A Battle of Goliaths: Michael Bloomberg and His Gun Control Group Take on the NRA

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

They've got 4 million followers.

He's got 16 billion simoleons.

This could get verrrrry interesting.

This being the stare-down between the National Rifle Association and Michael Bloomberg. Behemoth vs. behemoth.

Since the Reagan revolution, few lobbies have been mightier than the NRA. The Second Amendment defenders rarely lose on Capitol Hill, but lose they did just a few days ago, falling short in a sit-up-and-take-notice squeaker of a Senate vote on an amendment that would have let gun owners carry concealed weapons across most state lines. Score one for Bloomie and 450 of his closest mayor buddies (they call themselves Mayors Against Illegal Guns) . . . and their D.C. lobbyists and their consultants and their ad people. Score one against the NRA and the amendment's sponsor, that rising GOP star Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.

The Thune amendment inspired a gymnastic lobbying effort, juiced by Bloomberg's wealth -- he's injected $2.9 million of his own money into the mayors group since 2007, a spokesman confirms. Zooming in on how Bloomberg's group, far from an established Beltway force, out-lobbied the once-invincible NRA affords a glimpse of Capitol gamesmanship in the new Democratic-controlled Washington. There's a war room, of course, famous names dialing famous names and some in-your-face tactics, too.

And, naturally, there's enough bad blood left over to ensure many fights to come.

"The problem is that the NRA isn't willing to look at reasonable things," Bloomberg says in an interview. As for the Thune amendment that he just finished blocking, Bloomberg sums it up like this: "Another obstacle in the way of sanity."

In the opposite corner, the NRA's chief lobbyist, Chris W. Cox, calls Bloomberg an "elitist mayor with a big mouth . . . and a radical agenda . . . self-appointed mayor of America." And Thune's spokesman Kyle Downey says, "The fact that a guy who rides the New York subways with armed guards can tell the rest of America that they cannot defend themselves is absurd."

Things might never have gotten to this point if not for a seminal sit-down in April 2006 -- five months after Bloomberg was reelected -- at Gracie Mansion, New York's mayoral residence. Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino -- a natural ally as the New York mayor was born in Beantown -- invited about a dozen fellow mayors to talk about guns.

During his first term, Bloomberg had been introduced to the grimmest of mayoral rituals: late-night phone call, drive to the hospital, dead police officer, consoling the family.

"It brings it down to an emotional level when you actually look people in the eye, when you're in the room and see the body," Bloomberg says.

The other mayors knew the ritual well. They were all fed up, and they blamed gun-law loopholes and the availability of illegally obtained guns. Mayors Against Illegal Guns was born.

The group began with the fundamental premise that mayors were the perfect messengers, Bloomberg says, better suited to spur action than legislators who "sit around and pontificate and think." They sought to position themselves as believers in the Second Amendment. And though Bloomberg may not polish his bona fides by spending every weekend hunting wild game, he does point out during an interview that he had a .22-caliber rifle in his Boy Scout days and may have even earned a merit badge for marksmanship.

Cox, the NRA lobbyist, scoffs at all of this, calling the mayors organization "nothing more than a gun control group" and accusing Bloomberg of trying to bring "New York-style gun control to the rest of the country."

Three years ago Bloomberg provoked the NRA when the City of New York set up sting operations to uncover "straw purchases" -- one person fraudulently buying a gun for someone else. In 2007, the NRA's America's First Freedom magazine ran a cover image of Bloomberg as an octopus next to the headline "TENTACLES!"

Earlier this year, another group that receives financing from Bloomberg -- Americans United for Safe Streets -- ran television ads, featuring the brother of a Virginia Tech shooting victim, that claim Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell supports a gun-show loophole that allows for some purchases without background checks.

Separately, Bloomberg has became the largest single financial backer of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, but the mayors also talked the real estate magnate Eli Broad into kicking in $750,000 and the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation into contributing $1.1 million.

