Bloomberg at the Crossroads

With a Budget That Will Define Him, Mayor Mike Pushes Pataki, Unions

His willingness to do huge tax increases—even bolstering an almost progressive property levy that discriminates against business interests—speaks louder than words about the governor's wholesale rejection of boosting any so-called "job-killing taxes." He even exposed Pataki's under-the-radar attempt to steal federal homeland security funds targeted for the war-threatened city, winning 80 percent of the vital cash, but instead of taking public advantage of the victory he took the governor to a friendly dinner.

The unions, embodied by Weingarten, tried a repeat performance of the 2002 pension loan, but this time he's let them know that the city has to do more than buy time, and the unions have to do more than sell it. Similarly, he rejected as a hollow concession Weingarten's call for early retirement bonuses to induce thousands of senior teachers, just awarded a landmark salary hike based on their union-saluted experience, to take $50,000 pensions prematurely so the city could temporarily benefit from hiring new, cheaper teachers as replacements.

In his memoir, he has a handful of angry moments. "I find it infuriating," he wrote, "when my former wife asks our old friends for help with her [philanthropic] fundraising and they ignore her. How dare they, considering all those years both she and I together supported their charities and political candidates? People need to know that life, like it or not, has to be quid pro quo." His other pivotal self-perception: "Somebody has to bring us to a centralist consensus acceptable to most, with the minimal imposition on those at the fringes. That's what politics is all about."

That's also how he's prepared for this doomsday threat, and that's why he expects his city to survive it. He believes he's got enough altitude to land this ship of state, damaged but safe.

In the city's worst moment in a quarter century, he is the antithesis of the two mayors who brought us to the precipice of bankruptcy in the '70s. John Lindsay, a party-changing East Sider like Bloomberg, sank the city into debt to advance a national agenda and ambition, getting out before the collapse. Bloomberg says his next job will be to start his own foundation so he can give his billions away carefully and constructively. His political goals are so impersonal no one knows for sure, despite his own admonitions, if he will even seek re-election. Higher office is nowhere in the mix. Abe Beame, the mayor who presided over the near belly-up, was a walking IOU, carried into office by every clubhouse, real estate, and union baron who could buy a piece of him. Bloomberg's only special interest is whatever interests him.

He can accurately be criticized for adopting Pataki's special interests prior to the re-election, but now, he is liberated as well from whatever obligation in his quid pro quo universe he felt he owed his electoral patron. He is literally a mayor unto himself, able to act as he judges best, with no campaign committee collecting timely contributions, no lobbyists with inside tracks, no stifling ideology, and no egocentric goals to shape him. Emerging overnight as mayor out of the cloud of concrete dust that engulfed ground zero, he is an enigma to the power brokers who've found a way to compromise every other administration, a pol unlike any they've ever known.

Though the best pollsters in the business, Penn & Schoen, guided his campaign, and though purchasing a poll now would be as easy for him as buying a 25-cent, Bloomberg-bashing Post is for most New Yorkers, he will not link his policies to poll-able preferences. His memoir establishes the linkage that matters to him—philanthropy and government service are two sides of the same coin to Bloomberg, the noblesse oblige consequence of great wealth. "Give something back and you'll end up with more!" were the final words of his book. "Philanthropy and public service," wrote the man who gives away $100 million a year, "are my two great loves after my daughters and my company."

In the cynical air of City Hall, these bromides may be greeted with sneers, but there is little in his brief public record to merit mistrust. Even a hard-right mayor like Rudy Giuliani threw sops to the unions, especially in his first term, because he knew no Democrat could seriously challenge him without them. Those sops—like early retirement and severance bonanzas disguised as union concessions—are precisely what Weingarten is invoking as precedent today. But Bloomberg, who certainly claims he'll run again, won't play that game, aware no doubt, just as Giuliani was, that municipal labor is the irreplaceable center of any coalition that might form to oppose him.

The Democrats who might oppose Bloomberg, or who hope to run if he drops out, have bound themselves uncritically to the unions, unwilling to join the mayor in a demand that Weingarten and company make any meaningful contribution to closing the gap. A spokesman for Comptroller Bill Thompson, who made it through the Iraq war without ever taking a position, confirmed that he has never said a word about the need for union concessions. Even though he is charged with oversight of the scandalously wasteful union-run and city-subsidized welfare funds, and even though his office's audits and those of his three predecessors have suggested a city takeover of these funds, he would not take a personal position in response to Voice inquiries.

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