Lesson of the Election: Money Trumps Morality

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Getty Images
    Mike Bloomberg's campaign advisers subscribed to the philosophy of sucking all of the air out of the room.

    The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi said: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

    That philosophy may work on a football field. But it shouldn’t be the guide when we are electing politicians.

    Reporter Michael Barbaro in the New York Times has written an account of the machinations of Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign operators that should turn the stomach of anyone who believes in free and fair elections.

    At an early stage of Bill Thompson’s campaign, an avalanche of phone calls descended on the White House, advising Barack Obama’s aides that they should stay out of the New York mayoral race.

    One call came from the chief executive of a Harlem children’s charity that has received $600,000 in personal donations from Bloomberg. The message from this man and others who called the White House, Barbaro reports, was simply: “We didn’t pick sides in your race. Don’t pick sides in his.”

    The President’s aides agreed. That’s why, when  Obama finally came to New York to deliver what Thompson hoped would be an endorsement, his words were half-hearted. Obama did not campaign with Thompson.

    Neutralizing the President of the United States obviously took chutzpah. And, in addition to the $100 million or so he spent on his campaign, Bloomberg had an unlimited supply of chutzpah, too.

    An important part of the Bloomberg strategy was to scare potential opponents out of the race. Thus, they hired what Barbaro describes as an “attack dog,”  Howard Wolfson, to blister any opponent with invective. Also, the Mayor’s high command engineered the City Council’s rejection of term limits.

    Bradley Tusk, a former deputy to Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, was selected to run the campaign. His philosophy: “taking all the oxygen out of the room.” That is, hiring so many campaign operatives and getting so many endorsements from high profile politicians that it would appear impossible for any mere mortal to take on this imperial juggernaut.

    To push Congressman Anthony Weiner, a man with wide appeal to middle class voters, out of the race, the Bloomberg advisers tried to paint Weiner as an absentee congressman who skipped votes in Washington to play hockey in Manhattan. They poured it on -- fomenting  unfavorable articles in newspapers.

    Eventually, as the Bloomberg people hoped, Wiener lost enthusiasm for taking on this formidable opposition. He dropped out.

    Then they trained their big guns on Thompson, unleashing a volley of negative advertising, painting Thompson as an incompetent comptroller who took campaign contributions from people who benefited from city contracts. As the Bloomberg campaign outspent Thompson by as high as 16-to-1, negative charges rained down on the candidate’s head and he didn’t have the money to launch a counter-offensive.

    The Bloomberg campaign made one notable mistake. They invited Rudy Giuliani to a campaign stop in Brooklyn where, before a gathering of orthodox Jews, the former mayor recalled the days of the Crown Heights riots during the term of the city’s first black mayor, David Dinkins.

    Said Giuliani: “And you know exactly what I’m talking about.”

    The Bloomberg campaign feared that Thompson would take advantage of this incident to accuse them of playing a race card. The Mayor reportedly was furious at Giuliani’s remarks.

    And, although he was urged by Democratic leaders to take on Bloomberg on this issue, Thompson, a mild-mannered, non-confrontational man, refused to do so.

    The whole affair raises an important moral issue: is politics only about winning? Is the Lombardi philosophy that winning is the only thing valid in the political arena?

    A sizable number of New York voters was alienated by the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars to destroy the opposition in the most expensive local campaign in American history. They  may not have prevailed----but their voices were heard. This election left a lingering bad taste.

    The issue of morality in politics needs to be addressed. Perhaps we should begin by seeking new ways to curb the influence of big money on political campaigns.

    It’s time to think about reform. The political wise guys who ran the Mayor’s campaign may have prevailed --but, in the long run, they defeated their cause.