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Can’t Tell These Stadium Players Without a Score Card

First of two parts One city, two train yards, two proposals for massive publicly funded sporting venues.

Call it an only-in-New York occurrence.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with the day’s headlines probably knows that city officials want to build a stadium — and a variety of other things — on Manhattan’s far West Side. The site, a former industrial area, is ripe for development and is one of the few underutilized sections of that small island off the coast of America. [IMGCAP(1)]

Less well known to the nation may be the desire of a New York developer, Bruce Ratner — who is now the new owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team — to build an arena in downtown Brooklyn, over the railyards there. The New Jersey Nets would become the Brooklyn Nets, giving sports fans who are still bitter about the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers 48 years ago a small measure of comfort.

Both proposals have generated major league controversy. And both have political implications beyond imagination.

This week, we’ll look at some of the players involved in the West Side stadium proposal — and the unusual and ever-shifting political alliances that have come into play. This is a topic of intense

interest in New York — so much so that it was partly the subject of a front-page article in Tuesday’s New York Times. When this column returns in April after the Congressional recess, we’ll look at how the proposed Nets arena could impact a House race in Brooklyn.

The West Side stadium proposal is a veritable Lobbypalooza for New York, with every top-notch hired gun working one angle or another. Many are former pols themselves, or one-time top aides to powerful officeholders. And you literally cannot tell the players without a score card.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R), who is up for re-election this year, wants to build the new stadium over the railyards to lure the New York Jets, who have played in New Jersey for the past two decades, back across the Hudson River. He also envisions the stadium as the centerpiece of the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympics, the place where opening and closing ceremonies and a host of competitive events will take place. Gov. George Pataki (R), who may or may not seek a fourth term in 2006, is also a fan.

Together, Bloomberg and Pataki have pledged $600 million in public funds for the stadium project.

All four of the Democratic candidates for mayor — former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Rep. Anthony Weiner — are opposed to the West Side stadium, to one degree or another.

But the opinions of Bloomberg’s challengers are a mere sideshow to the main event. Leading the opposition is an entity that’s every bit as rich and connected as the Jets — Cablevision, a giant cable TV conglomerate that owns Madison Square Garden, a few blocks to the east of the proposed stadium site.

According to an annual report of the New York Temporary State Lobbying Commission due to be released later this month, the Jets spent more than $6.8 million last year lobbying state government to build the stadium. Cablevision and Madison Square Garden together spent $22.1 million to kill it.

Work on this project alone boosted overall lobbying expenditures in the state by an eye-popping 20 percent in 2004 over the previous year.

So who’s getting rich off the West Side stadium? In a recent report on all the lobbying activity, Common Cause/New York called it “a clash of titans.”

The opposition, from the lobbying world, is being led by former Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and his Park Strategies firm. Arthur Finkelstein, a veteran Republican consultant whose clients have included D’Amato and Pataki, is also working for the Garden.

But theirs is a truly bipartisan operation. The Garden has also hired Howard Wolfson and Gigi Georges of the Glover Park Group, who both have close ties to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Wolfson is also working as a consultant to the New York Democratic Party these days.

Cablevision is paying Patricia Lynch, a longtime aide to New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D), as its lobbyist in Albany. And the Garden is also paying a bipartisan law firm, Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman and Dicker for lobbying services. Working on its behalf: Kenneth Shapiro, a former counsel to Democratic mayoral contender Miller, and Kenneth Bruno, son of state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R).

The Garden is also paying Democratic media consultant David Axelrod for media work and former New York Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro, who is close to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R), for advice and counsel.

But the Jets have their own all-star roster.

Leading the charge are two New York-based Republican consultants with close ties to D’Amato and Pataki, Kieran Mahoney and Michael McKeon. The latter was Pataki’s communications director in Albany. The former is a protégé of Finkelstein, who is working the other side.

Bill Lynch, a former New York deputy mayor and one-time deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is also on the Jets’ payroll. Lynch, who masterminded former Mayor David Dinkins’ (D) victory in 1989, is now a key adviser to Ferrer.

But Ferrer isn’t the only mayoral candidate — and public stadium foe — with ties to the pro-Jets camp. One of the Jets’ lobbyists is James McMahon, brother of Miller’s chief of staff.

Others working for the project include Jeff Buley, the current counsel to the New York Republican Party and several former top aides to ex-Gov. Mario Cuomo (D). And in a unique situation, communications guru Ken Sunshine, a former aide to Assembly Speaker Silver, is working for the project — even as he collects a government check as a consultant to state Senate Democrats.

The New York office of Greenberg Traurig is also working on the Jets’ behalf.

So what about citizen input? So far, there hasn’t been much. Not surprisingly, good government groups are complaining that in a high-stakes game like this, average folks have been forced to the sidelines.

“With the future of Manhattan’s West Side and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars at stake, the state and city should be involved in an open dialogue with the public on the issue,” Common Cause wrote in its report on the project. “Instead, the Jets and stadium opponent Madison Square Garden are directing most of the debate with lobbying and an expensive advertising campaign.”

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