By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Nine years in politics have chipped away at Mike Bloomberg's authenticity, but his resolve to combat gun violence is genuine and visceral. Ask Plaxico Burress. Ask the National Rifle Association, which depicted him as an octopus on its magazine cover, deriding his "anti-gun reach across America." Ask Carolyn McCarthy, the Long Island Democratic congresswoman whose husband was killed in an infamous 1993 Long Island Rail Road shooting and who did a television commercial endorsing Bloomberg because his gun-control commitment "saves lives." Ask the 450 mayors from 40 states, representing 56 million Americans, who have joined his Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition, jump-started with $3 million in Bloomberg contributions. Ask the gun boosters in the U.S. Senate who saw Bloomberg's coalition help defeat the Thune Amendment, which would have required states with tough laws to grant reciprocity to gun owners with permits from weak-law states.
Bloomberg was a major force behind the passage of a new law in New York that tripled the mandatory minimum sentence for gun possession, just as he pushed a new-offender registration law through the City Council making it possible to track gun offenders. But his really extraordinary action was his pursuit of 27 gun dealers in several Southern states that were selling illegal guns used in the commission of crimes in the city, successfully settling with 24 of them and forcing changes in their practices. The litigation followed Bloomberg-orchestrated sting operations that caught dealers selling guns in apparent violation of federal law. Not only did the Bush Justice Department refuse to prosecute the dealers, they warned the city of "potential legal liabilities" resulting from the interstate undercover operation. A Johns Hopkins study verified that, after the settlements, there was a sharp decrease in the number of illegal guns sold by these stores that wound up in NYC. Bloomberg even recruited the biggest gun-seller in America, Wal-Mart, to join his coalition.
And just last week, Bloomberg revealed that his investigators had completed a similar integrity test at gun shows in several states, making a video called "Gun Show Undercover" and documenting that 19 of the 30 sellers approached at these shows sidestepped federal law and sold guns to undercover investigators who said they couldn't pass a background test. The mayor is sending the video to every member of Congress in an effort to close the gun show loophole that permits these sales.
The anti-gun campaign is a distinctly Bloomberg contribution to the decline in violent crime achieved under both his and Giuliani's administrations. Bloomberg's approach, however, has destroyed the Giuliani premise that to lower crime, the mayor and the NYPD have to raise the racial temperature of New York. As recently as the allegedly DWI cop who ran over the pastor's daughter in Brooklyn, Bloomberg has found just the right voice of indignation and assurance, even as other officers on the scene were allegedly scrambling to cover it up. Racially tinged stop-and-frisk numbers call out for a change in policy, as does the NYPD's handling of civil protest, but Bloomberg's record as the protector of the people of his city is commendable, whether the perpetrators are muggers or terrorists.
Another abiding Bloomberg commitment is public health. When his poll numbers were down in 2002, he didn't care if an unpopular smoking ban would be harmful to his political health. His budgets invested billions in city hospitals, reversing years of Giuliani disinvestment. Johns Hopkins has already named its legendary School of Public Health after its most generous backer. When he is done as mayor, Bellevue should be renamed "Bloomberg."
We don't really know if Bloomberg deserves credit for the year-and-a-quarter gain in life expectancy since he has been mayor. Nor do we know if 350,000 fewer New York smokers is a consequence of the ban, the tax hikes, mass distribution of smoking-cessation patches, and the stream of graphic television and other advertising that the administration has done to fight smoking. HIV deaths, drug deaths, and infant mortality were all decreasing before Bloomberg became mayor, and no one credited Rudy. As hard as it is to figure out what share of the credit belongs to the mayor, it's easy to determine that some of it does.
The city's rise in life expectancy significantly outpaced the national average. The percent of adult smokers in NYC, for example, fell from 21.5 percent to 15.8 percent, while the drop in Los Angeles was less than a single percentage point (the city's rate is now lower than all but five states). When Bloomberg became mayor in 2002, a quarter of New Yorkers did not have a regular doctor; today, it's less than 20 percent. The percent of blacks and Latinos getting colonoscopies has grown dramatically, and the screening rate for everyone has increased by 48 percent.
Each of these improvements has been connected to a program developed under Bloomberg—including an electronic health record system that has helped more than a thousand doctors connect with a million patients—concentrated in the city's poorest and sickest neighborhoods. A new Diabetes Prevention program is just beginning to achieve results, and the trans fat ban and overhaul of the restaurant inspection system are making dining out safer.
But there's no greater measure of Bloomberg's health commitment than the dollars he has put into public hospitals. Giuliani tried to privatize them and was rebuffed by the courts. When Bloomberg came to office, the city's net subsidy to the Health & Hospitals Corporation was $241 million; it climbed to more than a billion by 2006. It has dropped a bit since then, says the IBO, a technical budgetary adjustment without an impact on services, but Mayor Mike inherited a demoralized and damaged public system and can now boast that some city hospitals are getting top national ratings.