The Bloomberg Dilemma: Favorite? Or Just No Obvious Alternative?


Michael Bloomberg remains an overwhelming favorite for re-election, even as polls keep finding that most New Yorkers would just as soon someone else took over at City Hall. It’s the riddle of Campaign 2009. Chalk it up to uninspiring opponents, the advantages of incumbency, and the results of $36 million worth of electoral carpet-bombing by an incumbent taking no chances.

Whatever the reasons, despite all that costly self-promotion, scratch any surface and you’ll find voters who are less than thrilled with Mayor Mike’s performance, but who don’t see the obvious alternative. Take, for example, those involved in the nasty development battle now being waged in the Kingsbridge Heights section of the Bronx.

Last Wednesday night, Bloomberg’s top Democratic challenger, Bill Thompson, stood in front of a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 local residents and union members gathered at Our Lady of Refuge on East 196th Street. Thompson got only polite applause when he was introduced by Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, leader of a coalition of community and labor organizations calling itself Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. But the city comptroller pulled a deafening roar as soon as he said that he wouldn’t vote for Bloomberg’s proposal for a new city-subsidized shopping mall at the huge old armory on West Kingsbridge Road, unless the developer agrees that new jobs there will pay decent wages.

“The Bloomberg administration hasn’t pushed to make sure that people are paid a living wage in this city,” Thompson told the crowd. “I am going to continue to vote no on this project until the right thing happens.” Thompson paused, enjoying the moment. He looked like he was about to break into a full-throated takedown of Bloomberg policies: The audience was his for the asking. Instead, he grinned, waved, and ducked out of the room.

There were plenty of potential recruits to be had. Among those hooting loudest for Thompson were representatives of unions like the carpenters that have actually endorsed Bloomberg’s bid for a third term. Also part of the coalition seeking a better jobs deal for the armory project is Local 32BJ of the building service workers, which, last week, gave Bloomberg its backing.

Being for the mayor while opposing him is an ongoing dilemma for Bloomberg supporters. A political aide to another building trades union that has endorsed the mayor put it this way when asked the basis for endorsing Bloomberg: “The basic rationale? He’s going to win. That’s the basic rationale.”

There’s not a whole lot else. Mike Bloomberg’s own argument last fall for overturning the term limits that voters had twice approved in referendums was that the city needed to keep his strong hand on the tiller as we weather a terrible economic storm. Last week, however, the storm raged unabated: City unemployment hit 9.5 percent, matching the national rate for the first time. Unemployment in the city is now running even higher than the rest of the state, the labor department reported.

There’s an even bigger disconnect between the mayor’s views on labor and his union endorsers. Bloomberg has garnered support for his third term from the Teamsters, the Laborers, and the Food and Commercial Workers unions. All are fierce champions of the Employee Free Choice Act—the congressional legislation that would make it easier for workers to form unions. On Friday, even as news surfaced that key provisions of the bill were being dropped in the face of conservative opposition, national union spokesmen restated that the legislation remains labor’s single most crucial goal, calling it “essential to recovering our nation’s economy.”

And where does Mike Bloomberg stand on the bill? The question was posed last Thursday, moments after the mayor issued a press release announcing another labor endorsement. A campaign spokesman said she’d get back to us. We’re still waiting.

That’s a good example of the mayor’s strategy in this campaign: Play rope-a-dope on tough questions, while burying voters under a multimillion-dollar avalanche of positive ads.

The armory fight is another instance in which Bloomberg’s position on labor standards goes against the grain of his union supporters.

Ever since the huge armory was handed over to the city back in 1998, local groups have been fashioning ideas about what it could become. The building is a vast, castle-like affair, with some 575,000 square feet tucked under a cavernous, vaulted ceiling that looks like it could swallow the better part of Madison Square Garden.

Rudy Giuliani tried to force through a scheme to create sprawling, suburban-style big-box stores there. Groups like the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, whose members and organizers held the neighborhood together through the worst of the “Bronx Is Burning” days, had been thinking more along the lines of schools, youth facilities, and retail stores that didn’t drive local merchants to the poorhouse. Thankfully, Giuliani’s plan turned out to be just bluster, never even getting off the ground.

Bloomberg played things much smarter, agreeing to give community groups input into the planning. Locals recruited architects and planners from the ever-helpful Pratt Center for Community Development in Brooklyn to help. This time around, City Hall’s new request for developer proposals included language aimed at discouraging big-box stores. It also gave preference to builders whose schemes would place local residents in jobs that paid more than minimum wage.

When Bloomberg’s team finally settled on a developer it liked for the project, lo and behold, it was an administration favorite: Steve Ross and his Related Companies. The builder counts both Bloomberg and former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff (now running the mayor’s mighty corporation, Bloomberg LP) among his close pals and has been chosen to handle several other development projects by Bloomberg’s administration, including the redevelopment of the old Bronx Terminal Market, for which he didn’t even have to compete against anyone else.

Still, Related is a union contractor, and it would have been fine with everyone if not for another bait and switch. After initially describing the components of what it quaintly dubbed “The Shops at the Armory,” the developer quietly let it be known that it would seek a 50,000-square-foot supermarket for the site. Such a mega-market, enjoying its share of the project’s $18 million in city tax breaks, would have a strong, competitive edge over a pair of long-standing nearby family-owned supermarkets that have contracts with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union covering some 150 workers.

Related then threw another deal-buster into the mix: Under no circumstances would it require its tenants to offer full-time jobs at $10 an hour, plus benefits, the current yardstick for a so-called “living wage.”

Bloomberg’s economic development aides shrugged. Any job is a good job, they said. With City Hall’s blessings, Related upped the ante even more. If forced to tell tenants to hike wages, it would walk away from the deal, its lawyers told the local community board.

This “my way or the highway” threat had the desired effect. A divided community board #7 voted last week to approve the project on condition that everyone keep talking. The Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, including its union partners, is still pressing its demands. “We got involved three years ago to support the principle of good wages and working conditions at this site,” said Fred LeMoine, a leader of the Lathers Local 46 who helped organize last week’s rally. “We’ve got ours, and now we intend to help the rest of the community get theirs.” Yes, he acknowledged, it was unusual for a building trades union to be adding demands to a development project—and yes, there had been “a little pressure” to back off. “But we’re not going anywhere,” he said.