"If you believe in something, you've got to put your time and your money behind it," says Bloomberg, who declines to estimate how much he is willing to spend on the effort.

As the group has grown from 15 to 451 members, it has made inroads outside of Washington, most notably persuading Wal-Mart -- the nation's largest firearms retailer -- to promise it would videotape firearm aisles and hook up to a computer system to trace weapons purchases. Once reliably Republican, Wal-Mart has been making nice with Democrats of late, even agreeing with President Obama that companies should contribute to the cost of health care for employees.

But decisive Capitol Hill victories for the team of mayors had been elusive. They'd been unable to repeal amendments named for Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas that prevent the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from sharing certain types of gun information with city and state law enforcement agencies. Leaders of the mayors group say the information helps catch bad guys; the NRA objects on privacy grounds.

With the Tiahrt stumble in the rearview mirror, there was certainly reason for pessimism among the mayors in early July when their lobbyists started hearing whispers about Thune's plans from sources on the Hill. The senator from South Dakota, the lobbyists were told, would tack his amendment onto a defense appropriations bill. There were all sorts of uncertainties; it wasn't even clear how many votes Thune would need. But one thing was clear: They were going to have to move fast.

That's why one Sunday in early July, a conference call took place. Among those on the line were John Feinblatt, Bloomberg's criminal justice coordinator and a key player in the mayors group, and Mark Glaze and Karen Marangi of the Raben Group, a lobbying firm headed by Robert Raben, a former Hill staffer who was assistant attorney general under Janet Reno. A strategy began to form.

To beat Thune and the NRA, Glaze said, they'd have to be unconventional. They would debate a gun issue without making guns the central theme. They decided to build a campaign around the notion of states' rights, a principle more often invoked by their opponents. They would argue that Thune's amendment would infringe on the rights of each state to decide who could carry concealed weapons within its borders.

Glaze, 38, knew his opponent well. He grew up in Colorado, where his father sold guns at the family's corner store and displayed a bumper sticker that read: "You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers."

The mayors and their lobbyists also had to overcome what Glaze considered Capitol Hill "mythology" that NRA victories were almost automatic. "There was a sense out there that voting for the NRA was like [hitting] a function key," Glaze says.

It did not look like the odds were in their favor. Feinblatt maintained a whip sheet, one of those essential lobbying tools for tracking "who's with us, who's against us and who's on the fence." He figured there were more than two dozen senators who were undecided, leaning yes or leaning no. But he was particularly focused on one.

"We had to flip Specter," Feinblatt says. "There was no question about it -- we had to flip Specter."

Yes, Arlen Specter, he of the recent switch from the Republican Party to the Democrats. The former district attorney. The guy facing a tough reelection campaign next year. That Specter, the one they call "Snarlin' Arlen." He became their bellwether.

Feinblatt wheeled a swivel chair into Bloomberg's "bullpen," the thicket of cubicles in New York's City Hall modeled after a Wall Street trading floor that the mayor uses as an office. Bloomberg called Specter from the bullpen, Feinblatt says. In Pennsylvania, Specter's home state, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter was pressing the senator, too. They had compelling numbers: Mayors Against Illegal Guns counted 106 Pennsylvania mayors among its membership, more than any other state, and everyone knew those mayors might come in handy when Specter faces the voters next year.

Still, the mayors and their lobbyists weren't sure they had convinced Specter.

So they dialed up the pressure.

On Monday, July 20 -- two days before the vote -- the mayors took out big newspaper advertisements in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The ads featured a sobering photo: law enforcement officers saluting a flag-draped casket. Beneath it, a question: "Will Senator Specter Stand with 100 PA Mayors TO KEEP OUR COMMUNITIES SAFE?"

The next day, Specter issued a statement: He would be voting against the Thune amendment.

