Many people have wondered over the years how one of David Dinkins' closest friends and advisors could have gone from the Mayor’s losing ballroom on election night '93' one minute to absolute influence in the Giuliani Administration the next.
How was it that one of the people we, the inner circle of the Giuliani campaign, now Administration, hated most in the inner circle of the Dinkins camp had gained instant unfettered access in a matter of weeks of the start of the Giuliani Administration?
How did it happen so quickly? Who was behind it and had anyone tried to prevent it? This is the story of how Howard Rubenstein, Uber-Public Relations Guru, bought his way into our administration and how quickly we sold our soul.
One of the many joys in the opening weeks of the Giuliani Administration was knowing that those whom we had fought so hard to remove from City Hall and influence no longer played any role at court. It was with total horror that I received a call from a pissed off Tony Carbonetti, the Mayor’s Appointments Officer, informing me that he had heard that Deputy Mayor Peter Powers had cut a deal with Howard Rubenstein to buy his way into City Hall.
Tony started off, “What the fuck is he thinking? What did we just kill ourselves for last year? Does anyone over there know who that son of a bitch is? Bruce is totally insane! I think he may quit over this.” Bruce Teitlebaum, the Mayor’s Jewish advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff, had tussled with Rubenstein a few times as proxies for their respective candidates and he loathed the man for being a complete sell-out to his community. I responded to Carbonetti’s outrage with my own. “ I wouldn’t blame Bruce for quitting but it can’t come to that. We can’t let it, this can’t happen. We have to do something. Rudy won’t agree to do this. He hates Rubenstein, you know that, remember?”
We had both heard Giuliani blast Rubenstein numerous times during the campaign. “I’m going to go talk to him.” I said. “Bruce said he’ll talk to him too,” Tony replied. “OK,” I said, “maybe between us we can shut this down and remind him what this was all about.” Referring to the campaign.
I went to see Rudy to plead with him to turn this around. Peter had cut the deal for Rubenstein to buy his way into the administration by throwing a one-time $100,000 fundraiser. This was unthinkable heresy. Howard Rubenstein was the public relations guru consigliere to former Mayor David Dinkins and ran what was believed to be the most powerful P.R. firm in New York City. He had given Dinkins the ultimate credibility within the Jewish community where otherwise he would have suffered irreparable harm due to his Jew hating supporter Sonny Carson and the rest of the Flatbush crowd. Rubenstein’s visible support at crucial moments helped Dinkins weather many a storm in his mayoralty. Those of us who were both Jewish and Giuliani supporters had a special hatred reserved for Howard Rubenstein as the house Jew in the Dinkins inner circle.
Bruce repeatedly said that he believed Rubenstein nothing short of a capo for David Dinkins. He could easily see him as the sort of man who would put together lists of Jews for the transports and provide them readily to the Nazis. I could not have agreed with him more. Schindler's List had not come out at this time but Bruce's comment always made me think of Herman Wouk's War and Remembrance. Lists, ever more lists for transport.
No amount of good works to Jewish charities or causes would EVER wipe away the sin of his years of helping David Dinkins and his race baiting, Jew hating friends. Providing cover and succor over and over again so that Jews could feel comfortable supporting Dinkins, while his friends kept at their antics baiting Jews or Koreans made many of us sick. It reminded us of Berlin in the 30’s to see Koreans told to “Get Out!” Jews recognized this sort of threat. And Howard Rubenstein would always be at City Hall or Gracie Mansion at just the right strategic moment when polls showed the mayor’s Jewish numbers sinking or prominent Jewish supporters deserting him.
To allow him to buy his way into THIS City Hall after the suffering he helped cause this city during the prior four years was inconceivable. Not that any amount was reasonable, as this was a matter of principle, but to add insult to injury Peter was also selling Rudy cheap at $100K to boot.
The short answer was that Peter Powers viewed Rubenstein in mythic terms coming as he did from being a tax attorney and couldn’t see conducting business as deputy mayor having to face him as an adversary day in and day out. He imagined being stymied by Rubenstein clients at every turn and wanted this problem out of the way first thing. While he was was right that Howard’s client list was a who’s who of the city’s business, sports, and political movers and shakers, there wasn’t a grain of truth that he could stop business from getting done at City Hail or elsewhere based on his client list. Peter was just too green to know it. I knew it, however.
