Even if Democratic challenger Bill Thompson could buy enough airtime to get his message out, this year’s mayoral election would still be a referendum on Mike Bloomberg. And for many voters, Mayor Mike is a riddle, at once admirable and agonizing.
If things do tighten up, the 10 percent of voters who rate Bloomberg’s job performance favorably, but don’t want to see him re-elected, could become an important swing demographic. The mayor has spent $65 million already, yet his numbers are flat. The avalanche of his television ads only highlight the power of his money at a moment when, to many New Yorkers, wealth and wisdom appear increasingly contradictory. And, perhaps most unsettling, he wouldn’t be on the ballot at all but for the coup he engineered to extend term limits set in two referendums, defying voters just months before he started seducing them again.
Third terms diminished Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo, and George Pataki, but there is a tangible sense of purpose about the Bloomberg we see now, an energy reminiscent of his post-9/11 resolve. It could be just the campaign that is animating him, but the daily drumbeat of announcement and action now is in stark contrast with the bored and unfocused tedium of the second term, when he drifted into a presidential haze and lost his lust for the details of governing. He appears again to actually want the job.
A second Bloomberg sequel seems as surreal as it does inevitable. Though Thompson has shown some movement in polls, we can’t help feeling that we’re being pulled into a third Bloomberg administration whether we want one or not. Perhaps the best we can do as the election nears is add up the mayor’s accomplishments and mistakes in as clear-eyed a manner as possible.
Our accounting does not inspect the style of his leadership, which biographer Joyce Purnick captured—calling him “curt, profane, cranky, and willful,” as well as “allergic to introspection” and “ever confident he is right,” even as she pronounced him potentially “one of the most effective mayors in the city’s history.” It doesn’t examine how white his inner circle is, or the astonishing fact that Rudy Giuliani appointed more blacks to high posts in his administration than Mike has. Nor does it salute him for the towering courage he displayed when the city was on its heels and he was new to public office, imposing the largest property tax hike in history and pushing new income surcharges on the wealthiest, to protect services.
But the list that follows is intended to be a useful measure of the man. If it reads like I am arguing with myself, I am. Bloomberg is the most perplexing of the five mayors I’ve covered. I receive the calls that all undecided voters get, again and again, from the Bloomberg phone banks, perhaps the only stimulus program Obama is not financing. I have told them I will not decide until the debates are done, that I am giving Bill Thompson the chance to show he is ready for the job. That is really only partly true. I am also wrestling with my Bloomberg demons, shifting uneasily between days of trust and torment. These are the reasons why.
Mayor Mike knows how to hire, but he can’t bring himself to fire. He’d be a millionaire if he ran his company like this.
“We joke that getting the Post to demand our resignation is the ultimate job protection,” one Bloomberg aide told Purnick. Bloomberg has made some terrific choices—Health Commissioner Tom Frieden and Housing Commissioner Shaun Donovan have already been tapped by President Obama for top national jobs—but, as Purnick put it, he lets “weak commissioners stick around long after any other mayor would have dumped them.”
Fire Commissioner Nick Scoppetta is Exhibit A. Eight years after the ex–Commissioner of Children’s Services became the unlikely head of the FDNY, we still don’t know if he can turn off a stove. We do know that when he climbed to the roof of a firehouse to see the damage caused by debris falling off the nearby Deutsche Bank demolition site, he didn’t order an inspection for the bank building, or even notice that the department’s regular inspections, required by law every 15 days, weren’t being done at all. And when the building went up in flames three months later and two firefighters perished, we know that the mayor and the fire commissioner collaborated to blame underlings. Bloomberg’s own investigations commissioner found a few months ago that Scoppetta’s executive team “did not address noncompliance with the 15-day rule,” contributing to a “culture of widespread disregard” in “commands throughout the department.” Even then, Bloomberg refused to ax him. Finally, just last week, Scoppetta announced that he would leave at the end of the year.
