By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Even if Democratic challenger Bill Thompson could buy enough airtime to get his message out, this year's mayoral election would still be a referendum on Mike Bloomberg. And for many voters, Mayor Mike is a riddle, at once admirable and agonizing.
If things do tighten up, the 10 percent of voters who rate Bloomberg's job performance favorably, but don't want to see him re-elected, could become an important swing demographic. The mayor has spent $65 million already, yet his numbers are flat. The avalanche of his television ads only highlight the power of his money at a moment when, to many New Yorkers, wealth and wisdom appear increasingly contradictory. And, perhaps most unsettling, he wouldn't be on the ballot at all but for the coup he engineered to extend term limits set in two referendums, defying voters just months before he started seducing them again.
Third terms diminished Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo, and George Pataki, but there is a tangible sense of purpose about the Bloomberg we see now, an energy reminiscent of his post-9/11 resolve. It could be just the campaign that is animating him, but the daily drumbeat of announcement and action now is in stark contrast with the bored and unfocused tedium of the second term, when he drifted into a presidential haze and lost his lust for the details of governing. He appears again to actually want the job.
A second Bloomberg sequel seems as surreal as it does inevitable. Though Thompson has shown some movement in polls, we can't help feeling that we're being pulled into a third Bloomberg administration whether we want one or not. Perhaps the best we can do as the election nears is add up the mayor's accomplishments and mistakes in as clear-eyed a manner as possible.
Our accounting does not inspect the style of his leadership, which biographer Joyce Purnick captured—calling him "curt, profane, cranky, and willful," as well as "allergic to introspection" and "ever confident he is right," even as she pronounced him potentially "one of the most effective mayors in the city's history." It doesn't examine how white his inner circle is, or the astonishing fact that Rudy Giuliani appointed more blacks to high posts in his administration than Mike has. Nor does it salute him for the towering courage he displayed when the city was on its heels and he was new to public office, imposing the largest property tax hike in history and pushing new income surcharges on the wealthiest, to protect services.
But the list that follows is intended to be a useful measure of the man. If it reads like I am arguing with myself, I am. Bloomberg is the most perplexing of the five mayors I've covered. I receive the calls that all undecided voters get, again and again, from the Bloomberg phone banks, perhaps the only stimulus program Obama is not financing. I have told them I will not decide until the debates are done, that I am giving Bill Thompson the chance to show he is ready for the job. That is really only partly true. I am also wrestling with my Bloomberg demons, shifting uneasily between days of trust and torment. These are the reasons why.
Mayor Mike knows how to hire, but he can't bring himself to fire. He'd be a millionaire if he ran his company like this.
"We joke that getting the Post to demand our resignation is the ultimate job protection," one Bloomberg aide told Purnick. Bloomberg has made some terrific choices—Health Commissioner Tom Frieden and Housing Commissioner Shaun Donovan have already been tapped by President Obama for top national jobs—but, as Purnick put it, he lets "weak commissioners stick around long after any other mayor would have dumped them."
Fire Commissioner Nick Scoppetta is Exhibit A. Eight years after the ex–Commissioner of Children's Services became the unlikely head of the FDNY, we still don't know if he can turn off a stove. We do know that when he climbed to the roof of a firehouse to see the damage caused by debris falling off the nearby Deutsche Bank demolition site, he didn't order an inspection for the bank building, or even notice that the department's regular inspections, required by law every 15 days, weren't being done at all. And when the building went up in flames three months later and two firefighters perished, we know that the mayor and the fire commissioner collaborated to blame underlings. Bloomberg's own investigations commissioner found a few months ago that Scoppetta's executive team "did not address noncompliance with the 15-day rule," contributing to a "culture of widespread disregard" in "commands throughout the department." Even then, Bloomberg refused to ax him. Finally, just last week, Scoppetta announced that he would leave at the end of the year.
Scoppetta had many accomplices in the lead-up to this deadly fire—buildings commissioner Patricia Lancaster, deputy buildings commissioner Robert LiMandri, and Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff—though none have paid a price for allowing concerns about the pace of the demolition to take precedence over a safe takedown of the city's most toxic building, next door to Ground Zero. Lancaster was forced out over failings unrelated to Deutsche Bank, LiMandri was elevated to commissioner, and Doctoroff won the ultimate promotion (president of Bloomberg LP).