Pulse: Power: Mayoral Mouthpieces

The always available and usually affable Ed Rendell had two chief spokespersons during his eight years as mayor. John Street, who governs out of the spotlight, is on his seventh. The new guy’s name is Joe Grace. It’s 4:30 p.m., and he has a few more hours of work ahead. “I never envisioned myself here, but they asked me to do it and I agreed to do it,” Grace says.

Under Street, leading the press office has become known as one of the most arduous jobs in City Hall. It’s “a meat grinder,” according to consultant Frank Keel, who manned the phones for 2002 and most of 2003. The Mayor’s spokesperson is a buffer who must negotiate the media’s constant hunger for information with the Mayor’s reluctance to provide it. “Absolutely nothing was done without [the Mayor’s] involvement,” says one former aide, yet getting Street to cooperate with the media “is like giving a bath to a cat,” according to another.

What to do when the deadline arrives and there’s still no word from the Mayor? Barbara Grant, one of Grace’s predecessors, would often say close to nothing, which angered the media and left the administration’s critics unanswered. Keel gave reporters punchy impromptu quotes, but sometimes wound up angering the Mayor. “If you don’t feed the animal, the animal is prone to get nasty,” Keel says of the press.

To his credit, Street has been more open during his second term. He now holds press conferences on an almost weekly basis. But the media still misses Rendell’s days of glasnost. Says veteran Daily News reporter Dave Davies, “No one feels the imperative to get timely, accurate information to the press office, so the press office can’t get information to reporters.”

Grace, for the time being, has adopted a more positive slant. “The administration’s first priority is doing things the right way. Press releases are an important component of all that,” he says, “but the first priority is getting it right, not how it will look to the press.”