Scoppetta had many accomplices in the lead-up to this deadly fire—buildings commissioner Patricia Lancaster, deputy buildings commissioner Robert LiMandri, and Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff—though none have paid a price for allowing concerns about the pace of the demolition to take precedence over a safe takedown of the city’s most toxic building, next door to Ground Zero. Lancaster was forced out over failings unrelated to Deutsche Bank, LiMandri was elevated to commissioner, and Doctoroff won the ultimate promotion (president of Bloomberg LP).
The list of the unaccountable extends far beyond Deutsche Bank. Department of Aging commissioner Edwin Méndez-Santiago lasted two and a half years after the first of two sexual harassment complaints were filed against him. The city eventually settled both cases, but Méndez-Santiago wasn’t dumped until the mayor extended term limits and readied himself for a re-election run. Giuliani’s cousin, Ray Casey, installed by Bloomberg as a favor to Giuliani, took a profitable Off-Track Betting Corporation into such a financial tailspin that, six and a half years later, Bloomberg finally prevailed on the state to take the nearly bankrupt bookie over. Robert Walsh, the Small Business Services commissioner, was put in charge of the two great minority initiatives ballyhooed by Bloomberg during the 2005 campaign, and when his agency’s mishandling of both was revealed, the mayor said “nobody read” the damning critique.
Aside from Lancaster, who resigned after conceding that her buildings department had mistakenly granted an improper permit to a project in which a crane collapse killed seven, the only other forced departure was finance chief Martha Stark, an election-year fatality. Though a federal probation report, and other government findings, laid the failings that led to the Staten Island ferry crash at the feet of transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall, Bloomberg retained her for years afterward and celebrated her elevation to a top City University post. Weinshall was an accomplished commissioner in many other ways, but the mayor never held her accountable “for placing an unqualified person in charge of a large municipal ferry service,” as the probation report found (also concluding that the top executives of her agency had “a share of responsibility for the accident” that killed seven).
Rudy Giuliani famously said he wanted to “blow up” the independent Board of Education. Bloomberg instead made it his own—persuading the state legislature to disband the board and turn this $18 billion bureaucracy into a mayoral agency. Mike might be hyping the grades, but there’s no doubt he has a right to boast.
Let’s examine a statistic that neither Bloomberg nor the Department of Exaggeration compiled. The City University Office of Institutional Research & Assessment says that between 2002—when Bloomberg became mayor—and 2008, there was a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of city high school grads who became freshmen at CUNY institutions. There are 8,000 more freshmen matriculating today than when Bloomberg took office.
Audits by Comptroller Bill Thompson have raised legitimate questions about the controls the Department of Education has in place to assure that high school diplomas are being granted only to those who earn them. But it’s inarguable that the graduation rate has substantially improved, even if you believe that the 10- to 15-point boost by city standards (and nine points by state standards) can’t be trusted. Any comparison with the flat grad rate before Bloomberg—moving only between 48 percent and 51 percent for a solid decade—confirms the reality that this mayor has changed schools for the better. The hike in reading and math scores is certainly a by-product of teaching to tests that are easier than ever, but that only diminishes the level of claimed improvement, not the fact of it.
No other modern mayor has ever said, “Judge me by the schools,” and no mayor has been more hands-on, meeting weekly with his chancellor, engaging in the minutiae of operational decision making. His chancellor, Joel Klein, left a guaranteed, five-year, $2.5 million-a-year contract with Bertelsmann to take on the city’s toughest, and once thought intractable, public challenge, at a tenth of the salary. He now appears primed to do the bulk of a 12-year term if Bloomberg is re-elected, in sharp contrast with the instability of the eight Giuliani years, when four chancellors played musical chairs.
More than any chancellor in my lifetime, Klein has stood up to the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which prefers to micromanage the schools in service of its members. Bloomberg has undercut Klein to negotiate politically inspired contracts with the union, granting giant pay and benefit boosts while failing to win Klein-backed contract changes that would rid the system of bad teachers. The two have combined, however, to create an alternate universe of nearly a hundred charter schools, almost all of which operate outside the confines of the UFT’s 165-page contract, and Bloomberg recently announced his determination to double that number. By every standard, these charters, clustered in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, are destroying the whispered narrative over the years that “these kids can’t learn,” narrowing what’s called the “Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap.”
