Harold Ford gave many reasons for his decision not to launch a primary challenge of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, but he didn’t mention a decisive one: The emergence of a richer, stronger center-right challenger whom many of his potential supporters on Wall Street and in New York’s business community would prefer.
Ford’s departure signals, according to two top New York Democrats, just how serious Mortimer B. Zuckerman is about a Senate race.
Zuckerman, who parlayed a fortune in real estate into a mixed bag of media holdings and a prominent role in American Jewish life, has been encouraged by the reaction to the trial balloon he floated a few weeks ago in The New York Times, friends told POLITICO. And he seems to have shut down the former Tennessee Congressman’s attempt to enter New York politics before it ever got off the ground.
"A lot of donors were telling [Ford] that if Mort ran, they would be with Mort," said a senior New York Democrat.
But Zuckerman – who would likely skip the Democratic primary and challenge Gillibrand in the general election as a Republican-Independent – poses a far graver threat to the national political status quo. The New York billionaire who owns one of the party’s loudest megaphones, the New York Daily News, backed Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign but has emerged as a bitter White House critic, and his entry into the race would put Republicans clearly within striking distance of retaking the Senate.
At this point, the only real obstacle to Zuckerman’s entering the race is Zuckerman himself. Friends said they’re not sure whether he’s willing to give up the unusual status he’s bought as a figure who is public when he chooses to weigh in on public policy issues and utterly private in his unconventional personal life. And friends like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have told him that, at 72, after a lifetime of running his own businesses and making millions, the last thing that would make him happy would be becoming a freshman senator.
But Zuckerman, who owns the New York Daily News and U.S.News & World Report, has been a practicing pundit for years and “has always wanted to be in the political mix,” said Howard Rubenstein, the New York PR man and a Zuckerman friend. More important, the weaknesses of his likely opponent, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, are clear to everyone, and a statewide office has rarely seemed so ripe for the plucking.
“He’d be her ‘worst possible opponent’ among possible candidates, said Democratic political consultant Dan Gerstein.
If Zuckerman were to mount a serious challenge to Gillibrand as a Republican, it would extend the list of strong GOP candidates to well within striking distance of the Democrats’ 18-seat majority, though Zuckerman would most likely define himself as an independent.
Top state Republican officials, including former Gov. George Pataki, reached out to Zuckerman when his exploration became public (not, as reported elsewhere, the reverse, two sources said), with New York state chairman Ed Cox telling POLITICO he has only one caveat: If Zuckerman runs as a Republican, he has to agree to caucus with the party. And Frank MacKay, chairman of New York’s Independence Party, which has often offered wealthy candidates its line, said he finds Zuckerman “impressive” and is “wide open” to a meeting.
“He’s very articulate. He seems to know how to handle himself on television. He has an enormous hammer in the Daily News,” said Rubenstein, who has done work for Zuckerman. “It would breach all of his privacy, though,” he said, adding that Zuckerman “has led a very decent life.”
Like his friend Bloomberg, Zuckerman would very likely draw on the support of Rupert Murdoch, whose New York Post cheered him on with an editorial titled “Run, Mort, Run,” and with whom — after years of bitter rivalry — Zuckerman has negotiated, through Rubenstein, a formal nonaggression pact amid on-again, off-again tabloid merger talks.
Zuckerman, who, according to his allies, has spoken with Bloomberg and his circle about a potential bid, would be a candidate in the Bloomberg model: a mogul whose wealth gets him a party line or two and who taps into voters’ desire for independence from a hated political system.
Whether or not Zuckerman is too old to start at the bottom of the Senate, as Bloomberg has told him, he is hardly on the verge of retirement — he’s known as a hands-on manager and has two young daughters. But he is also not a billionaire on Bloomberg’s scale. The recent real estate downturn sliced away nearly half his net worth, reducing it to a mere $1.5 billion, according to Forbes’s 2009 list — one-tenth of Bloomberg’s worth but still probably enough to finance a Senate race without selling any helicopters.
Zuckerman, born in Montreal, made his fortune buying, selling and building real estate, but with wealth came a craving for a national voice. He bought The Atlantic Monthly in 1980, immediately getting off on the wrong foot with a journalistic establishment that considered him a bit of a bumptious outsider when he sued the sellers, who included the magazine’s staff, in a dispute over its books.
