Editor’s note: The Voice is submitting this speech to the Fernando Ferrer mayoral campaign as a prototype of the core message he ought to deliver in the coming days. Next week, we’ll do the same for Mike Bloomberg.
Four years ago today, on September 27, 2001, I met with Rudy Giuliani for one hour right here at the city’s temporary emergency center on the pier at 52nd Street and Twelfth Avenue. It was the day after I won the Democratic primary for mayor and we were just starting the run-off campaign. Before the meeting began, I was told that both of the remaining mayoral candidates, Mike Bloomberg and Mark Green, had already agreed to the extraordinary proposition I would soon hear from the mayor. Rudy Giuliani wanted to cross a line never before breached in the history of American democracy, even at wartime. He wanted his term extended for three months.
If he did not get the extension, Giuliani suggested he would seek the overturning of the term limits laws altogether, and run for a full term. He also made it clear at the meeting that, if extended, he would submit the new budget required by law in early 2002, without consulting the newly elected mayor. I told him I would sleep on it.
No one could question the courage and strength Giuliani had exhibited on 9-11, but I did not believe then, nor do I today, that he had become the nation’s first indispensable chief executive. His many media champions were already screaming for him to stay. I was getting calls on Giuliani’s behalf from my largest donor, as well as the heads of both the New York Stock Exchange and the most powerful labor union in the state.
I did not know, when I rejected the Giuliani proposal the next day (reminding everyone of America’s centuries-old tradition of “orderly, constitutional transitions”), that a New York Times editorial would later denounce the extension as a “dangerous idea.” All I knew, as I said then, was that I was not an apprentice. “You are either ready or you are not,” I told a meeting of transit workers at that time. “If you can’t deal with a crisis that you can see, how can you deal with one you can’t anticipate? Why is a candidate wasting the time of the electorate if he is not ready for a crisis?”
As tough as that decision was, I had to make a similar choice a second time. Last year, I decided again that I was ready to be mayor. I knew I would be challenging an incumbent whose intimidating willingness to spend whatever it takes was forcing other Democrats out of the race. I knew I was young enough to wait like they were. I even believed that Mike Bloomberg had handled some of the city’s problems ably— continuing to drive crime down and calming the racial storm in our city that Giuliani had done so much to foment. But I knew I could do better. I knew I was ready now. And I knew that four more years of Mike Bloom- berg would be four more years of missed opportunity, four more years of a mayor who cannot understand, much less begin to unravel, the core contradiction that grips our city: We are New Orleans without the flood.
The only time Mike Bloomberg even mentioned “poverty” in his first four years was in his State of the City speech this January, when he took credit for creating a city earned-income tax break that saves the working poor a couple of hundred dollars a year. He did not acknowledge that it was a City Council initiative that finally compelled him to use the word. Here are some others that a search of news stories reveals he has yet to utter since taking office: structural unemployment and income disparity. Yet our poverty rate, communities of hardcore joblessness, and ever widening income gap cry out for a mayor who cares.
Have you ever heard Mike Bloomberg so much as acknowledge that one in five New Yorkers lives below the poverty line, 1.7 times the U.S. poverty rate? That’s 1,600,574 people in 2004, up by 100,000 over 2003, the only major city in the U.S. to show an increase.
Has Mike Bloomberg even noticed that he lives in the wealthiest census tract in America, five subway stops away from the poorest? We know he rides that train downtown, but does he ever ride it uptown? Why has the nation’s worst income gap—with Manhattan’s top fifth earning 52 times what its bottom fifth earns, two pennies for every dollar—never provoked a comment, a program, or a policy from Bloomberg’s City Hall? Does he think that’s just the way it is and always will be? Why does a news search indicate that he and his top development deputy have literally appeared in thousands of news stories about stadiums and Olympics but have never meaningfully discussed the calamity of class that is sweeping across our city?
We know what monuments Mike Bloomberg wanted as his legacy in the first term. They all appeared on the city’s Olympic maps, which may well be yanked off a back shelf if he wins a second term. Those fantasy plans are all we know about the mayor’s vision for our city’s physical future. I want revived neighborhoods as my mayoral legacy, just as they are in the Bronx, where I was borough president for 13 years. If Mike Bloomberg wants a stadium named after him, I want a school. If his dream is to move from Olympic venue to Olympic venue with the world watching, mine is to open the door to an affordable home with a family watching. Just because the Bloomberg team has temporarily stopped talking about its edifice complex doesn’t mean they don’t still need therapy, the kind of therapy only the voters can offer.
Of course, I’ve been accused of talking about the Two New Yorks too much. John Edwards wasn’t a divider in 2004 when he made the Two Americas the central theme of his campaign, and I am not a divider now. Neither of us is talking just about race, though some of New York’s and America’s poverty does have a racial cast. Twenty-four percent of Manhattan’s poorest are white, and that is true throughout our city. And it is not just the poorest that Mike Bloomberg and his party can’t see. Earnings for the bottom third of the pay scale have dropped every year of the Bloomberg term, as has the number of families earning between $35,000 and $150,000. Only the top tier is growing, as is their incomes. Why doesn’t the mayor notice?
