Bloomberg Flirtation Sets Executive Hearts Aflutter


By: Wall Street Journal

Hope in the Suites For Presidential Bid By New York Mayor
By BEN CASSELMAN

Michael Bloomberg’s prolonged flirtation with the race for the White House is generating interest in executive suites across the country, in a reflection of the business community’s growing dissatisfaction with the major political parties.

As the economy has emerged as a dominant issue in the 2008 campaign, candidates have struck populist notes, from Republican Mike Huckabee’s boast that he is not a “wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street” to Democrat Barack Obama’s visit to Wall Street to chastise finance executives for failing to protect the middle class.

That is prompting some business leaders to look within their ranks — and to Mr. Bloomberg, seen by supporters as someone whose entrepreneurial success and management as mayor of New York City suggest he can best represent their interests.

Those who already know the 65-year-old Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent have urged him to run, in telephone calls, dinner meetings, and cocktail party encounters. Others have joined groups promoting his candidacy. Mr. Bloomberg has publicly denied he is a candidate, and friends say he is noncommittal even in private. But aides have reached out to business leaders to gauge whether they would back him.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many would. Michael Steinhardt, chairman of New York-based WisdomTree Investments and a former hedge-fund manager, said that for the past year he has taken informal polls at dinner parties, asking guests whom they would vote for in a three-way race among Mr. Bloomberg and various Democratic and Republican nominees. “The overwhelming majority, all the time, no exception, chose Bloomberg,” said Mr. Steinhardt, a Bloomberg supporter with a long history as a Democrat. The reason, he said: “Everything he has done he has done exceptionally well.”

Even some business leaders who are already committed to other candidates are privately advocating a Bloomberg candidacy. One prominent investor who is publicly supporting and raising money for Democrat Hillary Clinton said he has urged Mr. Bloomberg to run. “I couldn’t think of a better candidate,” he said. The investor cited Mr. Bloomberg’s independence from party politics and his record of accomplishments, adding that the intensified attacks between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have made them both less attractive.

Howard Lorber, chief executive of tobacco holding company Vector Group, supports Arizona Sen. John McCain. But Mr. Lorber, who also is chairman of New York real-estate brokerage Prudential Douglas Elliman, said he would back Mr. Bloomberg if Mr. McCain doesn’t win the Republican nomination — and possibly even if he does. “The thought of having someone who’s a businessman running the country is a very appealing thought,” Mr. Lorber said.

Mr. Bloomberg wouldn’t be the first businessman in the race. Republican Mitt Romney, a successful venture capitalist before becoming Massachusetts governor, retooled his campaign message before his Michigan primary win this week, playing down his focus on social issues and talking more about how his management skills could help fix an ailing economy. Mr. Romney has received substantial backing from the finance world.

Mr. Bloomberg’s deepest well of support is in New York, especially the finance industry, where his company’s information terminals have made his name ubiquitous. “He’s one of them,” said one banker with ties to Mr. Bloomberg. At least one leading bank executive has privately voiced his support, in part because of concerns about the other candidates.

Mr. Lorber recalled being at a recent New York Knicks game in Madison Square Garden, also attended by Mr. Bloomberg. “You could see one after another, after another, business people going up to him and talking to him,” Mr. Lorber said.

Mr. Bloomberg’s support goes beyond New York. Jon Fisher, a 35-year-old technology entrepreneur in Tiburon, Calif., said Mr. Bloomberg’s background appeals to him. “Business experience, and specifically this kind of entrepreneurial business experience, is exactly the skill set we need in a president,” said Mr. Fisher, who sold his most recent venture, Bharosa, to technology giant Oracle Corp. last year.

Mr. Fisher, a Democrat, is inviting others who have sold companies to Oracle to a meeting in Tiburon at the end of the month. The goal, Mr. Fisher said, is to recruit people willing to dedicate time and effort to a Bloomberg campaign. (Mr. Bloomberg would presumably fund his campaign himself, making fund-raising unnecessary.)

Supporters also say Mr. Bloomberg has experience many of his would-be opponents lack. He has, for example, negotiated deals with foreign-based companies, dealt with overseas regulatory agencies and seen up-close the impact of trade policy on American companies.

As mayor, Mr. Bloomberg has won plaudits for rebuilding New York’s economy after Sept. 11 and for being willing to take on politically thorny issues such as education.

“He knows the players internationally that are involved in economic policy. He has relationships with them,” said Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group.

“The political system isn’t willing to do what is needed because most of these things are very tough politically to deal with,” said a senior finance figure, “and here’s Mike who’s demonstrated that he’s willing to really take on tough issues and do something.”

But some in the business world see warning signs in Mr. Bloomberg’s record. He raised taxes in his first term despite a campaign pledge not to do so and has increased city spending. Some of his policies, such as banning smoking in bars and trans fats in restaurant food, have angered some small businesses. Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, a free-market lobbying group, calls Mr. Bloomberg “a big government economic liberal.”

But many executives are unenthusiastic about their options in the traditionally business-friendly Republican party. Mr. McCain, who now leads national polls, has tangled with big business, from auto companies over fuel economy standards to communications companies over regulation. In a recent Republican debate, he labeled pharmaceutical makers “bad guys.”

Chris Saxman, a New York software entrepreneur, said he usually votes Republican but has been driven away by the party’s focus on social issues. “A lot of the positions that the Republican Party has espoused recently are not my own,” Mr. Saxman said, citing opposition to same-sex marriage as one example.

Moreover, Mr. Saxman said, budget deficits under Republican leadership have caused him to question the party’s commitment to fiscal discipline. Mr. Saxman said he likes Mr. Bloomberg’s “pragmatic” approach. “He’s been willing to tackle some really big problems, especially the education problem, and do it in a sensible way,” Mr. Saxman said.

Leonard Stillman, a health-care industry executive in Boca Raton, Fla., describes himself as a conservative Republican but said he is “disgusted” by the lack of progress on economic issues. “They have the same old solutions,” he said. Mr. Stillman, 63 years old, said he might not agree with Mr. Bloomberg on some issues but thinks his business background makes him more likely to consider innovative solutions. “I don’t see him coming in and waving a magic wand, but I see him coming in and perhaps starting the ball rolling on a number of issues,” Mr. Stillman said.

Dissatisfaction with the Republican field has driven some business leaders into the Democratic camp. Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a lobbying group, said he is “astonished at how many of my members are suddenly Democrats.”

Many business leaders, however, are reluctant to risk alienating the major parties by backing Mr. Bloomberg publicly, especially if they don’t think he can win. “There’s always going to be a number of people who say, ‘Before we stand up and start applauding, let’s see if this has any legs to it,”‘ Mr. Reinsch said.

Write to Ben Casselman at ben.casselman@wsj.com

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