Prelude to a Campaign?


On Sunday morning at the Roosevelt Hotel, Mike Bloomberg began the recasting of his mayoralty. Shortly before joining a dreary Israel Day march through midtown, Bloomberg told a few hundred supporters of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty that he was restoring the entire $1.6 million his executive budget had cut from the Department of Aging’s extended-service contracts.

That put $450,000 back into the pockets of the politically potent Met Council, and it was the only on-your-feet applause line at a breakfast that featured Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and three prospective Bloomberg opponents in 2005: Council Speaker Gifford Miller, Comptroller Bill Thompson, and Brooklyn congressman Anthony Weiner. Met Council has long been joined at the hip to Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, whose boyhood best friend ran it for years and remains its “senior executive consultant,” and Bloomberg singled out the beaming Silver for thanks. The mayor praised Silver for “stepping up” and adopting a state budget that allowed the city “to do” the restoration.

Bloomberg’s decision to announce this as his own restoration—rather than allowing it to be depicted as a negotiated concession to the City Council—was a precursor to other unilateral declarations expected this week, with the mayor preparing to cancel his plans to slice garbage pickups and library service. And the choice of these contracts, which provide information and referrals for seniors, was unmistakably political, a consequence of what both the Met Council and the mayor’s office conceded were many exchanges between the city and Silver’s office. In a budget that will still cost 4,000 workers their jobs and close 16 health clinics, a referral service is hardly the first place Merit Mike would be expected to turn over a new budgetary leaf. But it was a savvy place for Candidate Mike to start.

Speaking of candidates, the one heavyweight possible Bloomberg opponent who wasn’t there but has been making some mayoral noise recently, Freddy Ferrer, likened the sudden restorations to Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles. “Bloomberg’s putting a gun to his own head,” Ferrer chuckled, unsure if the mayor should get much credit for refraining from pulling the trigger. “He’s holding himself hostage.” That’s what Bart the black sheriff did in the Brooks classic, confounding a mob trying to kill him. “Oh, baby,” said Bart to himself after escaping as his own captive, “you are so talented and they are so dumb.”

The Voice tried to grill the three potential candidates who were there—all of whom, unlike Ferrer, have money in the campaign kitty for a race—about the hot-button issue that is currently framing the Bloomberg debate: municipal labor concessions in a dire time. Miller and Thompson have been ducking the Voice for weeks on the question of the $600 million in savings Bloomberg is seeking from the unions, with Miller’s press secretary, Chris Policano, saying merely that the two sides should negotiate, and Thompson declining to say anything at all. The two leading Democrats in city government, both of whom have received thousands in union contributions, also sidestepped the core questions in face-to-face interviews on Sunday.

Miller said the unions “have made some proposals” and that “some of them amounted to real savings,” though he refused to specify the proposals he was referring to, all of which have been dismissed by the Bloomberg administration. The Municipal Labor Committee, led by teacher-union boss Randi Weingarten, has offered to loan the city hundreds of millions from pension funds at 8 percent interest or to accept early retirement bonuses that would allow the city to replace expensive senior teachers with cheaper new ones. More recently, the MLC volunteered to use its phone banks as collection agents for the city’s overdue fines and taxes, and to authorize a far cheaper loan from an already depleted union health-care fund. Thompson mirrored Miller, saying “some of the union proposals create savings and some don’t,” but refusing to pinpoint which do and don’t.

Asked if the unions have been as forthcoming in helping the city as they might be, Thompson said, “I don’t know,” and Miller swung into his press-office mantra about the need for “both sides” to “talk constructively,” saying it’s not his role to get involved in collective bargaining. Thompson and Miller expressed a what-am-I-supposed-to-do attitude about the issue, though it is axiomatic that public pressure by them on the unions to make concessions might contribute to a negotiated deal, and that their silence after months of increasingly bitter exchanges is a boon to the unions.

Miller has, in fact, opposed the only two steps the mayor has taken to wrench savings out of the union contracts: slashing teacher sabbaticals and cutting engine companies from five to four firefighters. Bloomberg put both of these actions into his executive budget, anticipating an $11 million saving from the firefighter reduction in 49 engine companies and a $34 million saving by reducing dramatically the number of teachers who can take a sabbatical year off at 70 percent of pay. Miller’s budget response documents, released in April, list the firefighter cut as one of the council’s proposed restorations.

Miller told the Voice it was “an issue of public safety” and said the council would be discussing it to see if it is one of the restorations they will pursue in budget negotiations. While Miller claims he doesn’t “know what the legal status of the sabbatical issue is” (Weingarten has vowed to file a grievance against the cut), his press secretary adopted the union position. “If the city wants to make changes to requirements for sabbaticals, it can only be done through collective bargaining,” said Policano, contrary to the mayor’s assertion that in financial “emergencies” he can restrict their availability by executive action.

Thompson, who cut interviews short both before and after he received an award at the Met Council breakfast, testified at a hearing last week that it’s “imperative that the ongoing negotiations between the mayor and the unions produce manageable and real savings for the city.” The New York Post, which endorsed Thompson in 2001, chose to interpret this murky caveat as an endorsement of its editorial view that “public employees haven’t been made to sacrifice.” Ironically, the normally staid Thompson got banner headlines last week by blasting the mayor’s budget for discriminating against the outer boroughs, a sharp departure from his usual accountant-like approach. But he is still unwilling to make any qualitative pronouncements about union concessions, reneging on an agreement to discuss it by phone on Monday.

Weiner, who is the only one to say he’s considering a mayoral run, contends that the unions have “acted in good faith” and “put legitimate things on the table,” but that the relationship is now “toxic.” He, too, went mute on specifics. Ferrer was willing to get more specific than any of the others, blasting the union pension loan as “nonsense” and saying, “I wouldn’t have taken it either.” He strongly endorsed a concession described in a series of Voice stories—the consolidation and city administration of the 104 union welfare funds, which would save an estimated $150 million. “That’s a no-brainer,” he said, though Thompson, who oversees the welfare funds as comptroller, refused to comment.

Ferrer said it was wrong and “naive” to do the sabbatical and firefighter cuts unilaterally, noting that Bloomberg’s decision to enforce a provision of the firefighter contract that permits the city to cut engine-company manning if expected sick-leave levels are exceeded was “inappropriate.” Ferrer says “most of the department was at ground zero” and that might, indeed, be the reason sick leave is up.

None of these candidates is likely to become a creditable alternative to the limitlessly financed Bloomberg in 2005 without major union backing. So Bloomberg’s insistence on concessions that will result in recurring savings—such as pension or health care changes, as opposed to loans that deliver a one-time benefit—has been at his own political peril, opening the door to what has suddenly become an avalanche of political possibilities. His Met Council performance suggests he’s not running away from the fight.

Research assistance: Zoe Alsop, Michael Anstendig, and Brittany Schaeffer