12 May 2009

What Your Mayor Is Up To

From the May 11 New York Times:

Congressman Accuses Bloomberg Campaign of Spreading Negative Stories


Like clockwork, the calls from reporters arrive around 4 p.m., sending Representative Anthony D. Weiner’s staff members scurrying to defend their boss.

Did Mr. Weiner solicit campaign contributions from foreign fashion models, asked one reporter. Was his fight to save a hospital a political favor for a donor, asked another.

“It is just every single day,” Mr. Weiner said. “It’s surreal.”

But the last straw, he said, was an article in The New York Post claiming that he had repeatedly skipped votes in Congress to play hockey in New York — a claim that his staff denied.

Mr. Weiner said that despite backing away from plans to run for mayor this year, he remains the target of a well-orchestrated smear campaign that can be traced to the re-election bid of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

The mayor, he said, is running “the most consistently and relentlessly negative campaign that I and many people I know have seen.”

Mr. Weiner characterized the research behind critical news articles about him as “daily Dumpster diving.”

“I am only a quasi candidate right now and this is what they are doing,” he said in an interview.

Jill Hazelbaker, a spokeswoman for the Bloomberg campaign, would not address Mr. Weiner’s claim that the campaign was behind the negative press.

“This is an argument between Anthony Weiner and the New York press corps,” she said. “If he chooses to play hockey instead of doing his job in Washington, if he chooses to accept questionable campaign contributions, if he chooses to put press conferences ahead of passing legislation, then it’s no one’s fault but his own when reporters write about those choices.”

The press coverage may be backfiring on the Bloomberg campaign. Rather than driving him out of the race, the negative press makes him “more inclined to run, not less,” said Jim Margolis, a political strategist close to Mr. Weiner.

“I don’t walk away from a fight,” Mr. Weiner said. “I am certainly not letting Bloomberg’s strategy knock me off the beam.”

Mr. Weiner said he was speaking out about the issue because of what he views as hypocrisy: Mr. Bloomberg is publicly pledging a “positive campaign,” while his campaign is generating many of the stories, which have appeared in the city’s three major daily newspapers as well as on local television news programs.

“There is an inherent dishonesty about it,” he said. “Everyone is in on the joke except the voters.”

Ms. Hazelbaker said the mayor “continues to run a positive campaign and positive advertising based on his record and vision for the future.”

Conducting research on opponents and leaking the findings to reporters is hardly unusual in politics — indeed, Mr. Weiner has done it in previous campaigns. But Mr. Weiner, a six-term Democratic congressman from Brooklyn, is not even a full-fledged candidate in the mayoral race.

After pledging to run, he told supporters in early March that he was reconsidering and would not decide whether to enter the race until the end of May.

Nevertheless, the Bloomberg campaign commissioned a telephone poll that asked New Yorkers, among other questions, if their views of Mr. Weiner would be different if they knew of certain problems involving the congressman, like missing votes in Congress, having difficulty keeping staff and accepting campaign donations from people who stood to benefit from legislation he sponsored.

Several of those issues have become the subjects of news articles that Mr. Weiner and his staff assert were planted by Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign. Mr. Bloomberg is known for hiring aggressive opposition research teams that bombard rival campaigns with negative press.

During a public symposium shortly after Mr. Bloomberg won re-election in 2005, aides to his Democratic challenger, Fernando Ferrer, grudgingly commended the mayor’s research team, led by Stu Loeser, for “outgunning” them.

“You could set a clock to it,” said Nick Baldick, Mr. Ferrer’s campaign manager. “Stu’s first shot would be at 4 p.m., his second shot would be at about 5:15.”

At the time, Mr. Loeser responded: “That’s actually not true, and you should blame the press. Because we would send it out earlier.”

Mr. Loeser, now the mayor’s press secretary, later added, “We had a number of people” doing research on the mayor’s opponents.

Mr. Weiner said he was especially galled by several recent news articles in The Post, including the one accusing him of skipping votes to play hockey, published on Thursday. A spokeswoman for The Post declined to comment.

The Post has also written three articles about campaign contributions to Mr. Weiner from those with ties to the modeling industry, which stood to benefit from a bill he sponsored. Two of the articles focused on $1,400 in illegal donations from fashion models who live outside the United States. Mr. Weiner, who has raised $5 million for the race, has since returned the contributions. Ms. Hazelbaker said Mr. Weiner’s reaction to such stories “is emblematic of a typical politician who refuses to take responsibility for his actions.”

“When someone holds elected office, the press examines their record — that’s the way the public is best served.”

Mr. Weiner said one reason not to run a brass-knuckles campaign is that “you know it looks bad.”

The mayor, he said, “has succeeded in doing it without anybody even looking.”

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