As the curtain opens on 2010, the stars of the year in city politics, Mike Bloomberg and William Thompson, who were awkwardly allied since being inaugurated together eight years ago, are each moving on to new and uncertain phases of their public lives.
Bloomberg, who has suffered recent stunning setbacks in the City Council, has already discovered that third terms and narrow wins can diminish even mogul mayors. Thompson — entertained at Gracie Mansion at a post-election private breakfast and praised by Bloomberg as "a quality guy" who the mayor hopes "stays in public service" — is still considering a 2010 race against our unelected senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, or unelected state comptroller, Tom DiNapoli ("Go for it," cheers Bloomberg). Friends of Thompson expect him to try, like loser Rudy Giuliani did in 1989, to stay in play on the sidelines and run for mayor again in four years, when a departing Bloomberg might throw him an endorsement or some checks.
Thompson, who only promises he will run again sometime for something, has suddenly become a darling of the media, which are now overcompensating for relying too obsessively on inaccurate polls that failed to anticipate a four-point margin of victory. Thompson, it turns out, got virtually the same total vote Fernando Ferrer did in 2005, while Bloomberg pulled in 180,000 fewer votes than he received last time. Thompson's close margin was less a result of his underappreciated strengths — the Times' Mike Barbaro correctly reported two weeks before the election that his "biggest obstacle" was "his own undisciplined campaign" — than they were of a result of Bloomberg fatigue. Thompson, in fact, had an "oddly relaxed" campaign schedule, with a single event some days, observed Barbaro, and was "chronically late" and often failed to appear at all. He spent more than half his money before the mid-September nominal primary, forcing him to rely on blink-of-an-eye, 15-second TV commercials in November.
But that wasn't enough. Thompson's real role, for Bloomberg at least, was to help force the feared congressman, Anthony Weiner, out of the race, a goal that Bloomberg guru Howard Wolfson has openly acknowledged. Thompson obliged, giving up a sure third term as comptroller. Weiner himself explained in a Times op-ed when he withdrew in May that "running a primary against Thompson would only drain the ability of the winner to compete in the general election." Having lost to Ferrer in 2005 by 11 points, Weiner understood that minority candidates have won all but one of the Democratic mayoral primaries since 1985. So when the leading black politician in the city decided to make his improbable run, Weiner had nowhere to go but out. Thompson and Bloomberg might as well have had a first-round victory party together that night.
Like other powerful New York pols, Mike Bloomberg wanted to pick his own opponent. Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer spent a year setting the table for 2010, and, as one-time putative opponents Steve Israel and Carolyn Maloney can attest, the incumbent pair used every knife and fork available. Ed Koch picked his opponent when he derailed ex-congressman Herman Badillo and won a third term in 1985, and Giuliani did it when he submarined a possible challenge from Alan Hevesi in 1997. Faced with internal polls that we now know rarely put Bloomberg above 50 percent, he preferred an opponent whose vulnerabilities were well known to him, having already exploited them for years.
Thompson couldn't, for example, attack Bloomberg's development policies since, as a member of the city's Industrial Development Agency, he had voted 876 times in favor of the $9.6 billion in bonds that underwrite the projects, opposing them only five times. Charged under the city charter with assessing Bloomberg's budgets and auditing his agencies, Thompson had instead gushed about the mayor for most of his two terms, leaving him with virtually no viable way of distinguishing himself from his golf buddy when the two ended up on opposite sides of the ballot.
What Bloomberg got with Thompson was a made-to-order challenge, so tame at times that a reporter, frustrated by Thompson's unwillingness to say a single critical word about Bloomberg at one September press conference, asked why he'd called it, and so over-the-top at other times (as when he promised to fire Police Commissioner Ray Kelly), that he looked grotesquely out of touch. The Daily News' Adam Lisberg captured it in a classic headline: "Nice-guy Thompson can't find the jugular." Thompson curiously decided to make schools the core of his attack on Bloomberg even as his key campaign consultant, Roberto Ramirez, was lobbying in Albany on behalf of a Bloomberg-tied group championing mayoral control. Thompson often looked like a befuddled shadow-boxer, tied to Bloomberg at the hip while serving up obligatory campaign lip. As for Bloomberg, he'd contended in 2008 that all the term-limits extension did was give voters the additional choice of voting for him, a supposed "expansion" of the franchise even as he overrode the result of two referendums. Then he maneuvered successfully in 2009 to narrow that choice to the opponent he wanted to face.
