New Yorkers expect their mayors to be more than mechanics, but Mike Bloomberg is once again defying that expectation. His response to the Katrina catastrophe that has outraged his city for days has so far been meticulously and predictably practical. His communications director Bill Cunningham told the Voice that Bloomberg met over the weekend with top emergency brass before dispatching as much uniformed aid to New Orleans as he felt we could safely muster.
But if you were hoping the mayor would, for once, actually get upset at the obscenity of a rudderless rescue effort, plunging a sister city into chaos and needless death, advertising the class chasms that consume America and New York, don’t hold your breath. Instead of embodying our anger over the mishandling of this catastrophe, Mike Bloomberg embodies our distance from it, preferring a detached yet effective response.
Asked if Bloomberg ever got mad about the events of recent days, Cunningham told the Voice: “That’s not the way he is. His instinct, whenever there is a problem, is how can we respond to it, what do we need to do. He’s very clinical. He could vent, he could express anger, but that won’t accomplish anything.”
What could’ve been more tepid than Bloomberg waiting until Sunday, at the end of a week of convention center and Superdome convulsions, to concede that “it would appear that the federal government’s response has been inadequate?” Even then, Bloomberg invoked, rather than criticized, the president, saying that Bush himself had “acknowledged” the inadequacy of the efforts. The mayor only offered that minimal critique when pressed by reporters. Earlier in the week, he was asked on NY1 about the calamity and offered a list of city assistance plans without a word of commentary.
Finally, when Bloomberg marched in the West Indian Day Parade, faced with a sea of black faces, Bloomberg took his first half-step in the direction of a little New York kvetching, if not venting. He seemed to be blaming all Americans, rather than one in particular, for collectively “turning our backs” on “those who’ve needed our help for so long” and were “left to fend for themselves when disaster struck.” The mayor said “we all are to blame and we all must do better the next time,” an assessment about as out of step with the kitchen table talk in black Brooklyn, as well as other parts of Bloomberg’s city, as it was in what’s left of New Orleans.
While Bloomberg consistently gets high marks in public polls as a “strong leader,” minorities consistently question whether he “understands” their problems, a shortcoming that his Katrina soft-pedaling may highlight. Cunningham says minority voters are more concerned about whether or not a mayor “works on our problems,” not just if empathizes or “points a finger of blame.”
Reminded of how the racial killing of Yusef Hawkins defeated Mayor Ed Koch in the 1989 election, jumpstarting an historic black turnout angry about Koch’s response, Cunningham insisted that New Orleans “was not a Yusef Hawkins moment.” That “individual tragedy became a political lightning rod and a touchstone issue here,” Cunningham recalled, “and Katrina may become that in New Orleans or Washington,” but not here. “It’s not being used to criticize the mayor,” he added, as it was in the Hawkins case, which occurred shortly before Koch lost the September primary.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 8, 2005