Grand Old Party Rift Casts Pall Over GOP Convention

Times Staff Writer

As he stood at a wind-whipped podium in Battery Park this week, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg pointed to the Statue of Liberty in the distance and hailed the monument as a warm, welcoming symbol for all those who travel to New York.

But some visitors -- including the Republican Party, whose convention Bloomberg lobbied so hard to bring here next summer -- can expect a chillier reception than others. Especially when they clash with the Republican mayor over how delegates spend money in the Big Apple, as well as over legislation that vitally affects city interests.

Months before the big event comes to town, an embarrassing and unexpected rift has developed between Bloomberg and some prominent party figures, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas. The fallout has veteran political observers scratching their heads as it casts a pall over pre-convention planning.

The conflict surfaced last month, when DeLay announced a plan in which 2,200 conventioneers would stay on a luxury cruise ship in New York Harbor. There, only blocks from the convention at Madison Square Garden, delegates could mingle freely with lobbyists and each other, enjoying a high level of security, the Republican leader said.

Besides, advocates of DeLay's plan said, most New York hotel rooms during the convention -- which is to run from Aug. 29 to Sept. 2 -- were already booked.

"It's a good idea for us for a lot of reasons," DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella told reporters.

But Bloomberg has repeatedly denounced the idea, saying it would draw badly needed business away from the city's hotels and restaurants. The cruise ship, the Norwegian Dawn, has 14 bars and 10 restaurants. Others have suggested that the notion of keeping delegates safe is a slap in the face to the New York Police Department, which is spending millions to beef up convention security.

And as for the hotel occupancy issue, others have noted that owners of the ship have offered a similar plan to the Democratic Party, which is holding its national presidential convention next summer in Boston.

While the mayor concedes that DeLay has a right to do what he wants, Bloomberg ripped the idea again at a news conference this week, where officials announced a fundraising drive to improve security at the Statue of Liberty and reopen it to visitors next year.

"I don't think anybody's going to want to stay on a cruise ship when you have New York City such a walkable distance from the convention," Bloomberg said. "And I think that the Republican Party wants to be part of this city, that's why they've come here.

"We have 18,700-odd restaurants here, and every single delegate to the convention can have their own restaurant to go to. We also have plenty of hotel rooms. It's a very safe city," the mayor added. "This cruise ship plan is not good for the people who work in the hotels, but I think we'll win the capitalistic battle."

Asked recently by reporters in Washington whether he had any intention of backing down, given Bloomberg's criticism, DeLay scoffed.

As the conflict escalates, the mayor has begun criticizing DeLay's positions on legislation affecting New York. He has singled out the majority leader's support for changes in federal transportation funding that could cost the city $300 million.

Bloomberg -- joining forces with the New York City Partnership, a nonprofit business and civic group -- announced an "informational" campaign, urging donors to think twice about giving money to DeLay and others whose legislative actions hurt New York.

While the strategy was endorsed by some city leaders, other Republicans reacted furiously. The notion of one Republican creating an enemies list of other Republicans "is a silly and shortsighted litmus test," Grella said.

Ed Gilllespie, the Republican National Committee chairman, also has criticized the mayor's actions, saying that DeLay and other Republicans across the country were looking forward to a positive reception from New York.

On one level, Republicans have been bracing themselves for a mixed welcome since they announced plans to hold the convention in New York. Party leaders noted that President Bush launched his war on terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks in lower Manhattan. Bush is expected to take advantage of the proximity -- and potent symbolism -- of ground zero during the convention.

Yet many New Yorkers have been deeply critical of the Bush administration over the Iraq war, air quality problems at ground zero and other issues, and have announced plans to greet the Republicans with massive demonstrations next summer. For months, organizers have been planning activities, including a huge march by Madison Square Garden and subsequent rally in Central Park that some think could draw as many as 1 million people.

"This is the main welcome we think New Yorkers and people from all over will give the Republicans when they arrive," said Bill Dobbs, organizer for United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of 650 groups planning to protest the convention in New York.

As for the burgeoning spat between Bloomberg and DeLay, he said, "that's basically a fight among Republicans. They're the only ones who can explain it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World