A Look Back at Michael Bloomberg’s Tremendously Awkward First Campaign


After twelve years, it is, at long last, almost the end of Michael Bloomberg’s time as mayor. Bill de Blasio will be inaugurated at noon on January 1, in a ceremony he’s promised will be “one of the most open and accessible swearing-in events in New York City history,” with tickets available to the general public and tours of Gracie Mansion on January 5.

On an icy January morning in 2002, Michael Bloomberg stood on the same City Hall steps de Blasio will occupy next month and made a series of more modest promises. Four months after the September 11 attacks, he paid tribute to those who died on that day, promised to cut the size of government and asked businesses to please, please not leave town.

It was a quiet, modest start to what would become, like it or not, one of the most influential mayoral tenures in the city’s history. But as we look back at Bloomberg’s ascent to the mayor’s office, it’s still a bit surprising he made it to those steps at all, given that his first campaign was so uphill it was basically a vertical climb up a glacier with the aid of a pickaxe. To review:

In February 2001, 75 percent of voters in a Marist poll had “no opinion” on him.

A nicer way of saying most people no idea who he was. Closer to the election, only one out of six polls showed that he’d beat Democratic opponent and then-Public Advocate Mark Green.

He hired powerful campaign strategist David Garth, whose first impression of Bloomberg was that he was “a prick.”

Garth is regularly described as a “kingmaker,” credited with helping previous mayors John Lindsay, Ed Koch, and Rudy Giuliani make it into office. In Joyce Purnick’s book Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics, Garth recounts his less than charitable first impression of his new boss: “This was a guy in love with himself. He’s a prick, all right? But he also has empathy for people — blacks and Jews, you know? And I never liked the people around him.”

A ringing endorsement.

He was incredibly bad at speaking in public.

Never known as a particularly charming guy, Bloomberg’s first campaign was especially charisma-free. These days, his “brusque” demeanor is kind of a running joke. But usually politicians are expected to be, you know, good at talking to people, and New Yorkers hadn’t yet gotten used to the fact that he decidedly is not. The L.A. Times summed up his campaigning style this way: “Bloomberg seemed awkward and uncomfortable on the campaign trail.” (That analysis came after he’d won, though, so they could add this: “[T]he basic message he conveyed — “I’m a leader, not a politician” — seemed to resonate.”)

When he did talk, he kept pissing people off.

For example, the time Bloomberg called sexual abuse and domestic violence “quality of life crimes.” Inexplicably, he chose to make that statement during a speech at Safe Horizon, an anti-domestic violence organization. According to the Daily News, Anne Conners, a spokesperson for Sanctuary for Families, retorted, “Domestic violence is not a quality-of-life crime, like having an open can of beer or like having a squeegee man approach your car. It’s just an unfortunate analogy that shouldn’t have been made.”

Bloomberg also declared, during a West Side Chamber of Commerce breakfast, “I bet you could find statistics that say being a sanitation worker in this day and age is more dangerous than being a policeman or a fireman.”

Police and firefighters weren’t pleased. According to police and firefighter paper The Chief, Patrick J. Lynch, a spokesperson for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, rather icily responded that 37 police officers had died in the line of duty between 1990 and 2001, adding, “Mayoral candidates, as a rule, are ill-advised to make statements that can be interpreted as disparaging to the enormous contributions of police officers.”

The New York Post refused to endorse him, the Republican candidate.

The Post declined to endorse either candidate, writing in an editorial, “Neither man comes close to filling Rudy Giuliani’s shoes — and Giuliani-esque leadership is precisely what New York needs just now.” (That editorial is tough to find on the Post‘s website these days, but has been preserved by a contemporaneous blurb from the Gotham Gazette.)

People were even skeptical of his philanthropy.

A New York Times story pointed out that he’d donated nearly four times as much money the year he began campaigning, from $26.6 million to over $100 million. His primary opponent, Herman Badillo, told the paper, “Clearly, it was all geared to his mayoral campaign. Clearly, his philanthropy has been used for political purposes.” (However, the Times ultimately disagreed, writing, “A review of Mr. Bloomberg’s philanthropy since 1997 shows no evidence of a broad pattern of political calculation leading up to his candidacy.”)

Everyone was very, very aware that he was hoping to ride Giuliani’s coattails into office.

Giuliani’s support for Bloomberg is usually cited as a critical factor in his win. That’s true. But it’s also often overlooked that people saw that tactic coming from a long way off; a New York Post summary of one of his campaign ads notes that it begins with “grim-looking people,” then pans to Bloomberg in an office, before “showing “an exterior shot of City Hall and an American flag when Giuliani’s name is mentioned.”

“Praising Giuliani by name, Bloomberg’s also hoping some of the mayor’s glow will rub off,” Post reporter Kristen Danis wrote.

Well, yes. It was not subtle.

And yet somehow, despite his personality and campaigning ineptness, Bloomberg pulled it off, spending a mere $50 million or so — much of it his own money — to achieve what multiple papers called “a stunning upset” on Election Night. The Times, displaying as much astonishment as it ever does, noted that Bloomberg had “achieved the unlikely goal of being elected mayor of New York in his first outing in politics.”

Bloomberg himself was more jubilant. “New York is alive and well and open for business!” he said on election night, declaring victory. “We are clearly going to have enormous problems, but I know we are up to the task. We can do it.”

And so he did, for 12 eventful years. Finally, courtesy of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, here’s a 2001 debate between Bloomberg and Green. Makes you realize just how long ago that really was.