I spoke to Ray before I went to see Rudy. Ray said it was done, Peter had made the deal. He had convinced Rudy that Rubenstein was indispensable and that it had to be done. Rudy had held out; he hated Rubenstein. But Peter convinced him and he signed on. Ray said it was a done deal. I said I would go see him anyway.
When I went to see him he was in a good mood. I opened by saying, “I want to talk to you about this Rubenstein fundraiser Peter is putting together.” He responded, “Bruce spoke to me.” “OK,” I said. “He’s the Devil, you know that, I don’t have to tell you. This is what the campaign was about in a nutshell. This kind of access. This is what we promised. This is what we said to each other. HE is the permanent government along with Sid Davidoff (a prominent lobbyist and close friend of Dinkins) that we swore to kick out with Dinkins. Not to mention the happy face of the Jewish community he lent Dinkins while Sonny Carson spewed his hate.”
“Peter says we can’t do business without him. He says Howard reached out and wants to be helpful, he came to us, we didn’t go to him. He put this fundraiser together. He came to us.” Rudy stressed. I explained to Rudy the basic fallacy in Peter’s argument and thinking. Before coming to work for him I had worked for Marty McLaughlin, a well connected city lobbyist. Rudy knew this.
“Peter is also wrong about Howard’s business. When I worked for Mclaughlin, I learned that every new major business that comes to town, and needs P.R. or lobbying, hires Rubenstein and then they hire Marty or someone like Marty to do the actual work. They’re convinced that they have to hire Howard for some sort of access but they soon realize that to get any work done you have to hire another firm since his firm sucks, they don’t do any actual work, it’s all a myth. Howard takes real care of a few very big names, that’s it. The whole thing is a myth. It’s like the Wizard of Oz. Most of McLaughlin's clients also pay Rubenstein because they think they’re supposed to, it’s insane. It’s all a house of cards. Shut him out and you bring him down. Peter doesn’t get this.” Rudy shot back “ But Peter says he wants to be helpful, he reached out to us.”
This was classic Giuliani. He latched onto a phrase and wouldn’t let go. “Helpful?", my voice rising, “Rudy, he needs us! He’s locked out. We don’t need his 100G’s. He’s desperate. Word is out he’s persona non-grata at City Hall. His client list will be cut in half. Fuck him! Why are we doing this? It’s madness. What was this campaign about? Howard Rubenstein encapsulates everything wrong, corrupt, and sick with the Dinkins Administration and we’re giving him a reprieve? It’s mindless,” I pleaded.
Our conversation then ended abruptly because the phone rang. I said, not for the last time, “please, please, don’t do this.” He came back quietly, “It’s done.” I could have stayed, but there was no point. I left.
For the next eight years Howard Rubenstein and his clients got whatever they wanted from City Hall. I remember during my time at EDC being told by Cristyne Lategano to contact Rubenstein Associates repeatedly to help their clients. She turned out to be his greatest enabler over time and was practically on his payroll. She was totally charmed by him.
He went on to raise much more than the original $100K. But at that time, in 1994, no other lobbyist or PR guy could have achieved that feat. Buying your way in at that steep a price was beyond the reach but for the rarest select few. It was also something we were against.
“One City, One Standard”, the credo to embody our fight against the Korean boycott and Crown Heights, had been sold out in record time and for a miserly price to a man who represented everything it stood against. We were off to a very shaky start.
By the tone and language I used when speaking to the mayor any inside observer would know that this conversation could only have happened in the early weeks of the Administration. For the first eight weeks or so I still called him Rudy both privately and publicly. Our conversations were always easy and relaxed. The frankness with which I spoke to him about Howard Rubenstein's fundraiser could never have taken place just a few months later. That is through no fault of his. After two months I realized that calling him Rudy, whether in public or private, was inappropriate. I was still in campaign mode and he had been Rudy for four years. In the same vain I would never have spoken to him with the urgency and temper that I did that day just a few months later. At the time he wasn't offended by my manner and I would think back from time to time how nice it would have been to still be able to be that open and candid with him. But again, it is the nature of the office not the man that conversations like that become impossible over time.
Tony Carbonetti and I remained furious about this for a very long time. I think Tony would eventually make his peace about this out of necessity. Because of Cristyne, and her influence over Rudy, Tony would be forced to deal with Rubenstein Associates again and again. I think he just came to an accommodation. I, on the other hand, never got used to Rubenstein and never could come to terms with that major an error in judgment so early on. I always thought it made us look foolish when we were loudly proclaiming the status quo was dead.