His relationship with his employees has often been difficult. He broke the union at the Daily News, ended its pension plan and, this year, ended the company’s 401(k) contributions. There are many former Daily News reporters at other news organizations, including this reporter, who worked for the paper in 2006 but never encountered Zuckerman.
In a recent memoir, a former Daily News editor described Zuckerman as “mercurial,” cheap and untrustworthy, and one senior Republican worried that he would suffer from the ill will of former employees. “There are plenty of people who are going to be happy to chase after things about Mort because of their history with him,” the Republican said.
Zuckerman’s other major platform has been Jewish organizations. He’s a hawkish friend of Israel — in line with many otherwise liberal New York Democrats, like Sen. Chuck Schumer — and was chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations from 2001 to 2003. Those organizational alliances could be a major advantage in New York, where support from Jewish Democrats has been crucial to Republican candidates like Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Zuckerman hasn’t been as successful in media as he has been in real estate: Apart from a windfall from the sale of the tech and business magazine Fast Company in 2000, most of his media investments have been less happy. But they’ve given Zuckerman a platform on which to become a public voice. His column runs in U.S. News, and he appears regularly on Sunday TV talk shows such as “The McLaughlin Group,” often identified merely as a U.S. News columnist.
The production of his column, in fact, has been the subject of a great deal of lore in the magazine world. The New Yorker reported in 2007 that the process begins when he calls a secretary to dictate his ideas. The secretary sends her rough copy to legendary British editor Harry Evans in New York, and Evans’s copy then appears on the desk of the U.S. News editor of the moment.
“The official understanding was always that Mort wrote the columns himself and they would appear on the editor’s desk,” said James Fallows, a former editor of U.S. News under Zuckerman; he declined to elaborate on unofficial understandings.
Zuckerman’s opinion writing reveals hawkish, socially liberal views that would probably qualify him as a Democrat in the Joe Lieberman model, though he’s not a registered member of either major party.
Friends said he identifies with the Democratic Party, and he’s given more money to Democrats than to Republicans over the years. But Zuckerman, who voted for Obama, has since emerged as a harsh critic.
Under the headline “He’s Done Everything Wrong,” he wrote in The Daily Beast that Obama has “misjudged the character of the country,” pushed a health care plan that will be a “fiscal disaster” and run a “revolting” and “politically corrupt” operation.
Other columns could produce campaign problems. Zuckerman said he voted for George W. Bush in 2004, and he was an intense supporter of the invasion of Iraq. As a true believer that weapons of mass destruction would be found there, he was convinced Saddam Hussein was “lying” in his denials.
But what Zuckerman’s opinions cost him, his experience on television could make up for, particularly in contrast with Gillibrand, a young senator who sometimes comes across as callow.
“Seeing them on the same stage, there’s an automatic gravitas imbalance,” said Gerstein.
For Zuckerman, the most difficult step into a truly public life might be the questions he doesn’t get asked on “The McLaughlin Group.” He would have to step back from a company that he has defined, Boston Properties, just weeks after the death of his business partner and alter ego, Ed Linde, and the company’s deals would undergo a new level of scrutiny.
Unlike Bloomberg’s Bloomberg LP, Boston Properties is a publicly traded company, which advertises to investors that it “benefits from the reputation and relationships of key personnel” like Zuckerman and from his “national reputation, which attracts business and investment opportunities.”
His management of his media properties could also be a target. Zuckerman’s spokesman, Ken Frydman, declined to put the question to Zuckerman of whether ending pensions and 401(k) contributions should be considered a model business practice.
On the personal level, Zuckerman is divorced and leads a colorful bachelor life, having been linked romantically over the years to a list of women including, according to The New Yorker, Arianna Huffington, Nora Ephron, Gloria Steinem, Diane von Furstenberg, Blair Brown and Marisa Berenson.
The Daily News in 2008 ran an announcement congratulating Zuckerman on the birth of a daughter but made no mention of the mother, prompting head-scratching in New York media circles. Recent visitors to his apartment said a baby is often present but that it’s considered impolite to inquire about the baby’s provenance.
“Those are obnoxious questions,” Frydman said in an e-mail. “So I’m not gonna ask him to answer them.”