The Transformation of Mike Bloomberg

How the benevolent billionaire with no political debts ended up owning us all

Mike Bloomberg is the best mayor—in fact, the best state or city chief executive—I've covered in 31 years at the Voice. He's also the worst.

In his first term, he was able to close a gaping budget chasm without crippling city services by imposing the largest and bravest property-tax hike in history—and it sent his approval ratings plunging. When the city boomed again, this Nixon-to-China boldness by a businessman/mayor had forever refuted the knee-jerk right-wing orthodoxy that higher taxes invariably kill growth. His smoking ban proved that a mayor can literally change the air we breathe and was part of a lifesaving public-health commitment that pumped resources into city hospitals that his predecessor had stripped of city funding. While mayors before him had hidden behind the independent Board of Education to diffuse responsibility for the seemingly intractable dysfunction of the schools, Mike Bloomberg put himself in charge and staked his mayoralty on the slow but steady improvement that has occurred with him at the helm. The continuing decline in the murder rate under Bloomberg was a rebuke of the Giuliani years, when New Yorkers were led to believe that a polarized city was the price we had to pay to reduce crime.

As thankful as the city is for all Mayor Mike accomplished after 9/11, that was nearly a full term ago. Now, he's decided he wants a third term, even though he still owes us a second.

Alvaro Diaz-Rubio

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With additional reporting by Patrick B. Anderson, Ana Barbu, Beethoven Bong, Sara Dover, and Jana Kasperkevic

Even his strongest allies have a hard time naming a memorable achievement from Bloomberg's second term—beyond his sparking a national gun-control campaign. Instead, he was fixated for most of the last two years by an always-improbable, yet ballyhooed pursuit of the presidency, followed by a largely unnoticed, two-month-long audition for the consolation prize of vice president.

In one of the most sordid performances by a city executive in modern history, Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey appeared on NY1 in May to declare that "the person who picks Mayor Bloomberg as their vice-presidential candidate wins the election," partly because Bloomberg would "help finance a campaign" with "between zero and a billion" dollars. This televised and indiscriminate bribe offer generated no takers and, more remarkably, drew not one word of fire from the city media.

Two weeks later, Bloomberg acknowledged that he'd asked a pollster to see what voters thought about extending term limits so he could run again. The day before Joe Biden's selection was formally announced in late August, The New York Times revealed that the mayor had been reaching out to fellow media titans—including Arthur Sulzberger of the Times, the Post's Rupert Murdoch, and the Daily News's Mort Zuckerman—to see if they would support a City Council bill to reverse the two-term limits that voters had approved in two overwhelmingly popular referendums. Two of the newspapers had to distance themselves from their own prior opposition to altering term limits by legislation, as did Bloomberg (he called a previous attempt "an absolute disgrace") and his council consigliere, Christine Quinn (in December, she nixed the possibility of a bill, saying that "the voters have made their will very, very clear").

Last month's 29-to-22 council vote to do Bloomberg's bidding was the most tawdry moment in city politics I've ever seen. More camera crews and reporters attended the vote than any other session in City Council history—some said the passage of the bill was as close as we would get to a mayoral election in 2009.

The mayor justified the bill by saying that it gave voters an additional choice—namely, himself. But unnamed sources had already told the Times that Bloomberg would spend $80 million on his re-election (at least $20 million of it on attacks on anyone daring to oppose him). The $80 million, roughly what Bloomberg spent in a non-competitive race in 2005, is cheap compared to what Sheekey claimed Bloomberg was willing to pay for a vice-presidential run. If Comptroller Bill Thompson or Congressman Anthony Weiner runs against Bloomberg with the support of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and a respectable slice of the party's New York establishment, the mayor might have to double that number.

Bloomberg's threat of using attack ads, coupled with the possibility that Thompson could settle for a safe re-election and the 44-year-old Weiner might decide to wait, could leave us next November with no real choice.

The Bloomberg who came into office as the anti-politician, promising to transform city government, has been transformed himself. Some of us liked him precisely because his wealth insulated him from the kind of horsetrading that diminished his predecessors. But seven years later, Bloomberg has not only proved himself to be a master politician, as hungry for power as anyone we've ever seen, but he's also ended up putting nearly everyone who deals with the city deep into his political debt.


Bloomberg is not, obviously, the first mayor to try to undo term limits as his days dwindle. After 9/11, Rudy Giuliani cajoled the council to re-introduce a bill that the previous January had been bottled up by a 5-to-4 vote in committee, but Councilman Stan Michels, who had introduced the bill, refused. Giuliani then pressed to have his term extended for three months, but he needed the agreement of the three candidates then in the race to replace him—and when one, Democrat Fernando Ferrer, said no, he dropped it. Giuliani's excuse was the 9/11 attacks; Bloomberg and his billionaire backers apparently believe that the end of the credit swap and subprime orgies at Lehman and elsewhere are an even greater cause for emergency mayoral retention than the slaughter of three thousand.

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