Mayor Bloomberg Of New York City

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Mayor Bloomberg marches in the 244th Annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. March 17, 200

Mayor Mike

John Cassidy discusses Bloomberg’s record, his money, and his ambitions/

Issue of 2005-04-04
Posted 2005-03-28

This week in the magazine, John Cassidy writes about New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, focussing on Bloomberg’s businesslike style and his obsession with building a sports stadium on the West Side of the city. Here, with The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman, Cassidy discusses Bloomberg and his first administration.

BEN GREENMAN: If Bloomberg does not win reëlection in November, how will he be remembered as a mayor?

JOHN CASSIDY: That’s a tough question. In the short term, I think he will be remembered as a good mayor who did better than many people expected. We tend to forget now what it was like in New York after 9/11. When Bloomberg was inaugurated, the smoke was still rising at Ground Zero. The economic outlook was highly uncertain, some people were predicting a mass corporate exodus, and the city had a big budget deficit. Bloomberg handled the situation calmly and competently. He balanced the budget, kept the city running, and didn’t make any terrible mistakes. He’s never been very popular—he’s not a man who inspires strong feelings, generally speaking—but I think most New Yorkers, even his opponents, think he has done pretty well.

In the long term, if he loses in November, I think Bloomberg will be remembered as a billionaire with no political experience who spent seventy-five million dollars, or whatever it was—he won’t say exactly—to buy his way into City Hall. As far as political history is concerned, that probably overshadows most of the things he has done in office. Of course, the businessman-politician phenomenon is happening all over the country, but this was the first time since the nineteenth century that a businessman has become mayor of New York. Given how well Bloomberg has done, I think we’ll probably see more of them in the future. He’s broken the taboo.

He followed Rudolph Giuliani, one of the city’s most controversial and, following September 11th, most popular mayors. Why did Giuliani choose Bloomberg? What do the differences in their styles and personalities mean for the city?

You’d have to ask Rudy why he chose Bloomberg. The two have never been particularly close personally. But I think Giuliani wanted to leave a legacy of another Republican mayor, and Bloomberg was the best Republican candidate available, even if he had only just joined the Party. He was moderate and sensible, and he had a lot of money to spend on the campaign. Even after 9/11, I don’t think he would have been elected if the Democrats hadn’t self-destructed, but who knows for sure? As for personalities, obviously Bloomberg doesn’t have Giuliani’s charisma, magnetism, megalomania—whatever you want to call it. You just have to see the two of them together and that’s obvious. On St. Patrick’s Day, they walked down Fifth Avenue together, and the crowds were cheering, “Rudy, Rudy, Rudy.” Of course, Giuliani’s performance on and after 9/11 had a lot to do with that, but even without 9/11 he’s always been a fascinating, almost Gothic character, especially compared with Bloomberg. On the other hand, I think quite a lot of New Yorkers are relieved to have a low-key mayor who doesn’t make such a big fuss about things. Having Rudy in City Hall was a melodrama: the constant political battles, the divorce, the terrorist attack. Melodramas are fun for a while, but they get tiring. Bloomberg minds the shop without much fuss and things seem to work out O.K. It doesn’t sound like a great campaign slogan, but it might well be enough.

For people who do not live in New York, can you explain the phenomenon of moderate New York Republicans? Giuliani has moved back toward the right a bit as he prepares for a possible Presidential bid in 2008, but he is still liberal on social issues. Bloomberg considers himself a nonpartisan moderate. Why are national Party trends not reflected in the city?

It’s primarily a matter of history and immigration. Historically, the Democrats have been the party of the immigrants and the minorities, and, as a result, they have controlled City Hall. Things have changed a bit in recent years, but not very much. The majority of New Yorkers are nonwhite. In terms of registered voters, the Democrats hold an advantage of almost six to one. Given that this is the political battlefield the parties are competing on, white, conservative Republicans don’t have any prospect of victory. If Tom DeLay ran in New York, he wouldn’t have a prayer. (Well, he might have a prayer, but he wouldn’t have anything else.) So if you are a Republican and you want to be mayor, you have to trim to the left. Rudy did it. Bloomberg does. Of course, there is a question of whether Bloomberg is really a Republican at all. Until a few years ago, he was a registered Democrat.

Much of the article deals with Bloomberg’s preoccupation with the West Side stadium, as well as the bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Why is he obsessed with the stadium and the Games?

That’s what everybody is asking, even his own supporters. There are two basic theories, both of which are partially true, I think. The first one, which I spend a lot of the article explaining, is that Bloomberg is basically an entrepreneur, and what entrepreneurs believe in is innovation and growth. Bloomberg thinks of himself as New York’s C.E.O. If you look at the stadium that way, it makes some sense. The city faces a long-term crisis. It spends more than it takes in from taxes. (Bloomberg has balanced the budget in the short term, but in the long term the trends are all bad.) So as a pragmatic businessman what do you do? One option is cutting spending: laying off workers, shutting down firehouses, that sort of thing. The problem is that New Yorkers don’t like these cuts, and they are right. They impact the quality of life. What’s the alternative? Raising taxes is one possibility, but people don’t like that, either, as Bloomberg discovered when he raised the property tax. The only option left is expanding the tax base through economic growth. That’s Bloomberg’s strategy. The stadium, which Bloomberg views more as a convention center, is part of a broad economic-development plan that is designed to stimulate growth throughout the city. Will it work? It’s not clear.