Ads were showing up in papers all over the country, produced on the fly as the clock ticked, leading up to the July 22 vote. In Colorado, an image of Tom Mauser, father of a Columbine shooting victim, holding his son Daniel's shoes and posing a direct question to the state's two new Senate Democrats, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall: "ARE YOU TALKING STRAIGHT TO THE PEOPLE OF COLORADO?" In Ohio, an open letter to Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and George Voinovich, a Republican: "DON'T LET THE U.S. SENATE GUT OHIO'S PUBLIC SAFETY LAWS." (Bennet and Udall eventually voted for the amendment; Brown and Voinovich against it.)

The ads included lists of mayors. That definitely got the attention of Thune's office. Someone noticed that one ad suggested Sioux Falls Mayor Dave Munson opposed the amendment. That one stung -- Thune lives in Sioux Falls.

Thune's office placed a call to Munson, who told them he didn't oppose the amendment, a Thune staffer said. Several days later Munson resigned from the mayors group, Feinblatt says. Munson could not be reached for comment.

"Our objective was to demonstrate that there could be a political advantage to voting for reasonable gun laws, and that there is a political cost to not doing that," Glaze says.

In New York, Feinblatt set up a war room and staffed it 18 hours a day for nearly two weeks. At its peak, 10 people crammed into the room to do legal research, make phone calls, send e-mails and coordinate with the mayors in the group. A half-dozen others focused on getting reporters, editorial boards and advocacy groups interested in the issue.

The lawyers in the room stood by to counter objections instantaneously. So, for instance, when staffers from a New Mexico senator's office were unsure what the amendment would mean for them, Feinblatt says, he was ready.

Boom! Feinblatt's lawyers spit out an analysis -- not of federal law, but of New Mexico law -- within an hour. State by state, the lawyers were churning out customized analyses to salve any concerns. The phones hummed.

When the bill was debated on the Senate floor, Thune left himself open to ridicule by suggesting that Central Park would be safer if South Dakotans were allowed to take guns there. In fact, Bloomberg says, a slaying in Central Park hasn't occurred since 2002, and he notes in an interview that it "was done with a rock."

The vote itself, a 58 to 39 nail-biter on July 22 that left the NRA two senators short of what it needed, set in motion the inevitable postgame spin. In defeat, the NRA deemed the vote a "major step forward" because 20 Democrats sided with them. Thune blamed the outcome on "anti-gun senators" and "overheated rhetoric and fear-mongering." The mayors group called it a "major victory."

Looking back, Cox says in an interview that "only Michael Bloomberg and the gun-control community would characterize a 58-39 vote in our favor as some kind of resounding victory." He notes that the NRA has been trying to expand conceal-carry rights for years, only to encounter opponents who "kicked and screamed hysterically every time."

Now that the mayors have tasted a Capitol Hill win -- major in their eyes, puny in the NRA's -- it's looking like this bitterness could linger awhile. "The NRA? They're not going to go quietly into that good night," Nutter, the Philadelphia mayor, says in an interview.

But the mayors say they don't want to just play defense, they'll also play offense. Next on their agenda is a rewrite of laws that they say allow terrorists to buy guns. Bloomberg says he's also concerned about the smuggling of weapons south of the border; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has acknowledged that U.S. guns play a large role in the drug violence sweeping Mexico.

"We are the largest exporter of weapons to Mexico," Bloomberg says. "What America's doing is a disgrace."

The mayors group now envisions itself as nothing less than a permanent counterweight to the NRA, "the new sheriff in town," as one strategist put it. Cox promises in an interview "that the NRA will be there, standing between [Bloomberg] and the Second Amendment."

Neither side lacks for resources to extend the grudge match. Bloomberg, who is seeking a third term, is the world's 17th-richest person with an estimated $16 billion personal fortune, according to Forbes magazine.

The NRA checks in with an annual budget around $200 million -- though not a penny of that is from Bloomberg. As it turns out, sometime around the mayor's Feb. 14 birthday last year, an anonymous mischief-maker bought him a one-year NRA membership. When Bloomberg turned 67 this year, he thought better of ponying up the cash to renew it.

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