Michael Bloomberg’s Velvet Coup


Mugabe? OK, it’s an outrageous comparison. Forgive me. Mike Bloomberg would never shut down newspapers or use brutal thugs against dissenters in order to hold onto power. He doesn’t have to. He buys them.

Mugabe is for the likes of Charles Barron, the radical councilman who embarrassed the city a few years ago by hosting the Zimbabwean tyrant at City Hall. Funny thing, there was Barron at last week’s council hearings demanding to be heard on the mayor’s bill to gut term limits—a reform confirmed in two separate voter referendums—in order to give himself four more years in office. There was Barron offering the simplest route to continued democracy: Do nothing.

“Why do we have to change anything?” he asked after Mario Cuomo’s lead-off testimony supporting Bloomberg’s bid. “The people have spoken twice already. Why not just leave things as they are?”

Barron’s simple questions were matched only by The New York Times‘s fearless editorial page. Alone of the city’s dailies, the Times refused to bend its principles. By changing the rules at this late date, the Times warned, the mayor “will tarnish his legacy and further weaken the systems of checks and balances that are essential to . . . democracy.”

Uh, wait. Sorry, wrong day. That was the Times in August lecturing President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia “lest he become just another strongman” by grabbing a third term in violation of his country’s constitution.

Let’s see. Here it is. How could I miss it? It’s got that tough, right-to-the-point headline: “The Mayor’s Dangerous Idea.” The mayor “wants to extend his current term of office,” the editorial forthrightly states. “This is a terrible idea. . . . The very concept goes against the most basic of American convictions, that we live in a nation governed by rule of law.” Bless the good old Times. Others may cut and run in the face of tyranny. It forever stands tall.

Wait! How did that sneak in here? That was the Old Gray Lady taking Rudy Giuliani to the ethical cleaners back in September 2001—that month of true fear and fiscal panic—when he sought a mere three more months to remain in office.

I know it’s here somewhere. Oh, right, that one: “It makes a lot of people uncomfortable to legislatively rewrite a law that voters have twice approved at the ballot box. . . . It makes us uncomfortable too. . . . But we have concluded now that changing the law legislatively does not make us nearly as uncomfortable as keeping it.” Hmmm. Well, never mind.

Welcome to Bloomville, where up is down and down up, where it’s Charles Barron hoisting democracy’s flag, while the Times connives with the Post and the News to provide cover for the coup. Where tycoons of business and real estate call the shots while the once-mighty unions fall meekly into line or merely whisper their opposition for fear of offending the once and future mayatollah. Where a cabal of thieves calling themselves council members leap aboard Bloomberg’s ship as eagerly as Somalian pirates lurking for booty in the Indian Ocean.

Yes, Bloomville. We may as well give him naming rights, too. He’s bought and paid for everything else. We are inside Jimmy Stewart’s unwonderful world where muddled old Bedford Falls has come under one-man rule and morphed into an antiseptic version of anything-goes Pottersville.

Could Colombia’s Uribe—or any dreaded Latin American strongman—have done any better at mustering proxies to defend his putsch? Consider the elder Cuomo: The ex-governor was as charming as ever, offering a rambling denunciation of term limits and a sterling endorsement of a continued Bloomberg mayoralty. “He is spectacularly well-suited to the task,” said Cuomo.

Once the champion of the poor and the forgotten, Cuomo now carries the business card of the city’s elite, a group passionately committed to keeping one of its very own in City Hall. Cuomo is of counsel to Willkie Farr & Gallagher, the law firm that serves as the Washington lobbyist for Bloomberg L.P., the mayor’s $22 billion corporation. The firm is also defending the company in a discrimination lawsuit brought by 58 female Bloomberg employees. Last summer, it handled the $4.4 billion buyout of Bloomberg’s longtime partner, Merrill Lynch.

The ties stem from close friendship: Top Willkie partner Richard DeScherer handles the Bloomberg family foundation and is an executor of the mayor’s estate. He serves on Bloomberg L.P.’s executive committee and, oh yes, on the city’s sports foundation. How better to help a friend than to send forth the firm’s most famous envoy to do battle for one more mayoral term?

The taint of Bloomberg’s multibillion-dollar reach—as mayor, businessman, and philanthropist—fell on many of the true believers who testified in favor of the mayor’s end run around the 15-year-old term-limits law.

Here was Geoffrey Canada, celebrated Harlem anti-poverty fighter, whose reasoning for giving the council and Bloomberg an added term conveniently mirrored the mayor’s own: “The city is facing its worst crisis in memory,” he said. Was that the great Geoff Canada talking? Or was it the director of an organization that depends on $18 million in city contracts and the mayor’s “anonymous” private donations?

Echoing Canada was George McDonald, president of the Doe Fund. The homeless-assistance group also benefits from the mayor’s private giving and holds $25 million in city contracts. McDonald didn’t wait for the hearings. On Columbus Day, he dispatched a crew of Doe Funders to the parade to cheer the mayor with signs proclaiming “Now More Than Ever.” Newsday‘s Dan Janison watched these antics. “Must have been an impromptu decision to volunteer for this on a holiday,” he noted.

Outside the council chambers, McDonald began sputtering when Henry Stern, former parks commissioner and foe of the mayor’s bill, asked him if his city contracts had influenced his thinking. “You’re saying I’m corrupt!” McDonald shouted. “We get $10 million from the city, and we do good work!”

Actually, fear was the most corrupting factor in City Hall last week: fear of angering a mayor who may well rule until 2013. Fear paralyzed the city’s most powerful unions—the only possible political counterweight. The teachers’ union quietly passed a resolution calling for term limits to be submitted for a new referendum—the thrust of a bill proposed by leading council dissenters Bill de Blasio and Tish James. The union never even issued a press release on it. The battlefield was left to the Working Families Party, of which the teachers are influential members. The WFP mounted a valiant campaign with a tiny budget. It had $50,000 for a TV ad buy opposing the mayor. Last year, the teachers’ union spent $2.1 million on its Albany lobbying alone.

Labor’s loudest voices at the hearings were in mayoral lockstep. Leaders of the building trades talked about how good Bloomberg has been for construction jobs. The uniformed municipal union leaders repeated in tandem the mayor’s mantra that regular elections are the real term limits. Unmentioned were recent generous contracts or the ones now pending. AWOL from the scene was the biggest municipal workers’ group, District Council 37. The union’s city contract is currently being negotiated.

Only plucky Arthur Cheliotes, leader of Local 1180’s city administrative workers, stepped forward to defend labor’s honor. Cheliotes looked lonely as he waited hours to speak. “The mayor has cleverly gamed the system by not letting term limits get on the ballot this November,” he said when he finally testified.

By the way, did you know that dissident labor leaders keep getting killed in Uribe’s Colombia?