Bloomberg's Mixed Report Card

Better Than His Poll Figures, but Needs to Take Off the Gloves

Michael Bloomberg, Democrat-turned-Republican, may be New York's most enigmatic mayor. He makes the tough decisions regardless of the votes it might cost him. He is the nonpolitician, candid, no hidden agendas. But then he takes a two-bit detour, and the end result—a ballot proposition—gets whipped badly in the off-year election last week. The Democrats dance in glee, smelling a chance to win back City Hall in 2005. The press opines that Bloomberg has lost touch with the common people.

Through it all, the mayor has observed a nonaggression stance toward the Republicans whose backing got him elected, Rudolph Giuliani and George Pataki, even though these two have dumped enormous fiscal burdens on him. Many of those who voted for him are now wondering when he is going to fight back.

Michael Bloomberg is a rich man who inherited a huge budget deficit that forced him to impose tax suffering on average New Yorkers and the affluent alike. The deficit was created in part by his free-spending predecessor, Giuliani, whose endorsement of Bloomberg is credited by many for his election victory two years ago. Bloomberg then decided, as a matter of character, style, and policy, not to point out who handed him this budget millstone. Grateful for the Giuliani endorsement, Bloomberg also instructed his appointed commissioners never, in their public remarks, to link Giuliani by name to any mismanagement or corruption they found waiting for them when they took over their agencies from his appointees.

The mayor had run as a Republican for a simple, pragmatic reason: There were too many better-known candidates running in the Democratic primary. So he sought out the Republican nomination instead, promising to pay for the campaign with his own millions. The Republicans were delighted. Now, Bloomberg cuts for Governor Pataki the same slack he has given Giuliani. Though Albany waste and deception also contribute significantly to the city's budget gap, and the governor regularly tries to block Bloomberg initiatives, the mayor chooses not to cite the governor by name as an adversary. In fact, Bloomberg has been known to tell the press, "Don't criticize the governor or his motives"—arguing that Pataki wants to help the city but wants to do it by mechanisms different from the mayor's.

Apparently, Bloomberg does not view this mostly unilateral nonaggression pact as a drag on his ability to govern. His aides contend it is the personal style that brought him success in the financial world. He chooses, they say, not to turn differences of approach into personal battles on a public stage that drain energy away from solving the business or civic problem itself.

The Bloomberg method certainly worked early in his mayoralty on his priority issue—improving the public schools. He was able, without any personal swordplay, to accomplish what other mayors, including Giuliani, had tried and failed at—wresting control from Albany over the city's board of education and thus over the failing million-pupil school system. Like so many of City Hall's essential processes, it is governed by state law and can be changed only by the legislature and governor. Until Bloomberg, school funds and decisions were outside the mayor's writ because he lacked the power to appoint a majority of the school board's appointees. Now he has that power.

He pulled that off by going to Albany himself and doing the cajoling, negotiating, and persuading in private. New laws were passed and the governor signed them. Giuliani barked and growled at Albany, using the same bullying tactics that had become so familiar in his city dealings. He created adversaries and got nothing.

Bloomberg has taken on other tough tasks that previous mayors shunned. He was the first mayor in recent times, for example, to propose putting tolls on the East River bridges as a central piece of his campaign platform. His predecessors for the most part avoided the idea as they would a communicable disease, insisting it was a guaranteed method for infuriating commuting motorists from Queens and Brooklyn and thereby ensuring one's defeat in the next mayoral election. When Bloomberg took office facing a $4 billion budget shortfall, he put forth the idea again, seeing it as a major, continuing revenue source and also as a way to compel carpooling and the use of public transport to reduce the number of vehicles entering the business districts of Manhattan. On this issue, the mayor's calm and quiet style didn't work. Fearing voter backlash, Albany blocked him. At present, roughly 1 million cars pour into Manhattan daily, making the borough the national poster child for gridlock.

So here we have a hybrid mayor, a progressive, sensible problem-solver who is willing to take on difficult issues that professional politicians usually recoil from. He is about to reach the halfway point of his four-year term, and because of the just defeated city referendum, a question has been raised as to whether he is too little a politician to win re-election in New York. The referendum, put on the local ballot by a Bloomberg-created City Charter Commission, would have changed the voting process for city offices from a political party system to a nonpartisan one. It was rejected by a margin of more than 2-to-1. In this off-year election, only 13 percent of the city's eligible voters turned out—less than a half-million.

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