So that’s one theory: Bloomberg the entrepreneur. The other theory is more cynical. It says that Dan Doctoroff, the deputy mayor for economic development, talked Bloomberg into supporting the stadium, and he’s been stuck with it ever since. Doctoroff is in charge of the 2012 Olympics bid, which depends on a stadium being built. I talked with Doctoroff. He’s very articulate and persuasive. I’m sure he did make a strong case to Bloomberg for the stadium. At the same time, though, Bloomberg is an opinionated, self-made billionaire. People like that don’t do things unless they want to do them. I think Bloomberg believes in the economic arguments for the stadium and the transformation of the West Side. Doctoroff may have got him interested in the first place, but Bloomberg is his own man.

If the stadium becomes very unpopular politically, is he likely to give up on it?

Not much chance of that. He’s determined to go ahead with it, come what may. The public opposition has only strengthened his resolve. He thinks, I’m not a normal politician. I’ll do what I think is right, not what the polls say I should do. He’s funny like that. I think it was the same thing with the smoking ban. To begin with, it was unpopular, but that only convinced Bloomberg that he was right. Now, of course, most people support the smoking ban.

What is his over-all vision for the city? How much chance does he have of realizing it?

He’s not really a “vision guy.” He’s a pragmatic businessman. But I think he does have an idea in his head of what New York should be—a multiracial, multicultural meritocracy, where anybody can come and succeed by dint of enterprise and hard work. Of course, this is not a very original idea, but it remains a powerful one. Bloomberg came from a pretty modest background, remember. He’s a product of the meritocracy. That’s why he is so big on education reform. You can’t have a fluid meritocracy if half the school population, or more than half, is functionally illiterate.

Does his businessman’s perspective benefit him in certain areas of government but harm him in others? How has it affected education, for example?

Well, it makes him more open to reform. Unlike most politicians, he doesn’t have a stake in the existing system. In New York, most politicians are Democrats, so, inevitably, they are partly beholden to the unions. There is nothing wrong with that. Unions represent the working people, and they deserve a strong voice. But they have their own interests, which they want to protect. The teachers’ union is a good example. At the moment, thanks to the union contract, teachers can choose which schools they work at, based on seniority. Now, when that rule was introduced, it may have sounded sensible: why not reward loyalty and long service? But what it means in practice is that the best and most experienced teachers choose good schools, and starting teachers, who don’t know much, get stuck in bad schools in bad neighborhoods, which is where you really need good teachers. Bloomberg is trying to change this, and he is right to do so.

Of course, there are disadvantages to being a businessman, too, such as lack of knowledge about government, and lack of political sense. When Bloomberg took over, he just didn’t know very much about how the city worked, and it took him a while to get up to speed. He made some silly suggestions early on, such as using empty prisons to house homeless people. He caught up pretty quickly, but his political judgment is still suspect, and the stadium is a perfect example of that. From a political perspective, it makes little sense to stake your mayoralty on a project that most New Yorkers oppose. If Bloomberg had been a more experienced politician, he would have realized what he was getting into a lot earlier. But he thought he could ram it through, just like the smoking ban, and that eventually people would come around.

As you observed his mayoral administration, was there anything that surprised you?

Sure, lots of things. You always discover stuff when you spend a long time reporting an article. Here’s a basic one: people think that Bloomberg spends most of his time in City Hall. Well, he is there every day, but he also spends a heck of a lot of time tripping around the city, from event to event. Every day, he does two or three of them, sometimes five or six. There are official events, semi-official events, and private events. I remember Ed Koch once said that he didn’t want to be a “ribbon-cutting mayor,” but he didn’t have any choice. Bloomberg is the same. To begin with, he didn’t like it much, but now he’s actually pretty good at it. Which leads me to another point: Bloomberg is a pretty terrible public speaker. If you turn on NY1 and see him making a speech, his voice is flat and grating. He sounds like a bank manager, or something. But one-on-one, and in small groups, he’s a lot more engaging and animated. He’s self-deprecating. He makes jokes. Not necessarily good ones, but jokes nonetheless. One of the big challenges that his campaign strategists face is getting this side of him across to the public.

You say in the article that Bloomberg’s daughter hopes to compete for a place on the 2012 Olympic equestrian team. Does she have a shot at a medal?

I’m not sure. By all accounts, she’s a very talented rider, although she had a bad fall recently. I think she has been close to making the national team before. Bloomberg seems to be optimistic about her chances. He said that watching her win a medal on Staten Island—that’s where the equestrian events would be held—would be the highlight of his life. Of course, he might have just been saying this for political reasons, but I don’t think so. He certainly sounded sincere. If he was faking it, he’s a better politician than I have given him credit for being.

 

 

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