Bloomberg’s Mixed Report Card


Michael Bloomberg, Democrat-turned-Republican, may be New York’s most enigmatic mayor. He makes the tough decisions regardless of the votes it might cost him. He is the nonpolitician, candid, no hidden agendas. But then he takes a two-bit detour, and the end result—a ballot proposition—gets whipped badly in the off-year election last week. The Democrats dance in glee, smelling a chance to win back City Hall in 2005. The press opines that Bloomberg has lost touch with the common people.

Through it all, the mayor has observed a nonaggression stance toward the Republicans whose backing got him elected, Rudolph Giuliani and George Pataki, even though these two have dumped enormous fiscal burdens on him. Many of those who voted for him are now wondering when he is going to fight back.

Michael Bloomberg is a rich man who inherited a huge budget deficit that forced him to impose tax suffering on average New Yorkers and the affluent alike. The deficit was created in part by his free-spending predecessor, Giuliani, whose endorsement of Bloomberg is credited by many for his election victory two years ago. Bloomberg then decided, as a matter of character, style, and policy, not to point out who handed him this budget millstone. Grateful for the Giuliani endorsement, Bloomberg also instructed his appointed commissioners never, in their public remarks, to link Giuliani by name to any mismanagement or corruption they found waiting for them when they took over their agencies from his appointees.

The mayor had run as a Republican for a simple, pragmatic reason: There were too many better-known candidates running in the Democratic primary. So he sought out the Republican nomination instead, promising to pay for the campaign with his own millions. The Republicans were delighted. Now, Bloomberg cuts for Governor Pataki the same slack he has given Giuliani. Though Albany waste and deception also contribute significantly to the city’s budget gap, and the governor regularly tries to block Bloomberg initiatives, the mayor chooses not to cite the governor by name as an adversary. In fact, Bloomberg has been known to tell the press, “Don’t criticize the governor or his motives”—arguing that Pataki wants to help the city but wants to do it by mechanisms different from the mayor’s.

Apparently, Bloomberg does not view this mostly unilateral nonaggression pact as a drag on his ability to govern. His aides contend it is the personal style that brought him success in the financial world. He chooses, they say, not to turn differences of approach into personal battles on a public stage that drain energy away from solving the business or civic problem itself.

The Bloomberg method certainly worked early in his mayoralty on his priority issue—improving the public schools. He was able, without any personal swordplay, to accomplish what other mayors, including Giuliani, had tried and failed at—wresting control from Albany over the city’s board of education and thus over the failing million-pupil school system. Like so many of City Hall’s essential processes, it is governed by state law and can be changed only by the legislature and governor. Until Bloomberg, school funds and decisions were outside the mayor’s writ because he lacked the power to appoint a majority of the school board’s appointees. Now he has that power.

He pulled that off by going to Albany himself and doing the cajoling, negotiating, and persuading in private. New laws were passed and the governor signed them. Giuliani barked and growled at Albany, using the same bullying tactics that had become so familiar in his city dealings. He created adversaries and got nothing.

Bloomberg has taken on other tough tasks that previous mayors shunned. He was the first mayor in recent times, for example, to propose putting tolls on the East River bridges as a central piece of his campaign platform. His predecessors for the most part avoided the idea as they would a communicable disease, insisting it was a guaranteed method for infuriating commuting motorists from Queens and Brooklyn and thereby ensuring one’s defeat in the next mayoral election. When Bloomberg took office facing a $4 billion budget shortfall, he put forth the idea again, seeing it as a major, continuing revenue source and also as a way to compel carpooling and the use of public transport to reduce the number of vehicles entering the business districts of Manhattan. On this issue, the mayor’s calm and quiet style didn’t work. Fearing voter backlash, Albany blocked him. At present, roughly 1 million cars pour into Manhattan daily, making the borough the national poster child for gridlock.

So here we have a hybrid mayor, a progressive, sensible problem-solver who is willing to take on difficult issues that professional politicians usually recoil from. He is about to reach the halfway point of his four-year term, and because of the just defeated city referendum, a question has been raised as to whether he is too little a politician to win re-election in New York. The referendum, put on the local ballot by a Bloomberg-created City Charter Commission, would have changed the voting process for city offices from a political party system to a nonpartisan one. It was rejected by a margin of more than 2-to-1. In this off-year election, only 13 percent of the city’s eligible voters turned out—less than a half-million.

