Regardless of whether he ever gets down to the bare essentials, Michael Bloomberg, presidential pretender, is performing a wonderfully tantalizing fan dance. His maverick-billionaire status makes it all the more pleasingly risqué. But despite the high entertainment value, most who know the mayor don’t actually expect him to run for commander in chief. Phrases like “only if the stars are in perfect alignment” pop up regularly when Bloomberg’s counselors are queried about his intentions. This is an unlikely astronomical occurrence, made more so should the Republicans somehow manage to make Rudy Giuliani their nominee. As starkly different as their backgrounds and management styles may be, the distinctions between two ethnic New Yorkers who served as back-to-back mayors of Gotham get blurry real fast when the audience being pitched is sitting in, say, Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
“What’s he going to run as: America’s other mayor?” sneers Team Rudy about its potential opponent.
Political operatives who have sat with Bloomberg’s top proselytizer, Kevin Sheekey, the $196,000-a-year deputy mayor for presidential politics, say the current thinking is that a Giuliani nomination reduces the likelihood of a Bloomberg presidential bid to about nil.
This is too bad, because a full-blown, in-your-face Giuliani-Bloomberg contest could be most helpful in airing a lot of unspoken animosity that has built up in the past six years between the two camps. We know this because of the cheap shot that Mayor Bloomberg casually offered across the asparagus plate at a recent Gracie Mansion dinner party, when he told guests that his predecessor had really crossed the line by having meals cooked by city staff delivered to Giuliani’s elderly mother at her apartment a few blocks away. Now there’s an ethics transgression worthy of investigation. One and a half terms in City Hall, and Mike Bloomberg is still ticked off at a special meals-on-wheels program for the exmayoral mom?
This graceless mansion repartee is a sure indicator that there’s a lot more resentment backed up where that came from. And while we may never make it to the main event—Mike in this corner, Rudy in that one, pick-your-favorite-Dem in a third—these preliminary bouts could yet prove exciting.
For one thing, it has been quietly but widely touted for years among City Hall cognoscenti that the incoming Bloomberg crew found not a little genuinely dirty linen stuffed in drawers all over the place. This is in addition to the policy and funding decisions that Bloomberg quickly and publicly reversed: Upon arrival, he snuffed lucrative deals for two new baseball stadiums, pulled the plug on a billion-dollar project for a new stock exchange building, and deep-sixed a plan to create a big new TV studio in Staten Island when it didn’t pass the smell test.
Those are the ones that made the papers. Others may not have. “There was some kind of outrageous giveaway to a big Giuliani supporter, a piece of property near the Brooklyn Navy Yard,” whispers one Bloomberg insider. “They had to get rid of that right away.” Really? Do tell. Was it anything like the way Giuliani shoehorned his pal Joseph Spitzer—the real estate developer who drove the streets with his City Hall-provided “I’ll park wherever the hell I want to park” placard—into a lucrative residential project in Williamsburg in the last months of his administration? Alas, minus a Rudy-Mike showdown, we’re unlikely to learn more.
Part of the logic at work here is the normal mutually-assured-destruction principle that keeps a lid on most official secrets. Any smut attack from Bloomberg’s City Hall would quickly be met with incoming missiles from Giuliani’s militia. Don’t think for a minute that when Bloomberg’s top deputy, Dan Doctoroff, was handing prime Bronx real estate deals to his pal and former business partner, developer Steven Ross, that Giuliani’s crew wasn’t taking careful notes. (If interested, see “Terminal Solution,” April 13, 2004, and “Market-Rate Giveaway,” March 22, 2005.)
But even if they never get to the rolling-around-in-the-mud act that is a main ingredient of presidential contests, there are many other things that Rudy and Mike could debate that New Yorkers and the wider New York diaspora might find entertaining.
Education? Giuliani’s main course of study while mayor was inflicting agony on schools chancellors. (“Precious” was the word he used for the neatly attired and ever-polite Ramon Cortines before driving him out of office—hmm, what exactly was that supposed to imply?) Rudy threw regular darts at the bloated educational bureaucracy but somehow never got around to tackling root causes. Bloomberg’s approach? Inside of six months in office, he managed to win Albany legislation giving him control of the system. He followed that victory by relocating the new Department of Education to the venerable Tweed Court House, right behind City Hall. Giuliani had spent millions renovating the old wreck, with plans to make it a museum. No, said Bloomberg, this is more important. Ouch!
Health? Giuliani’s strongest initiative was trying to sell city-owned hospitals, which provide general care to New York’s poor. Blocked in the courts, he switched to padding the hapless Health and Hospitals Corporation with patronage appointees. Self-avowed health nut Bloomberg used much of his political capital in his first year in office to win a smoking ban in bars and restaurants, a move that didn’t exactly endear him to the outer-borough Marlboro-and-Bud crowd that helped elect him.
A believer in preventive health care, he restored city hospitals to prestige, and they now get top ratings.
Housing? Giuliani never even bothered to hatch a policy. As the numbers of homeless rose around him and an affordable-housing crisis crunched the middle class, Giuliani gave the job of running the city’s housing-finance agency to the son of his political mentor, Liberal Party boss Ray Harding. Russell Harding had no background in the business and lacked a college degree. A Voice series later helped send him to prison for stealing $400,000 from the agency (official scheduled release date: May 29, 2008). Giuliani’s housing commissioner, Richard Roberts, pled guilty to federal perjury charges in the same scandal. Still in his first term, Bloomberg launched a major initiative to build and preserve housing—one that doesn’t take nearly adequate account of the need to hold onto current low-cost housing, but one that is helping to make up for eight years of inaction.
Welfare? Backed by new federal laws limiting welfare eligibility, Giuliani launched a crackdown that cut the rolls by half. Score one. But he also managed to put a seamy team of Midwest hucksters angling to cash in on the new policies in charge of city operations. Bloomberg caught flak for letting the rolls rise modestly. At the same time, complaints of ruthless inequities all but disappeared.
Crime? Here may lie the nub of the matter. The two mayors can square off, citing stat for stat proving lowered crime rates. A key difference is that the steep drop in the Giuliani years paralleled a national decline; Bloomberg’s continued low crime numbers go counter to a rising national trend. Then there are their top-cop comparisons: the already once-convicted Bernard Kerik (now facing an ongoing federal probe) and the buffoonish Howard Safir versus rock-jawed Ray Kelly. Kelly did lock up antiwar protesters on a whim, but don’t expect that to generate too much heat in Keokuk, Iowa.
A Rudy-Mike smackdown? We can only wish.