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October 29, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

Bloomberg Courts the Black Clergy with $1 Million


Rob Bennett for The New York Times

Via Nicholas Confessore and Michael Barabaro in The New York Times:

A few weeks ago, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the influential pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, came to a difficult decision, one he had wrestled with all summer.

He would not endorse William C. Thompson Jr., the city comptroller and a longtime friend and ally, for mayor, as he had promised Mr. Thompson last spring. Instead, he would endorse Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Mr. Thompson was furious at the betrayal. But what he did not know was that Mr. Bloomberg gave a $1 million donation to the church’s development corporation — roughly 10 percent of its annual budget — with the implicit promise of more to come.

“What could I say to a man who was mayor, and was supportive of a lot of programs that are important to me?” Mr. Butts said in an interview before he endorsed Mr. Bloomberg.

In his quest for a third term, Mr. Bloomberg has deprived Mr. Thompson of what many once regarded as his political birthright: the blessings of the city’s most powerful black ministers, who together preach to tens of thousands of congregants each week. And to win them over, he has deployed an unusual combination of city money, private philanthropy, political appointments and personal attention, creating a web of ties to black clergy members that is virtually unheard of for a white elected official in New York City.

Some prominent ministers have been appointed by Mr. Bloomberg to influential city boards and committees. Others have enjoyed the administration’s help in buying city property or winning zoning concessions for pet projects. A few of the largest institutions, including Abyssinian and the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Jamaica, Queens, have taken in millions of dollars in contracts to provide city services during Mr. Bloomberg’s eight years in office.

Looming over it all is Mr. Bloomberg’s dazzling wealth, whether already bestowed — as in the case of Mr. Butts — or hoped for down the line.

“We have to come to his foundation sooner or later,” said the Rev. Timothy Birkett, pastor of the Church Alive Community Church in the Bronx, who is backing the mayor this year. “We hope that he will be receptive.”

Those who support Mr. Bloomberg say that the mayor has earned their endorsements strictly on the merits of his record in office, especially on education and crime. But some critics say the outpouring of support owes more to the dependence of many black churches on a friendly ear at City Hall.

“Some of these endorsements that we see are indicative of a faith statement by some of our religious leaders,” said the Rev. Clinton M. Miller, a protégé of Mr. Butts and the pastor of Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn. “The statement is, who do I trust more, in terms of how I am going to get my projects done?” Mr. Miller said. “The choice is between a municipality and God.”

Aides to Mr. Bloomberg say that mutual respect, not financial ties, binds the mayor to the clergymen; they point out that some of the churches also received large contracts before Mr. Bloomberg took office.

Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott said the relationship “really goes beyond contracts,” adding that it is based on “an ongoing line of communication we have with important individuals who have important constituencies, and we’re very proud of that.”

At moments of racial tension that might have swamped a different white mayor, Mr. Bloomberg has rarely faced the kind of personal criticism from prominent black ministers that wounded his predecessors, like Rudolph W. Giuliani, whom Mr. Butts once publicly branded a racist.

That contrast was on display last week when Mr. Bloomberg appeared at a campaign event with Mr. Giuliani, who suggested to a mostly white, Jewish audience in Brooklyn that “the wrong political leadership” could return New Yorkers to the days of “fear of going out at night and walking the streets.”

Several black elected officials immediately denounced the comments as race-baiting. But no prominent black pastors demanded that the mayor disavow the comments.

[See the rest of the story at The New York Times]

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