Bloomberg gave us eight years of bully pulpit on the city’s need for pension reform, but let himself be bullied by the labor barons. City contributions to pensions leaped from $1.4 billion to $6.3 billion. Paying the bill for Mike’s union alliances will cost New Yorkers thousands of layoffs and diminished services in the third term.
The Independent Budget Office (IBO) offers the following statistical critique of the Bloomberg years: The city budget went from $41 billion to a $59.5 billion projected total for the current fiscal year. Salaries and benefits for city workers went from $22.8 billion to $35.9 billion. Pension, health, and other benefits grew from $5.7 billion to $13.4 billion. The full-time workforce went from 247,681 to 274,696. Debt rose from $43 billion to $60 billion. If a liberal Democrat presided over such soaring numbers, Rupert Murdoch and Mort Zuckerman would put a tabloid bull’s-eye on his back (for evidence of that, look what they’ve done to David Paterson, with a record of less imprudence).
The day of reckoning will come as soon as Bloomberg is re-elected. He is using every cent of a $2.7 billion surplus carried over from the good years to close the current budget gap, and with projected gaps over the next two years of $12 billion, mass layoffs—especially of teachers—might as well be announced at the victory party. “The mayor has typically looked to get headstarts on significant shortfalls,” says the IBO’s Doug Turetsky. “The fact that he didn’t this time was out of character. So he put a new twist on the term ‘election-year budget.’ Rather than big new spending, he held off from taking the kind of steps he might have in a year without municipal elections.”
The biggest drag on the budget—exploding pension costs—can’t be laid solely at the mayor’s feet. In fact, some of the blame can be assigned to his Democratic opponent, Bill Thompson, whose investment decisions as a prime manager of the pension funds have become a target of Bloomberg commercials. But even the mayor’s office agrees that roughly 30 percent of the new costs are attributable to the salary and benefit hikes he granted, which, in turn, pushed pensions higher. Though city officials concede that the 43 percent cumulative hike in teacher salaries awarded by Bloomberg is the largest in the country, they argue that the average boost for city workers is only six points higher than inflation. At the outset of his first term, Bloomberg demanded productivity improvements to pay for these salary increases, but he largely abandoned that demand around the time of his re-election, in 2005.
Lax management is also driving pensions upward. Nearly three of four retiring firefighters since 2004 are receiving disability pensions, collecting three-quarters of their pay tax-free for the rest of their lives (25 percent of Chicago firefighters get disability pensions). Incredibly, many firefighters are even racking up overtime after their supposedly disabling injury, juicing up their departing pay to grab even bigger pensions. That’s only one of the overtime scams tolerated by Bloomberg management. The state’s Financial Control Board (FCB) recently concluded that the city “has done little to control overtime spending,” which, it says, is “one of a few areas in the city’s budget directly under management control.” Overtime, says the FCB, has boomed an average of 3.2 percent per year in the past five years, exceeding a billion dollars for two years in a row.
Jim Hanley, who has been the city’s labor commissioner for 20 years under four mayors, tried to put the salary hikes in context during a Voice interview, noting that the city engages in pattern bargaining, even granting two-year, 14 percent salary increases to police at the same time it was laying off 5,000 of them during the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s (when Hanley was a young assistant in the office). This pattern bargaining, which intertwines the increases granted to various unions and began in 1898, is the reason that Bloomberg was still awarding two-year, 8 percent boosts just a few months ago, even as the city economy collapsed, insists Hanley. Remarkably, as bleak as the budget is, Bloomberg has set aside funding for 8 percent increases for teachers, to be awarded right after election. “The city is now ending that pattern,” Hanley explained, predicting that “there will be a much greater emphasis on being frugal in the next round of bargaining.” If Bloomberg is re-elected, “he will be tougher on these issues,” he contended, adding that the budget crunch will give him the leverage to be tougher. He says that “almost all unions prefer layoffs” to any givebacks or reductions in salary increases, because laid-off workers can’t vote in union elections. The administration appears content to live with even this union priority.
