share a "vision" that "[m]aking this city work is about making the neighborhoods work, not just midtown Manhattan." Mike, by contrast, had already cavalierly asserted in a speech before TV professionals, "I don't think that knowing the details of every single little program, law, neighborhood--whether you're running for president or governor or congressman or city council or mayor or whatever--those aren't the issues."

So what does Mike consider to be "the issues"? Details remain sketchy. He has talked about expanding Giuliani's program of installing video cameras in high-crime areas along with a profanity-censoring program on the city's computers (hey, it's good enough for Bloomberg L.P.), and has suggested setting up a sort of 911 hotline to handle citizens' complaints about potholes, trash pickup, and the like. (Perhaps not entirely practical in a city of eight million often-cranky folks.) And, to keep the candidate's policy chats as orderly as possible, the campaign has set up a schedule by which Mike will explain his position on one major issue every few days (or weeks) throughout the summer. His pet issue is education, which was the topic of his first policy speech. In addition to advocating raises and merit-based pay for teachers, Mike called for instituting student uniforms, disbanding the Board of Education, and establishing a "customer-service mentality," featuring an automated voice-mail system to allow parents to access constantly updated info on their children's grades, attendance, and homework.
 
But the truth is that, like pretty much all businessmen turned politicians, Mike isn't peddling his policy know-how; he's peddling his management genius. And in Mike's case, that genius consists of closely scripting the lives of all within his domain, of turning his environment into an extension of his personality. Observers might scoff at the idea that anyone could make the famously unruly world of New York politics conform to the dictates of any one person. Even Giuliani--a guy with a few control issues of his own--was constantly bedeviled by the competing agendas of his enemies and sometimes even those of his friends. But Mike has so far succeeded in controlling everything and everyone he's come into contact with. "I've never failed at anything yet," he likes to remind folks. Which suggests that the real worry for New Yorkers isn't what happens if his bid to run their city as he's run Bloomberg L.P. flops. It's what happens if it succeeds.

This article originally ran in the July 2nd, 2001, issue of the magazine.

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posted in: politics, medford, new york, bloomberg l.p., salomon, the new york times, valentine's day, bill cunningham, ed skyler, elizabeth mazzini, maureen connelly, michael r. bloomberg, mike bloomberg, rudy giuliani, harvard, johns hopkins university, massachusetts

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