Fair’s fair, so let’s start with this: There’s no question but that Michael Bloomberg has been a better mayor than New Yorkers had any right to expect. Nudged into office by a bare majority, he was elected amid the suffocating fears after 9-11. A stirring endorsement from his predecessor was enough to win over most voters; others chose him out of sheer resentment at the racial rift that had erupted among Democrats. All voted for a man they barely knew, whose only clear credential was that he had made a fortune in his business.
It was a blind bet, a stack of blue chips on a red number with the wheel in spin. New York had every reason to expect the least. It got much more. The new mayor brought a dogged determination to fix the schools, a resolute approach to public health, and an administration picked mainly on merit, not favors. And if he often displayed a tin ear on matters concerning common folks, like subway fare hikes and potholes, and if income disparities and housing shortages grew on his watch, he at least learned how to respond to those constituencies. All of which helps explain why, for some unknown number of us, his faults stand out so starkly and his hypocrisies loom so large. Consider:
His politics: “I’m not a professional politician,” Bloomberg proudly announced even before his entry into the 2001 race, a phrase that quickly became his mantra as well as a ready-made excuse for his leviathan campaign spending. Back then, it was only a half-truth; he was, after all, up against people who had been running for office most of their professional lives, while he’d spent his adulthood making money, practicing his politics in the corporate boardroom. Since then, however, it’s become a lie.
The same man who promotes himself as just an amateur in the crass business of winning and holding elective office has managed to sustain his candidacy through a pair of unlikely bookends: the frighteningly loony cult figures in the city’s Independence Party on the left, and a crew of corruption-tainted conservatives on the Republican right.
Bloomberg has tried to distance himself from the notorious Independence Party icon Lenora Fulani and her anti-Semitic screeds. But Bloomberg knows that the local Independence Party is really run by aging cult leader Fred Newman. When state party head Frank MacKay broke with Newman’s group this summer, he told the Voice how Bloomberg’s candidacy had been brokered through Newman (“Party Lines,” September 27). In turn, Bloomberg invited Newman into City Hall to discuss policy issues, approved a multimillion-dollar bond deal to finance a new headquarters for his cult, and even awarded a first-ever city contract to one of Newman’s groups, a deal that has been stayed only by the intervention of state attorney general Eliot Spitzer.
Republican-heavy Staten Island gave Bloomberg a 4-1 majority last time, and he has wooed his pal Jimmy Molinaro, the conservative borough president, to ensure a repeat performance. Even as evidence emerged of Molinaro’s coddling of mobsters who were feeding off his own borough, (“The Odd Couple,” October 18), Bloomberg publicly hailed his friend as “the most honest and trustworthy person” he ever met and funneled more cops and fire protection to the borough.
Last week Bloomberg addressed a fundraising dinner for the Bronx County GOP, a body that helped spare him a potentially embarrassing primary this year against a bona fide Republican, Tom Ognibene. Standing behind Bloomberg as he spoke was the man who helped engineer that deal, a political hack named Vic Tosi, whose actions involving a rigged school board vote were so reprehensible that a grand jury once demanded he be fired. “As you know, I am not a career politician,” the mayor told the Bronx crowd Thursday night.
His spending: In his first campaign, Bloomberg banked on the American syndrome in which the rich are adored for their fortunes. He correctly predicted no major backlash as he flooded the electoral system with more than $74 million. But he also reckoned after taking office that the same excuse wouldn’t wash the second time around. Since he’d no longer be “an outsider,” he confessed to the
Daily News in late 2001, he would consider abiding by spending limits in a new race. As late as a year ago, he said to laughter at an East Side forum, “If I have to spend $75 million again, I have big problems.”
Yet as this is written, the mayor has already spurted past $64 million spent in the current campaign and is likely to be coasting close to $100 million by the time the books on this election are closed. Most pundits have viewed this as a tawdry but victimless crime, one that fails to resonate with voters. But Bloomberg knows he is blowing a mile-wide hole in the nation’s best public campaign finance program, a system created in response to the multi-layered political corruption scandals of the 1980s, when five- and six-figure donations from favor-seeking givers distorted democracy. Bloomberg’s refusal to abide by spending limits threatens to once again turn New York campaigns into a wheel-screeching NASCAR-style race among wealthy candidates and those willing to mortgage themselves to donors.
His convention: If Freddy Ferrer had even a small piece of Bloomberg’s cash, he’d use a chunk of it to air a loop of the mayor praising President Bush at last year’s GOP convention at Madison Square Garden. Anti-Bush sentiment has grown so strong in the city that, even for those who don’t believe the mayor’s pro–White House stance affects local governance, it carries a stigma that can only hurt him. But the other footage that Bloomberg doesn’t want to see on the air is of several hundred peaceful, sidewalk-marching protesters being roped together like cattle by police. More than 90 percent of the more than 1,800 arrests during the convention resulted in dismissals or not-guilty verdicts.
Abetted by city attorneys, police kept more than 500 people under arrest well beyond the 24-hour arraignment period, a maneuver that defense lawyers charged was designed to let Bush get out of town without further confrontation. In a settlement, the Bloomberg administration agreed to pay more than $230,000 in legal fees and fines to those who were held.
His friends: The mayor is unlikely to catch any flak on this one outside of these pages, but this incident reveals something twisted and wrong in the man: One year after the Voice‘s exposé of corruption by Giuliani aide Russell Harding, son of Liberal Party boss Ray Harding, Bloomberg decided to publicly fire two veteran employees who had worked under Harding at the city’s Housing Development Corporation. While Harding had junketed around the globe, the two men had kept the agency functioning. But on May 6, 2003, the mayor dispatched a top aide to oust director Charles Brass and counsel David Boccio from their offices. That afternoon, Bloomberg issued a press release condemning them for “significant lapses in judgment” and failing “to report evidence of wrongdoing.” It was a humiliating and potentially career-breaking moment for both men.
Bloomberg’s disgrace was the greater, however, even if only a handful of people perceived it. At the same time he was publicly shaming the two aides, the mayor remained silent about his own chief adviser, Vincent LaPadula, who had not only failed to intervene in Harding’s escapades but had even participated in them. LaPadula had taken a $4,200 junket with Harding and got his pal to install his brother in a $70,000-a-year, semi-show job at the agency. When LaPadula turned 30, Harding threw a $1,000 party at the Four Seasons for his buddy—and charged it to taxpayers.
But Bloomberg never had a harsh public word about LaPadula and kept him on his payroll. The young Staten Islander, a former Giuliani aide, was one of Bloomberg’s first campaign hires. He introduced the billionaire to Republican officials around the city and later served as the mayor’s liaison with GOP leaders around the state. Mike Bloomberg, self-declared non-politician, wasn’t about to upset those relationships. A few months after Bloomberg’s public purge, LaPadula quietly left City Hall for a well-paid position in municipal finance. Friends say he remains an informal adviser to the mayor, whose pledge to hire only the best and brightest apparently retains some necessary loopholes.