Bloomberg correctly blames a compliant state legislature for pushing pension costs higher by passing “sweetener” bills that enrich them, and Hanley says the mayor has almost uniformly opposed this periodic largesse (even as he became the single largest donor to the Republican Senate that approved them). Bloomberg “has fought these sweeteners harder than any mayor I’ve worked for,” Hanley contends, adding that Bloomberg recently cajoled the legislature into raising the service requirement for pensions to 22 years for new police officers and firefighters, two years more than the longstanding 20-and-out early eligibility that has the city picking up the tab for 10,000 cops who’ve recently retired in their forties. Hanley cites this adjustment as evidence that, seven and a half years into his two terms, Bloomberg is finally attacking the pension issue with effect. The teachers union also recently agreed to modify their pensions, and a coalition of municipal unions signed off on increased co-pays for health care.
All of this is too little, too late, but Bill Thompson is unlikely to bring the issue of labor and pension costs up during the campaign, since some of the city unions are backing him.
No mayor ever—here, or anywhere else in America—has done more to fight illegal guns. It’s a promise Bloomberg made to the families of cops killed by imported guns. The anti-gun war is just a part of Bloomberg’s public safety record, which is admirably better than his celebrated predecessor’s.
Nine years in politics have chipped away at Mike Bloomberg’s authenticity, but his resolve to combat gun violence is genuine and visceral. Ask Plaxico Burress. Ask the National Rifle Association, which depicted him as an octopus on its magazine cover, deriding his “anti-gun reach across America.” Ask Carolyn McCarthy, the Long Island Democratic congresswoman whose husband was killed in an infamous 1993 Long Island Rail Road shooting and who did a television commercial endorsing Bloomberg because his gun-control commitment “saves lives.” Ask the 450 mayors from 40 states, representing 56 million Americans, who have joined his Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition, jump-started with $3 million in Bloomberg contributions. Ask the gun boosters in the U.S. Senate who saw Bloomberg’s coalition help defeat the Thune Amendment, which would have required states with tough laws to grant reciprocity to gun owners with permits from weak-law states.
Bloomberg was a major force behind the passage of a new law in New York that tripled the mandatory minimum sentence for gun possession, just as he pushed a new-offender registration law through the City Council making it possible to track gun offenders. But his really extraordinary action was his pursuit of 27 gun dealers in several Southern states that were selling illegal guns used in the commission of crimes in the city, successfully settling with 24 of them and forcing changes in their practices. The litigation followed Bloomberg-orchestrated sting operations that caught dealers selling guns in apparent violation of federal law. Not only did the Bush Justice Department refuse to prosecute the dealers, they warned the city of “potential legal liabilities” resulting from the interstate undercover operation. A Johns Hopkins study verified that, after the settlements, there was a sharp decrease in the number of illegal guns sold by these stores that wound up in NYC. Bloomberg even recruited the biggest gun-seller in America, Wal-Mart, to join his coalition.
And just last week, Bloomberg revealed that his investigators had completed a similar integrity test at gun shows in several states, making a video called “Gun Show Undercover” and documenting that 19 of the 30 sellers approached at these shows sidestepped federal law and sold guns to undercover investigators who said they couldn’t pass a background test. The mayor is sending the video to every member of Congress in an effort to close the gun show loophole that permits these sales.
The anti-gun campaign is a distinctly Bloomberg contribution to the decline in violent crime achieved under both his and Giuliani’s administrations. Bloomberg’s approach, however, has destroyed the Giuliani premise that to lower crime, the mayor and the NYPD have to raise the racial temperature of New York. As recently as the allegedly DWI cop who ran over the pastor’s daughter in Brooklyn, Bloomberg has found just the right voice of indignation and assurance, even as other officers on the scene were allegedly scrambling to cover it up. Racially tinged stop-and-frisk numbers call out for a change in policy, as does the NYPD’s handling of civil protest, but Bloomberg’s record as the protector of the people of his city is commendable, whether the perpetrators are muggers or terrorists.
Another abiding Bloomberg commitment is public health. When his poll numbers were down in 2002, he didn’t care if an unpopular smoking ban would be harmful to his political health. His budgets invested billions in city hospitals, reversing years of Giuliani disinvestment. Johns Hopkins has already named its legendary School of Public Health after its most generous backer. When he is done as mayor, Bellevue should be renamed “Bloomberg.”
