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Some of Bloomberg's rooters were volunteers for campaign

Hid allegiance to N.Y. mayor at Harlem event

NEW YORK -- When Mayor Michael Bloomberg picked up the endorsement of an influential black minister at a Harlem restaurant last month, the diners there appeared to be ordinary people whose pancakes and coffee just happened to be interrupted by a campaign event.

But several were actually volunteers for the campaign -- even though one of them told a reporter she had no idea the mayor would be there that morning. She and another volunteer were quoted in news stories as though they were Bloomberg supporters casually observing the event, not participating in it.

Michelle Middleton was one of about nine volunteers who blended into the morning crowd at the International House of Pancakes, campaign spokesman Stu Loeser said after the Associated Press inquired about her.

Specialists say the practice of stacking crowds at campaign events with supporters is nothing new, but the fact that volunteers hid their allegiance to Bloomberg startled some. Loeser stressed the volunteers were not told to lie about why they were there.

''It just sounds like it was amateur hour," said Republican strategist Rich Galen.

Loeser said the campaign often invites volunteers to attend events like the Sept. 15 endorsement from the Rev. Calvin Butts. But volunteers are usually identifiable because they are cheering, holding signs, handing out literature or clearly doing campaign work.

A spokeswoman with the campaign of Bloomberg's opponent, Fernando Ferrer, asked yesterday why the mayor would want to ''surround himself" with ''lackeys."

However, the Ferrer campaign itself has been known to dispatch volunteers to events. And during last year's presidential election, both candidates often filled crowds with their own supporters, especially during so-called town hall events. On one occasion, those who signed up to attend a speech by Vice President Dick Cheney were asked to sign a pledge endorsing President Bush.

''Campaign 101 is if you're having a rally or event, you should definitely make sure you have supporters there, but you should be straightforward about it," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist.

The Bloomberg campaign said only a few volunteers, out of thousands, were asked to attend the news conference at the International House of Pancakes in Harlem.

As reporters waited for the mayor and Butts to begin their news conference, several fanned out to interview ''regular people" about their opinions on the mayor -- a common practice at campaign stops.

A striking number of diners were effusive about Bloomberg.

''His record speaks for itself," Middleton said, ''and I think he needs another four years to continue his progress as well as new policies."

Middleton said she was a Democrat, but planned to vote for the mayor, a billionaire Republican. She identified herself as a consultant, and said she was in Harlem that morning just to have breakfast with friends.

In a telephone follow-up interview later that day, she said again that her presence there was a coincidence. Middleton did not respond to several calls seeking comment after the AP learned last week she was a volunteer.

Another volunteer was quoted by The New York Sun in a story about the endorsement. Marilyn Foulks identified herself as a Democrat who skipped her party's primary because she was ''saving her vote for Bloomberg."

And a man, Fred Wilson, who spoke with The New York Times, but whose quote ended up not being used in their coverage, has been a volunteer since February.

Wilson declined to comment late yesterday to the AP.

None identified themselves as being affiliated with the campaign.

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