Democratic Party leaders, union officials, and their supporters opposed the proposition bitterly, saying it was a shifty, backdoor way for Republicans to seize a bigger piece of the pie in this heavily Democratic city. Bloomberg has acknowledged that during his campaign, he sought the endorsement of a fringe political group, the Independence Party, which was pushing to promote the nonpartisan-voting idea. He agreed to back the proposal. They in turn gave him their party’s line on the ballot, providing him with another chance for votes. He garnered 59,000 votes on the Independence line, which represented his narrow margin of victory.

The Democrats, crowing over the referendum’s rejection and looking to defeat Bloomberg’s re-election bid in 2005,are now accusing him of sly tactics and deceit for not being initially forthcoming about having given at least $2 million of his personal money to finance the publicity campaign for the ballot proposition.

How serious is this issue? How about a tempest in a bathtub? What it boils down to is that this mayor, who is not a politician and usually conducts himself on policy issues as a nonpartisan, stepped out of his apolitical self briefly and made a self-interested election-year deal—just like the hundreds of deals made over the years by the pols who are now demonizing him for temporarily emulating their code of conduct.

But to be fair, they and other critics have a good-government point about his not revealing early on that he was financing the campaign costs and about his failing to put his name on the campaign pamphlets that ended up in voters’ mailboxes. There was also a bombardment of unsolicited recorded telephone messages from Rudolph Giuliani backing the ballot referendum. I got two of these calls. Rudy’s message never said Bloomberg was paying the phone bill. It might help if Bloomberg would explain now why he engaged in these unnecessary and uncharacteristic ploys.

Still, beyond this ballot issue (which is likely to have a very brief half-life with voters, since other mayors, including Giuliani, have suffered referendum losses with no damage to their re-election chances), the New York press has, in chorus, sounded the theme that the vote signaled a more serious problem for Bloomberg. Story after story has repeated the mantra that the mayor has failed to “connect” with voters in a visceral way, that he is too distant, aloof, and bland, and that the meaning of all this is that he has no grasp of the travails and hopes of average New Yorkers.

There may be some truth in such analysis, for his approval ratings are quite low, but to me it sounds for the most part like the restless press in search of a story line. Reporters can’t read this mayor very well—he’s not easy to read—and that makes them antsy. Bloomberg would appear to be a man who keeps most of his inner thoughts to himself. He doesn’t seem comfortable revealing his emotions. He’s not a natural backslapper or baby-kisser or knish-eater. But does any of this make him a poor mayor? Would we like him better if he were tall, not-so-rich, and went around saying on a daily basis that he feels our pain? That might make some voters more comfortable, but we know in the common-sense part of our brains that this is no way to measure a mayor or any public official.

Has he got guts? Does he take an opinion poll before he makes every decision? Is he honest? Does he spout slogans and clichés at us instead of talking straight? Does he pass the foxhole test (if you were in a tight spot, would you want him beside you)? Those are better measuring sticks.

His approval ratings—if you trust polls at all—have been going up of late. His calm and reassuring demeanor during the August blackout had a steadying effect on the city; there was nothing resembling panicky behavior. The same was true on the day a city councilman was killed by a gunman in the council chamber, and on the day of the Staten Island ferry accident in which 10 passengers were killed.

Key to any discussion of the mayor’s connection to voters is the fact that very soon after being sworn in, he raised taxes. That never makes people happy, even when they know he had no other option. Also, he pushed through a stringent law against smoking in public places. On that one, he had other choices. Maybe he made the law too sweeping and maybe it was too much all at once instead of being phased in. One can reasonably argue that the smoking ban doesn’t hold a candle to his commitment to improve public education, so perhaps he put excessive emphasis on it.

One final thought. The mayor may not cotton to public fights, but some issues need to be battled for in the open. Not just so the voters can see your emotion, though that isn’t a terrible idea, but mostly so that your adversaries know you are willing to draw blood and spill your own.

Michael Bloomberg has married into the Republican Party and believes in loyalty, but if Republicans shortchange his city—as they have, if they treat his constituents badly (as they have)—then there will be times when he should call them to account in the public arena. That goes, too, for Democrats who insult the city. Be the offenders Giuliani or Pataki or Bush or Gore or Clinton or Lieberman, a mayor in these anxious and dangerous days has to stand up to them and let the people see it. That should dispel any “disconnect” that may exist between the mayor and regular New Yorkers.