We don’t really know if Bloomberg deserves credit for the year-and-a-quarter gain in life expectancy since he has been mayor. Nor do we know if 350,000 fewer New York smokers is a consequence of the ban, the tax hikes, mass distribution of smoking-cessation patches, and the stream of graphic television and other advertising that the administration has done to fight smoking. HIV deaths, drug deaths, and infant mortality were all decreasing before Bloomberg became mayor, and no one credited Rudy. As hard as it is to figure out what share of the credit belongs to the mayor, it’s easy to determine that some of it does.
The city’s rise in life expectancy significantly outpaced the national average. The percent of adult smokers in NYC, for example, fell from 21.5 percent to 15.8 percent, while the drop in Los Angeles was less than a single percentage point (the city’s rate is now lower than all but five states). When Bloomberg became mayor in 2002, a quarter of New Yorkers did not have a regular doctor; today, it’s less than 20 percent. The percent of blacks and Latinos getting colonoscopies has grown dramatically, and the screening rate for everyone has increased by 48 percent.
Each of these improvements has been connected to a program developed under Bloomberg—including an electronic health record system that has helped more than a thousand doctors connect with a million patients—concentrated in the city’s poorest and sickest neighborhoods. A new Diabetes Prevention program is just beginning to achieve results, and the trans fat ban and overhaul of the restaurant inspection system are making dining out safer.
But there’s no greater measure of Bloomberg’s health commitment than the dollars he has put into public hospitals. Giuliani tried to privatize them and was rebuffed by the courts. When Bloomberg came to office, the city’s net subsidy to the Health & Hospitals Corporation was $241 million; it climbed to more than a billion by 2006. It has dropped a bit since then, says the IBO, a technical budgetary adjustment without an impact on services, but Mayor Mike inherited a demoralized and damaged public system and can now boast that some city hospitals are getting top national ratings.
“New York is healthier than ever,” Bloomberg said at Maimonides Cancer Center in Brooklyn this spring. “If that isn’t the purpose of government, I don’t know what is the purpose of government.” As quiet as it is kept, even by Bloomberg’s stumbling campaign, the beneficiaries of his health, crime, and education initiatives are mostly poor minorities, utterly contrary to the Thompson critique that he is a mayor only for the rich.
As much as the city ought to name a hospital after Mayor Mike, it is more likely to name a stadium or arena. He has certainly spent enough of our money on them to pay for the naming rights. If he gets a pre-election Yankees World Series parade, the confetti should remind us of the bonanza of tax dollars that helped finance the stadium in which it was won.
City officials resent any suggestion that Bloomberg’s has been a stadium-centric economic development policy. They rightly point to his smart focus on biotechnology, including the ongoing construction of the East River Science Park and support of the SUNY Downstate Biotechnology Incubator, all contributing to top rankings as a life science city in two national surveys. They point to his nurturing of the tourism, film/TV, and nonprofit sectors. The $4 billion he has invested in new housing is cited as an economic development marker. But the fact remains that the only major projects built or to be built in the Bloomberg era—the monuments to Mike—are Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, and the soon-to-be-bonded-by-the-city Nets arena in Brooklyn. Even the city-financed extension of the 7 subway line, ballyhooed by Bloomberg aides, is merely a potential pathway to Westside development, not a project itself.
That’s a dismal track record, especially from a mayor who derided the job development benefits of stadium deals when he junked Giuliani’s in 2002. The city is directly spending a half-billion on the two stadiums, largely for infrastructure improvements, some of which are still incomplete. It is also tapping its own supply of tax-exempt bonds, which are supposed to be used for projects of great public value, like hospitals, for $1.9 billion, subsidizing the two teams that are claiming to be building the stadiums themselves to the tune of $1.3 billion (a combination of the savings achieved through the bonds and other property, mortgage, and sales tax exemptions). The evidence that top officials of the Bloomberg administration reversed land assessments for the Yankees deal to artificially jack up the value in order to qualify for the tax-exempt financing is overwhelming and would—in a time when a good scandal had staying power in New York—make Bloomberg wince at the thought of an election eve parade. E-mails like one from a top aide to Deputy Mayor Doctoroff explicitly said they were making the assessment “so high” in an attempt “to support the tax-exempt financing.”
