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Rift in GOP arises ahead of convention

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

WASHINGTON -- New York demands toughness, and the city's Republican mayor is playing hardball -- with the GOP members he'll host later this summer at the party's nominating convention.

Michael Bloomberg, who faces re-election next year in this solidly Democratic city, has tangled with Republicans over the basics of the convention: who has the final word on street closings during the four-day event and a long-term issue -- whether Republicans in Congress are denying the city millions of dollars in homeland security funds.

Getting into a fight with the mayor weeks before the convention isn't smart politics. Just ask the Democrats who are at odds with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino over his handling of contract negotiations with the city's police union. Democrats fear demonstrations will disrupt the convention, planned for July 26 to 29.

The Republican rift comes as New York prepares for the GOP convention beginning Aug. 30 at Madison Square Garden, about three miles from Ground Zero where terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and killed thousands on Sept. 11, 2001.

After a convention official said in May that streets around Madison Square Garden would be closed as early as three days before the convention, Bloomberg said the official spoke "without knowledge."

He insisted the city police department would make any decisions on street closings.

The spat involves a mayor whose party affiliation was widely seen as a choice of convenience rather than conviction. Bloomberg switched his Democratic registration to the GOP just months before he announced his candidacy, thus avoiding a crowded Democratic race and giving him a better shot at becoming mayor.

His recent battles with the GOP reflect Bloomberg's desire to win re-election in 2005, which may well be more important to him than this year's presidential election.

Steve Cohen, a professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, said Bloomberg has decided to borrow a strategy from his predecessor, Republican Rudolph Giuliani, who often seemed willing to spar with anyone to appear the city's champion.

"The mayor sees this going into his re-election as a very potent political issue, and he's been trying to demonstrate Giuliani-like toughness," Cohen said. "He's been playing ball with these people for a couple of years now, and in the end he got stabbed in the back."

Bloomberg's major fight with the GOP came after the Republican-led House rejected a bill that would have shifted about $450 million in anti-terrorism funds from rural areas to cities. In the days after the House vote, Bloomberg withdrew an invitation to Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, for a party meeting at his home and criticized other, unidentified lawmakers, for taking away "monies that we need to protect us against terrorists."

Ney was one of 147 Republicans who voted against the measure. But the vote fell largely on regional, not party, lines, with 89 Democrats and an independent also opposed.

Republican officials canceled the luncheon meeting, which has since been rescheduled at what was described as a neutral site without Bloomberg.

Ney said Bloomberg wants "to distance himself from Republicans, so he beats up on me. I think we're part of his agenda. A lot of people, a lot of rural people, are just shaking their heads at this."

The mayor's spokesman, Ed Skyler, countered that Ney "is trying to distract people from the fact that he supports using homeland security money as political pork, while the mayor believes the funds should be distributed on the basis of risk."

Republican Rep. Peter King, from suburban Long Island, said some members of his party are overreacting to Bloomberg's criticism. He suggested that past New York City mayors would have complained louder.

"I would say Bloomberg is probably the most gentlemanly of the bunch," King said. "But you can't expect him to be wining and dining Republicans who are voting against his city."

Bloomberg tried the wine-and-dine approach with Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., a House subcommittee chairman on homeland security spending. The mayor also donated a total of $5,000 to Rogers and his political action campaign. That appeal didn't sway Rogers, who voted against the amendment.

Even the nuts-and-bolts planning of the convention has put Bloomberg at odds with the GOP.

After a convention official said in May that streets around Madison Square Garden would be closed as early as three days before the convention, Bloomberg said the official spoke "without knowledge," and he insisted the city police department would make any decisions on street closings.

Last week, he announced one lane of traffic would remain open on avenues directly outside the Garden -- except during the 13 hours when the convention is in session.


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