Why does he simply invoke market economics to dismiss the combined 40 percent, three-year rise in property tax rates and assessments that have afflicted home owners, who will soon experience another 4 percent hike? Why does he brag about what may be a momentary uptick in reading scores at elementary grade levels when only 18 percent of our high school graduates, and a mere 9 percent of our minority graduates, get the Regents diploma that is a prerequisite for college?
Why does he boast about a misleading decline in the unemployment rate when 30 percent of working-age adults have no work at all, a 3 percent jump, and many aren’t counted on the unemployment rolls because they know there is no point in looking for a job?
I do not hold Mike Bloomberg’s $4 billion against him. He earned it. Nor do I hold the $20 billion or so he will make when he sells Bloomberg LP. But we are all prisoners of our own experience. I do not need a tour guide to make my way through the streets of Brownsville, the South Bronx, or Jamaica. I have not become one of the top donors to a party whose overriding mission in American culture is to make the rich richer. Wall and Broadway is not the only street corner in New York I truly understand. He is more comfortable than I in a corporate boardroom and I am more comfortable, after 25 years of public life, with the ways to make municipal government work for all of us. Becoming mayor is not the icing on the cake of a grand life for me; it is the culmination of a career of city service and a lifetime of city understanding. Public policy is my rice and beans.
That’s why I have proposed an afford- able-housing plan, and a way to finance it, that will attack our devastating housing shortage, not nibble away at the edges of it.
That’s why I am the only candidate for mayor this year to come up with a concrete source of city funding that will finally force the state to deliver billions in additional school aid.
That’s why I will focus city economic- development policy on workforce projects and a Job Corps that actually marries our subsidies with jobs for our people, rather than the Bloomberg preoccupation with high-end real estate giveaways for suburban employers.
That’s why I will eliminate the Giuliani and Bloomberg obstacles to food stamp access, putting a billion more federal dollars into the city economy and food into the mouths of 700,000 more New Yorkers.
That’s why I will attack the health insurance crisis in the city instead of blindly claiming, as Mike Bloomberg has, that “the poor get better health services than the wealthy” in this city.
That’s why my living-wage bill, unlike the toothless one a threatened Bloomberg veto forced the council to pass, will compel a broad variety of city contractors to pay workers a decent wage and offer decent benefits.
That’s why I will declare the state of emergency that Mike Bloomberg refused to declare when pressed by the council, turning the highest levels of my administration into a working task force on finding ways to make opportunity as equitable as possible in a city of too many fixed destinies.
The national media are telling us that Katrina was a wake-up call. But there’s at least one New Yorker it has yet to wake up. While other mayors across America found their voice early, Mike Bloomberg was silent, even as the horror of the convention center and the Superdome dominated the news. The most he has said about the abject failure of an administration he rarely criticizes is to echo its own admission that the response was “inadequate.” He has said that we as a nation left the people of New Orleans behind. We did not. A party of cronies that rejects the necessary role of government in our lives left them behind.
An administration on spiritual vacation abandoned them before and after the storm. Barbara Bush wound up saying almost precisely what Mike Bloomberg said about the poor and health care, observing that the New Orleans displaced were “better off” after their city was wrecked than before.
It is not enough for Mike Bloomberg to cherry-pick his differences with the White House and limit them to John Roberts and stem cell research.
There are moral challenges in this life that cannot be conveniently accommodated—an endorsement here, a mild critique issued by press release there. George W. Bush is just such a challenge, especially for a Republican with a conscience. Instead our mayor slips in the side door of the White House to meet with Karl Rove. He takes every conceivable position but the right one on a war whose cost in lives and funding is a blow to our city. He blames the debacle of the Homeland Security formula on Tom DeLay and others in the Congress while praising the president for altering a formula he helped put in place. The only words Mike Bloomberg utters less often than poverty and income gaps is the name of George W. Bush. Yet the mayor cannot take back his inexcusable declaration at the Republican National Convention: “The president deserves our support. We are here to support him. And I am here to support him.”
We all remember that Mike Bloomberg took office just three and a half months after 9-11. We appreciate his service in our hour of grave need. But he promised to rebuild Lower Manhattan and it is still a hole. When I said no to Rudy Giuliani, Mike Bloomberg said yes. As late as October 12, 2001, the day after I lost the runoff, he said yes again when the extension was briefly revived, insisting it was “particularly a good idea now” because “the transition is infinitely more complex.” I was ready then and I am ready now—to safeguard, to govern, to stand up to any pressure. I will not mince words for presidents or share power with mayors whose terms are over. I have a vision for this city that is not a consequence of polls or ego and I know I am capable of making it happen.
Mike Bloomberg said last year that if he had to spend $75 million to get re-elected, “I have big problems.” He is on track to spend $100 million. That is because he has big problems that no amount of saturation advertising can conceal. I am proud to be part of that problem, but I am prouder still to be part of its solution.
Research assistance: Jessica Bennett, K. Emily Bond, Ben James, Leslie Kaufmann, Lee Norsworthy, and Xana O’Neill
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 13, 2005