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New York Mayor Bloomberg fights to preserve law-and-order legacy

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks during a meeting with Greece's Prime Minister Antonis Samaras at City Hall in New York, August
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks during a meeting with Greece's Prime Minister Antonis Samaras at City Hall in New York, August

By Francesca Trianni

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mayor Michael Bloomberg is fighting to preserve his legacy on law and order, working behind the scenes to win over the New York City Council as the final months run out on his 12 years in office.

Bloomberg made fighting crime a hallmark of his time in office. After succeeding Mayor Rudy Giuliani less than two months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Bloomberg pressed ahead with aggressive police tactics that have reduced crime but drawn criticism from civil liberties groups.

Those policies have also come under fire from left-leaning mayoral hopefuls and the city council.

Now Bloomberg, relegated to the sidelines of November's mayoral election as he completes his final 4-year term as mayor, has undertaken a campaign of pressuring city council members to reverse their votes on police oversight and racial profiling.

Much of the campaign has involved phone calls placed to council members from top officials of the mayor's office, according to six sources with direct knowledge of the conversations. In one case, a candidate said he was recruited by the mayor's office to run against a Queens council member who refused to change his vote.

The New York mayor's office has acknowledged its lobbying of city council members but declined to comment on its role in recruiting a challenger for the Queens race.

The city council defied Bloomberg by passing two laws in June. One creates an independent inspector general to monitor the New York Police Department, and the other expands the definition of racial profiling and allows people who believe they have been profiled to sue police in state court.

Bloomberg vetoed the bills in July, challenging the council to override him with a two-thirds majority vote. The inspector general bill passed by 40-11, meaning seven council members would have to change their vote. But the racial profiling bill passed by 34-17, meaning only one of those 34 council members would need to switch sides to uphold the veto.

A vote on the veto has been set for August 22.

In a show of force, the mayor has been lobbying at least three council members to convince them to withdraw their support from the bills, according to more than a dozen people involved who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak about the matter.

"They're using the power of persuasion at their disposal," said Peter Vallone Jr., a council member representing parts of Queens, referring to the Bloomberg administration. Vallone sided with Bloomberg and voted against both bills.

Bloomberg has cited pro-active police tactics for helping reduce homicides from 649 in 2001, the year he was elected, to a record low of 419 in 2012. Other major felonies have fallen by similar proportions.

"The mayor has been very clear about why these bills are bad for public safety, and we will continue to make our case to council members leading up to the override vote," said John McCarthy, a spokesman for the mayor's office.

Bloomberg's efforts to overturn the bills were "highly unusual" and part of a wider effort by the mayor to leave his mark on a city he has governed for over a decade, said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College.

"The Bloomberg legacy has to stand on a couple of pillars: one is education, the second thing is public safety," Muzzio said. "Clearly, Bloomberg is using all of his political muscle."

CIVIL BUT SERIOUS CALLS

In one instance, the mayor's top aides made last-minute efforts to find a candidate to run against Queens City Councilman Mark Weprin in retaliation for his support of the two bills, said a source close to the Weprin campaign who is not authorized to speak about the matter and asked not to be identified.

Weprin said he was not contacted by the mayor's office about changing his vote.

The former police officer who was recruited to run against Weprin, Joseph Concannon, said he decided to run only after the profiling bills were passed.

"The mayor and I champion wiping this law off the books," Concannon told Reuters. Concannon, who announced his candidacy on Thursday, said he had been prodded by the mayor's staff to run.

"We had conversations," he said.

McCarthy and Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson did not respond to queries about encouraging Concannon to challenge Weprin.

Weprin said he tried to reach out to the mayor's office to verify the involvement of officials. "They never returned any of my calls."

Other council members have received phone calls from top aides in the mayor's office urging them to uphold the vetoes and thus overturn the laws.

The calls were "serious" in tone but "civil," said one source with direct knowledge of the conversations who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution.

Among those who received phone calls were three Democratic council members - Mathieu Eugene, Sara Gonzalez and Erik Dilan - said sources with direct knowledge of the conversations but who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak about the matter.

Bloomberg, who will step down on January 1, is still able to reward those who support him, said Jumaane Williams, the lead sponsor of the racial profiling and inspector general bills.

"Where possible, they have promised them a lot of things; where possible, they have threatened them; where possible, they tried to find people to run against them," Williams said, declining to be more specific.

Eugene, a Brooklyn council member who is seeking re-election, received up to 10 phone calls in the past two weeks "that were serious but not nasty" and "explained their reasoning to change the vote," said a source close to the Eugene campaign who did not want to be identified because the matter is not public.

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Richard Chang)

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