By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 26, 2007
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a self-made billionaire, has told friends more than once that his definition of good financial planning is making sure the check to the undertaker bounces when it's finally time to go.
So how does a billionaire spend all his money before he dies? In Bloomberg's case, he just might drop a cool half-billion on a long-shot bid to become the nation's first modern president from outside the two major political parties.
As fellow New Yorkers Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) campaign vigorously across the country to become their parties' nominees and prepare for what would be an electric general-election clash, Bloomberg is governing the "ungovernable city" -- and patiently waiting in the wings.
Publicly, the Democrat-turned-Republican professes no interest in the top job at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But the founder of the Bloomberg financial news empire has dropped enough hints and has had enough tantalizing discussions with potential supporters that people who observe the city's politics for a living are convinced he is at least thinking about it.
"He would be a very compelling candidate," said civil rights activist Al Sharpton, himself a once and potentially future presidential hopeful from the Big Apple, and a friend of the mayor's. Sharpton called Bloomberg "Ross Perot with a resume" and predicted that "if he operates as he's done in other parts of his life, he will put both feet in."
Bloomberg, 65, has told confidants that he will not decide until early next year, when it has become clear whom Democrats and Republicans will nominate.
If he runs for president as a self-financed independent, New York could find itself home to a trio of presidential candidates, an oddity for a state and city often portrayed as far outside the mainstream of American political and social life.
"You are dealing with people who have in one way or another been perceived as having conquered New York," Sharpton said. "After that, what else is there to do but conquer the country?"
"It's the water," joked former New York mayor Edward I. Koch, who is supporting Clinton but said he would welcome Bloomberg to the race. "There's no lead in it, which can cloud your thinking."
Clear thinking might lead a politician to decide that running for president as a third-party candidate would be a fool's errand. Consumer activist Ralph Nader won about 2.7 percent of the vote in 2000. H. Ross Perot, another billionaire businessman, drew about 19 percent in 1992 after spending about $60 million of his personal fortune.
Stu Loeser, Bloomberg's press secretary, said flatly last week that his boss is not considering a presidential campaign.
"He has dinner with people. People ask him questions. He engages in conversation," Loeser said, explaining the genesis of stories about the mayor's presidential ambitions. "He has been very clear and explicit that he is not running for president."
Not running now? Or not running ever?
"The question has been asked every which way," Loeser said. "The answer is no. He has been very clear that he's not running."
But despite those denials the rumblings persist, perhaps because, unlike most politicians, Bloomberg has vast wealth that allows him the luxury to wait until next year to decide. As then-New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) proved 15 years ago, there's nothing quite so appealing in politics as someone who is merely mulling a White House bid.
A close friend who has spoken to Bloomberg about the pros and cons of a presidential campaign said that "it is still on his mind." But the friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of respect for Bloomberg's privacy, said the mayor would have to be convinced that there is a compelling rationale for him to run.
"If he felt that the candidates were likely to be such that it gave him the opportunity, he would do it," the friend said. "It's a long shot, but not 100 to 1."
At No. 142 on the Forbes list of the word's richest people, Bloomberg is worth at least $5.5 billion. He controls a private company that provides real-time financial data to money managers and others around the globe. And he has built a news-gathering organization that employs more than 1,000 reporters.
A generous philanthropist, Bloomberg has pledged to eventually give away his fortune and has constructed a building around the corner from his East 79th Street townhouse to provide the headquarters for his charitable foundation. Political observers say he has enough money to blanket the country with television ads for months if he becomes a candidate.
"He'd be a candidate almost in the progressive tradition," said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York political consultant. "He could make the argument: 'A pox on both their houses.' He's a celebrity by definition because he's a billionaire."
His money -- and a post-Sept. 11 desire for a steady hand -- helped elect Bloomberg mayor in 2001. His first year was rocky; he confronted a budget deficit as high as $6 billion and pushed through an 18.5 percent property tax increase. His approval rating plunged to 41 percent.
The notion of a Bloomberg presidency grows out of his subsequent successes in New York, where he is now widely regarded as a popular, effective and smart leader who carries none of Giuliani's often polarizing personal attributes. By law, Bloomberg cannot run for a third term as mayor in 2009.
In its endorsement of his reelection in 2005, the New York Times editorial board praised his handling of the city's issues, from garbage to the homeless to crime. Bloomberg "focused on getting things done, not on getting headlines," the Times wrote, predicting that "he may be remembered as one of the greatest mayors in New York history."
The paper's only complaint: what it called the "obscene" and "out-of-control" campaign spending that Bloomberg employed to win his two campaigns. He spent about $85 million in his 2005 campaign against Democrat Fernando Ferrer.
Running as a Republican for president is not an option, friends say. As his predecessor did, Bloomberg has taken positions that would be considered too liberal by many GOP primary voters. He supports gun control, has raised taxes, backs same-sex marriage and signed a law banning the use of trans fats in fast-food restaurants. The mayor once filed suit on behalf of the city against two dozen gun dealers.
"They are things that don't necessarily sell in Nebraska," said New York lobbyist Norman Adler.
Nor is Bloomberg likely to return to the Democratic Party for a tussle with Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). He has expressed to friends a deep frustration with partisan politics in the United States. And if he ran as a Democrat, he might sacrifice his reputation as an independent-minded businessman who is above politics.
But running for president as a third-party candidate has its own risks and challenges. The two-party system makes it difficult for third-party candidates to get on the ballot, and waiting until next year could make that hurdle insurmountable.
Bloomberg could have help in that area from a group that is planning to hold a "unity" primary to nominate a bipartisan ticket for the White House. The group, Unity08, was founded by, among others, Hamilton Jordan, President Jimmy Carter's chief of staff.
"Unity08 believes that neither of today's major parties reflects the aspirations, fears or will of the majority of Americans," its Web site states. "Both have polarized and alienated the people. . . . Unity08 will act to assure that an alternative ticket is presented to the American voters in 2008."
Bloomberg could help fulfill that goal. But in conversations with friends, he has been realistic about his chances for success: "How can a 5-foot-7, divorced billionaire Jew running as an independent from New York possibly have a chance?" he has asked.
Said one confidant: "Is there going to be a Perot moment where a third-party candidate can come in, much the way Perot did, and have it make sense so you're almost halfway sold before you're out the gate? He's not interested in making a fool of himself. "