The New Yorker who is first in fortune relaxed in a large armchair last week, dangling a tasseled loafer across his knee as he answered questions about the future of the city he is now elected to govern for another term. They were friendly inquiries, posed by one of his recent campaign aides who was seated—TV-interview style—in an armchair beside him.
They sat in a small auditorium overlooking the canyons of Lower Manhattan before a crowd of serious policy thinkers who listened with polite attention.
Was it possible, came the question, that New York City—not in the next four years, but at some time in the future—might become less characterized than it is now by its great concentrations of wealth and poverty?
The First New Yorker did not miss a beat. “Let me start with this,” he responded. “My girlfriend has a young lady, a friend of hers, visiting. She is an American with a four-year-old kid, visiting from Islamabad. She is married to a Pakistani. And she said to me, ‘Anybody in the United States who complains about anything should take an airplane and see the rest of the world.’ “
Ah, another lesson in The World According to Mike Bloomberg.
There was a brief flicker of hope that the mayor might emerge slightly humbled by his meager 4.6 percent margin of victory over a flawed opponent whom he had pummeled with the mightiest campaign war chest in local election history. There was a flicker of hope that he might work to win over the overwhelming majority of voting-eligible New Yorkers who either pulled the lever against him or stayed home, disinterested or dissatisfied with their options.
This hope was snuffed within days of the election.
The First New Yorker first celebrated his victory by declaring war on the longest-serving New Yorker. Mike Bloomberg, happily disqualified from the Vietnam draft due to flat feet, gleefully accused Robert Morgenthau, district attorney for the last 35 years and a volunteer who fought fascism from the decks of World War II warships, of secretly hoarding money from the taxpayers. A few days later, faced down by the 90-year-old lawman, the mayor quietly retreated. Never mind, he said.
The First New Yorker next heralded his re-election by shepherding the last and largest swath of public land in north Brooklyn, known as the Broadway Triangle, into the arms of a pair of politically connected groups. The transfer, approved by his Council allies, was done without regard to local needs for open space or affordable housing. But it substantially enhanced the political fortunes of those who had supported the mayor.
The First New Yorker showed more third-term intentions by denouncing Bronx residents who were demanding that deep city subsidies bestowed on the administration’s favorite developer to rebuild the huge Kingsbridge Armory be accompanied by living wages. “We’re not going to do that here,” he thundered.
The First New Yorker, who campaigned on the theme of “Progress, Not Politics,” also marked his win by having city workers paint over city bike lanes that had offended one of his strongest voting blocs, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Williamsburg. When he introduced the lanes as part of his ambitious PlaNYC, he said they would encourage a low-cost, emission-free mode of transportation: bicycling. The paths were part of a vast 1,800-mile network aimed at reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent in the next two decades. Except, that is, where they annoy influential people.
The First New Yorker gave another third-term tip-off by gutting his own legislation to retrofit the city’s big buildings. On Earth Day this past spring, the mayor pledged new laws obligating owners to bring their properties up to environmental standards. The city had no choice, he said: “In New York, 80 percent of our greenhouse gases come from buildings rather than traffic. This one law is going to reduce by 5 percent the greenhouse gases of this city.” The required upgrades to lighting, boilers, and windows, the mayor said, is a “win, win, win,” benefiting owners, tenants, and working New Yorkers. “We’re going to create an enormous number of jobs—green jobs,” he said. “Everyone else talks about jobs. We’re actually creating them.”
This initiative immediately foundered when big landlords said they resented being ordered to invest in their own properties, regardless of whatever public good might result. Together with his ally, Council speaker Christine Quinn, who had stood alongside him on Earth Day proclaiming a bright and promising future, the First New Yorker quickly retreated by dropping the toughest mandatory provisions of his energy retrofitting. Instead of the 19,000 jobs he had confidently declared would be created by the legislation, the new estimate is some 5,000. Even that number may be a stretch, since property owners are now under no obligation to conduct the retrofits.
The First New Yorker didn’t even have the grace to admit his rollback. The downsized legislation was “a great success,” the mayor insisted at a press conference after the Council vote. “This is a wonderful moment that we have achieved for our entire city,” he said. “It shows that, even in tough times, we work together to make our planet better and our air cleaner.”
The same disconnect between rhetoric and accomplishment was on view as the First New Yorker sat in the armchair downtown last Wednesday evening, answering a handful of gentle questions from Andrea Batista Schlesinger, the newly returned director of the Drum Major Institute who had served as a policy adviser to the mayor’s campaign. The occasion was a new publication by the institute, “What’s Next for New York City’s Economy?” and Bloomberg was asked his thoughts on the topic.
The mayor rambled knowledgeably and at length about the city’s functions. But he grew most animated when he brought up the subject of how some people had the audacity to want to tax or roll back the huge bonuses being paid to financial executives. He noted that, earlier in the week, London had announced plans for a hefty tax on such payouts, a mistake he said New York would not make if he has his say.
“We can take this country and make it better, and we can make sure everybody is included,” he stated. “But you can’t do it overnight, and you can’t do it by taking away from those who are lucky enough to be able to make money.”
A few minutes later, he stood up, gave Schlesinger a peck on the cheek, and left to attend Ed Koch’s 85th birthday party. “I’ll give Ed your best,” he told the room on his way out.
After he was gone, Brad Lander, the newly elected Councilman from Brooklyn, took the podium to elaborate on the theme of an essay that he and two co-authors had contributed to the institute’s book. Lander lamented the Council’s move that afternoon to follow the mayor’s lead by stripping away the requirement for building energy retrofits. He similarly deplored the administration’s refusal to mandate better-paying jobs in exchange for its public investment in the Kingsbridge Armory.
New York, he said, was still pursuing an old-fashioned approach of subsidizing big developers and projects that don’t need it. The rest of urban America, he pointed out, is figuring out a better way. “In Los Angeles,” Lander said, “the economic development agenda is creating jobs with living wages, and sustainable communities. This ought to be our policy here.”
The First New Yorker wasn’t around to hear this apostasy, which may be just as well. He might have suggested a plane trip to Islamabad so people can see how really bad things can get.