If voters had a vague sense that this was a mirage of a mayoral election, what follows is a damning set of facts that shows that these two supposed opponents were actually far more connected than we ever knew. They shared a very personal and subterranean agenda, the funding of a project dear to Thompson's heart. Remarkably, Bloomberg continued pouring new money into a project that benefited Thompson even in the heat of the campaign. It is a connection begging for explanation, but Thompson would not answer virtually any of the post-election questions posed by the Voice.
Stranger still, Bloomberg's press managers refused to provide any public information about that project — a museum — in the lead-up to the election, prompting me to tell the mayor's press secretary, Stu Loeser, that he was more helpful when I was writing an exposé about the mayor than when I was reporting on the mayor's opponent. Since November, however, the city agencies that once stonewalled me have piled public papers on my desk.
Here, then, is the story about Bill Thompson that Mike Bloomberg didn't want you to know when he was running against him.
It starts with a single, unsettling fact: The mayor has directed or triggered between $43 million and $51 million in public and personal subsidies into a museum project led by Thompson's current wife and longtime companion, Elsie McCabe-Thompson, dumping $2 million of additional city funding into it as late as September 30, in the middle of the mayoral campaign.
Thompson was so involved with his wife's Museum for African Art that he may have violated the city charter by using his office to solicit state and city funding for its grand new home now under construction, with marble floors and walls, at the end of Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue and 109th Street. While the project sounds admirable, the museum has attracted this funding at a time when it is little more than an office in a warehouse in Long Island City, with no permanent art collection of its own, no gallery, no accreditation from the American Association of Museums or the Association of African American Museums, and no connection or history with Harlem. It is so out of compliance with state legal requirements for museums that the best it could do, after weeks of Voice questioning, was shake "a letter of existence" out of education department officials, which it misrepresented as a "letter of good standing." Other outstanding African-American museums in the city, like the fully accredited Studio Museum of Harlem, which has a 1,600-object permanent collection and, unlike McCabe-Thompson's, has trained 90 artists-in-residence, receive a fraction of the public assistance showered on this monument to political connections.
The Voice has identified four city and state sources who say Thompson spoke to them on behalf of the project, a potential violation of Conflict of Interest Board (COIB) decisions that have resulted in fines when low-level city officials use their position to benefit their girlfriends or wives. While Thompson declined to answer questions about these contacts, a museum spokeswoman, Jeanne Collins, e-mailed that McCabe-Thompson was "unaware of any conversations" her husband may have had on the museum's behalf with individuals with "whom Ms. McCabe-Thompson did not have prior contact." Thompson "did not introduce the museum or Ms. McCabe-Thompson to any new funders," Collins said, never denying that Thompson pushed for funding the museum had already sought, as the Voice confirmed. In addition to Thompson's contacts, McCabe-Thompson noted in an application for funding from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer that she was "the fiancée" of the city comptroller, volunteering it as a form of disclosure. In fact, a Page Six item in the Post on June 6, 2006, announced that the "elegant" Elsie and the "smitten" Billy were dating, a story that Thompson advisers say they planted, making sure, not incidentally, that any possible funder out of the loop got the news.
Beyond Thompson's interventions on behalf of the museum, his office had to register its capital funding agreements and city contracts. Thompson's spokesman insisted that its contract unit only certified the project once, in March 2008, without any involvement at the top of the office. The spokesman insisted it was "approved as a matter of course," though the Bloomberg administration's Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which is shepherding the museum project and is convinced of its merits, says the comptroller "has sent back some funding agreement packages with questions or requests for more information." This project — which defaulted on or skirted several critical EDC deadlines, in addition to its questionable licensing status with the state — invited questions, but Thompson's office rubberstamped it. The city charter explicitly requires that capital projects receive the comptroller's approval, and he issues the directives that govern projects like this. His office even reviews the contracts for the museum's operating grants.