New York Heads Back to the Future, Or, This Time Why Not Worst?

07.14.2005 | Harry Siegel | Urban Affairs | 1 Comment
It’s back to the future in New York. It’s 2001, as Freddy Ferrer again looks poised to elect Michael Bloomberg. Or is it 1997, as an uninspired Democratic field is setting itself up for defeat in a low turnout general election.

Democrats never doubted that they’d return to Grace Mansion once Giuliani was term limited out of office. Giuliani, for all his triumphs, had left behind no successor and no organization. The Republican Party was so weak it didn’t even bother to field token candidates for Comptroller or Public Advocate. “You would think that people who worked for the Giuliani administration would have rushed to run for office [in 2001],” says political consultant Joseph Mercurio. But except for City University Board Chair Herman Badillo, who ran unsuccessfully against Bloomberg in the Republican primary, none did.

It took no less of a politically anomaly than 9/11 for the city to elect an unprecedented second consecutive Republican mayor. And even that wouldn’t have been enough for Michael Bloomberg, a politically unprepared neophyte (Recall that when asked what he’d done in his first hundred days, he replied ““I got ready for the next thousand”) to win if he hadn’t also benefited from a $73 million campaign and Ferrer and Sharpton’s decision to shiv Mark Green following a racially contentious primary.

Having lucked into office, Bloomberg has hardly impressed since. He’s raised taxes and otherwise pushed luxury city policies that play poorly outside of Manhattan, and governed with an incoherence that leaves even his supporters and staff little able to articulate just what is Bloomberg’s New York. We know it involves the Olympics, an unpopular idea that in any event has now gone down in flames. The most the mayor can say he’s done to help downtown recover from the tragedy to which he owes his position is that Ground Zero is moldering now, not smoldering.  

Yet in a city where Democrats outnumber barbarians by more than five-to-one, we’re on the cusp of an unprecedented 16 straight years of Elephants in Gracie Mansion.

What happened?

Of course the narcoleptic lollipops of incumbency (suck on this and shut up) have strengthened his position, as have his own deep pockets, as he’s greatly increased his own charitable contributions to local organizations, especially those in traditionally Democratic strongholds. An urban writer recently told me about speaking at the Schoenerg Such money, much of it spent on well-worthwhile causes to be sure, buys a lot of silence from potential critics. As Mayoral Press Secretary Ed Skyler put it, “Like anybody else, the mayor expects to have the support of his friends.”

But the mayor’s strong position has less to do with his (limited) accomplishments and (generous) endowments than it does with his Democratic foes, who bring to mind Berke Breathed’s wonderful strip Bloom County, in which Opus the penguin and Bill the (semi-comatose) Cat once ran for president under the slogan, “This Time Why Not the Worst?”

Some time ago I called Council Speaker Gifford Miller for comment on an editorial I was writing on a tight deadline. After 10 minutes of rhetoric so vapid I didn’t bother to type it Miller went on background to tell me: “I care deeply about the city.” This is the extent of his vision, which might be more accurately conveyed as, “I care deeply about becoming mayor.”

The rest of the field is equally impressive. C. Virginia Fields is by all accounts a lovely woman, but has run a campaign befitting of a borough president, an office so vestigal as to make the appendix and the Public Adovcate seem like useful organs. Anthony Wiener is doing his best imitation of Ed Koch, which would be fine if it wasn’t third-term Koch, and in any event is running mostly to set up a run in 2009. Frontrunner Fernando Ferrer, whose Jekyll-and-Hyded his way between moderate outer borough Catholic and fire-breathing other New Yorker, remains unimpressive in both incarnations and incoherent in his bouncing back and forth between them.

Part of the problem is the Democratic Primary, in which the handful of voters who turn out, mostly liberal ideologues and city employees, get to vote for their own boss or patron. In 2001, the primary was scheduled for September 11th. When it was held two weeks later, exit polls showed that the primary voters’ number one concern was education, not terror. And it’s such voters who Democratic candidates must court to reach the general election.

Bloomberg is running, in essence, on a It Could be Worse ticket that, given the alternatives, is awfully compelling, though will seem less so when the then lame duck mayor starts unveiling whatever pet schemes he plans to add to a first term marked by tax hikes, the smoking ban, the Olympics bid, Midtown’s through streets and the crackpot educational stylings of Diana Lam and her successor Carmen Farina.

Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly do deserve great credit for maintaining the drop in crime, which had long threatened to (and occasionally did) spark and blaze.

But with the cancer cured, Bloomberg has ignored the city’s chronically bloated payroll and spending and its decaying infrastructure. While most cities have a fiscal crisis about once every generation, ours come once a decade. In the meantime, Ground Zero lays fallow, and Congress’ sympathy has long since run out, its purse-strings now closed.

While he’s been lauded for gaining mayoral control of education, that victory was set up by Rudy’s relentless bashing of the Board of Ed. Since gaining control, Mayor Mike’s incoherent policies and appointments haven’t improved matters: While those tests offered only in the city have gone up, every test which can be compared to national results shows a decline.

New York still has the reputation of a dynamic city, of which Bloomberg has often said: “smart people have to be here if they want to be successful.” But this is less true with each passing year. Quick; What’s the last significant artistic trend to emerge from here? The last major new industry to locate here?

Given a choice between Why Not The Worst and We Could Do Worse, the city will reluctantly reelect Bloomberg in a high-margin, low turnout affair. But if these remain the choices, the next election just might resemble 1989.

Too true. Has Bloomberg had a single good idea? Yet aren't most of us going to vote for him? Sad, yes?
07.18.2005 | Jonathan Leaf

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