April 18, 2005
Both Parties Try to Untangle Kerrey's Intent in Mayor's Race
hrown off balance by former United States Senator Bob Kerrey's musings about whether to run for mayor, New York politicians struggled yesterday to gauge his seriousness, while aides to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg expressed bewilderment with Mr. Kerrey's motives.
Publicly at least, the Democratic candidates for mayor reacted with caution to Mr. Kerrey's comment on Saturday that he was disillusioned with Mr. Bloomberg and was considering getting into the race himself. Mr. Kerrey, a Democrat who is president of New School University, said he would make a final decision in the next few days.
Aides to several candidates said privately that they were torn between concern about Mr. Kerrey's intentions and a desire not to be seen attacking a major figure in the national party. The candidates' campaign organizations issued carefully crafted responses, but some campaign members were already whispering about potential liabilities for a Kerrey candidacy, like his admission four years ago that a unit he led in the Vietnam War had killed unarmed civilians.
Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president, released a statement saying, "I agree with Bob Kerrey's criticism of Mayor Bloomberg, and that's the reason I'm running." Another candidate, Gifford Miller, the speaker of the City Council, said he "has an enormous amount of respect for Bob Kerrey and agrees with" some of his criticism of the mayor.
Mr. Kerrey criticized Mr. Bloomberg in an interview with The New York Times on Saturday, saying that the mayor was not doing enough to secure a larger share of federal tax dollars for New York and that he was focusing too intently on a proposal for a new Jets stadium on the West Side of Manhattan. Specifically, he suggested that two of Mr. Bloomberg's predecessors, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Edward I. Koch, would have lobbied harder for changes to the alternative minimum tax, a provision of the federal tax code that has the effect of denying deductions for state and local taxes, which are high for New Yorkers.
The sharpest response to Mr. Kerrey came from the Bloomberg camp, which did not hesitate to highlight what it viewed as his erratic attitude toward the mayor's race in recent weeks. Mr. Bloomberg was in Germany on Olympics business and not available for comment, but his aides said he was mystified by Mr. Kerrey's actions, and they provided new details of how Mr. Kerrey's support for the mayor unexpectedly curdled in the last few days.
The aides, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified so as to avoid a public fight with Mr. Kerrey, said the former senator from Nebraska did not hesitate to accept Mr. Bloomberg's personal request about two weeks ago that he become chairman of Democrats for Bloomberg. That followed a meeting with William T. Cunningham, the mayor's communications director, and Robert B. Tierney, the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission chairman, where, the aides said, Mr. Kerrey spoke highly of the mayor and indicated that he would be willing to assist the re-election campaign.
Even when word began to circulate on Friday that Mr. Kerrey might be considering a run, mayoral aides said that after a conversation he had with Mr. Cunningham, they had the impression that he probably would not enter the race.
Yesterday, several aides said they did not doubt that Mr. Kerrey might very well run. But while they said they believed that his explanation for how he came to his decision was sincere - he said he had been filling out his own tax return when it occurred to him that the mayor had not done enough to lobby Washington for a larger share of federal money - they doubted that it would be an effective rationale for a candidacy.
Mr. Bloomberg was in Washington just last week to discuss tax policy with, among others, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Finance Committee, a panel on which Mr. Kerrey once sat. And the setting of federal tax policy is the purview of federal officeholders, not the mayor of New York.
"If he's concerned about the alternative minimum tax, he should try to get his seat back on the Senate Finance Committee," said Kevin Sheekey, the mayor's chief strategist.
Noting that Mr. Kerrey said in the interview Saturday that he believed Mr. Bloomberg had been "gutsy" in taking over the school system and successful in soothing race relations, Mr. Sheekey added, "He praised his leadership on the most important issues facing the city."
Mr. Sheekey also said he believed an article in the new issue of Time magazine naming Mr. Bloomberg one of the nation's five best mayors - citing his stewardship of the city budget and economy - would squelch much of Mr. Kerrey's criticism.
Mr. Kerrey was unavailable for further comment yesterday, a spokesman said, leaving politicians and strategists on both sides to speculate about the likelihood, and practical problems, of a Kerrey candidacy.
Before facing Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Kerrey would have to win the Democratic primary, and that is no easy task for a white candidate from out of town with no obvious base in a city of so many racial minorities.
In addition to Mr. Ferrer and Mr. Miller, two other Democratic candidates are C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president, and Representative Anthony D. Weiner. Faced with the same option four years ago, Mr. Bloomberg, a lifelong Democrat, decided to change his party registration and run as a Republican, and to this day says openly that he is not sure he would have been able to win a Democratic primary that year.
A strategist for one of the Democratic candidates said Mr. Kerrey's prominence might make it easier for him to raise money nationally.
"But New York tribal and ethnic politics being what they are," the strategist said, "it would be a challenge for someone like Kerrey to come in at this late hour and cobble together the party support he needs on the ground to make it work."
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