By December, the Bloomberg administration will replicate its scandal-ridden history of bonding these projects by supporting the issuance of $678 million in state tax-exempt bonds for the Nets. The IBO estimates that the arena will also cost the city $350 million, combining direct and indirect subsidies, concluding that it will lose at least $40 million over the life of the deal, assuming the most optimistic revenue projections. Salty Mike’s response to the unstated, apolitical IBO: “I don’t know what the IBO studies would have shown back when they tried to establish the value of Central Park.”
A Bloomberg hero, the late Senator Patrick Moynihan, attached an amendment to the IRS code in 1986 to try to bar cities from using tax-exempt bonds to finance stadiums, but the IBO reports that the city “found a way to circumvent these strictures” by technically structuring these two privately built and operated stadiums as publicly owned and leased for 99 years. The IRS originally OK’d this arrangement and then reversed itself, prohibiting such maneuvers in the future. Yet the city plans to do the arena precisely the same way, and the IRS grandfathered the arena in under its initial ruling, giving the city until the end of the year to sell the bonds. Incredibly, all of these resources have been used either to induce a basketball team to move across the river or to build stadiums with fewer and more expensive seats, neither of which is much of a public benefit. And every independent analysis re-establishes what the mayor once believed—nothing generates fewer real jobs than these television studios disguised as sports facilities.
It’s at least a bit awkward that Bloomberg LP’s business news channel, a linchpin to the growth of the media giant Mike owns almost entirely himself, now occupies the Yankees’ precious former location (Time Warner’s channel 30) on the New York cable dial, moving up 74 notches from channel 104, with the acquiescence of the Yankees, whoseYES network moved to channel 53. It’s more than awkward that the administration’s favorite developer, Steve Ross, was so cozy with city development czar Doctoroff that he assumed a $4 million loan Doctoroff made to the city’s Olympic committee shortly before Doctoroff took office. And it’s stunning that the mayor himself boldly endorsed the biggest real estate acquisition of all time—the $5.4 billion purchase of Stuy Town—even though the 20 percent owner of Bloomberg LP at the time, Merrill Lynch, was one of the buyers and he was legally barred from doing anything in his official capacity to aid Merrill.
Bloomberg is proud of his self-financed campaigns, often celebrating the fact that he takes no contributions from anyone. But the evidence is mounting—with 33 of Bloomberg LP’s top 124 customers having business with the city—that we may be getting the quid without the quo. The mayor’s friends and prime-time business supporters appear to be reaping the same rewards as those big donors used to get, only minus the donations, and the circle of insiders that openly rallied to him during the term limits debate is, by and large, the same group that is prospering from his discretionary decisions. The New York City Partnership, co-chaired now by Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein and Rupert Murdoch, has become Bloomberg’s modern version of an oldline political club.
Even as the mayor can make the case that his health initiatives and other priorities benefit the poor, his near 100 rezonings, construction deregulations, generous subsidies, and other policies have fed the aura of a government of, for, and by the elites.
When I was in high school, and John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were squaring off, my father helped me craft a list of the qualities and issues we should use to judge the two candidates, a score card so logical that it did not take into account the heart or the gut. I wound up the only kid in my class, at a small Catholic high school in Virginia, willing to champion Nixon in a debate.
There is only so far that a checklist of pluses and minuses can carry you, though this one is not as detached as the one I concocted in 1960. I won’t let my emotions rule, either, however. I believe that the self-serving reversal of term limits was the greatest abuse of power I have covered in more than three decades on this beat. But elections are choices between names on the ballot—not opportunities to file a protest.
In some ways, this choice is between the Mike Bloomberg of his first and second term, when he moved from determined to distracted. The negatives explored here mushroomed in and after 2005. A city that is shuddering with uncertainties has to figure out which one of the two Bloombergs we are likely to get the third time around.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 13, 2009