What Is Bloomberg's New York?

01.31.2005 | Harry Siegel | Urban Affairs
It’s never been clear why Michael Bloomberg wanted to be mayor, perhaps not even to himself.

It was understandable that no one knew what to expect from Bloomberg the neophyte candidate who ran on a whim, switching parties out of political expedience and running a stealth campaign. He won a victory few had anticipated by drawing an inside straight in the aftermath of 9/11 and a racially charged Democratic primary.

Perhaps even Bloomberg hadn’t prepared for victory: Asked what he’d done in his first 100 days in office, he replied “I got ready for the next thousand.” And while three years in office have given Mayor Mike a track record, it is so disjointed that New Yorkers still have little sense of what he’s after.

Most every New Yorker had a sense of each mayor’s New York, from Giuliani’s law and order city to Dinkins’ gorgeous mosaic, at last as far back as Lindsay’s Fun City. But Bloomberg has yet to define his vision, either to the city at large or even to the members of his own administration, who often seem to be running their own mini-mayoralities.

When running for office, Bloomberg bragged of his private sector experience in creating and running the hugely successful financial information company that made his fortune and that bears his name. Upon taking office, the press offered drooling coverage of the open office he set for himself and upper management, as though what had stymied the city up until then had mostly been a matter of cubicle arrangement.

And the people populating those cubicles hardly helped the matter. Bloomberg’s deputy mayors and top tier appointments have been a hodgepodge of Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani appointees with radically different agendas, who have pursued their own agendas, even when these have gone against the mayor’s positions.

Though Bloomberg ran promising to end bilingual education, for example, he backed up Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s choice of career-long bilingual ed advocate Diana Lam to set curriculum. And it’s well known that the driving force behind the unpopular quest for the 2012 Olympics is Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff. To accomplish this, Bloomberg and Doctoroff have focused their energies on a new Jets stadium on the Far West Side, even as Ground Zero remains little more than a politically neglected hole in the ground.

The bottom-line oriented approach Bloomberg ran on has itself proved problematic, as the mayor has struggled to articulate just what achievements he’s looking to measure, occupying himself with such pet projects as the draping of Central Park and new traffic rules for midtown, while doing nothing to take on Gotham’s massively oversized public sector.

Early on, the new mayor’s conciliatory approach seemed well suited to the City’s willingness to sacrifice in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, which left the city with a nearly four billion dollar budget hole to fill. But after running on a platform that stressed lower taxes and using his first state of the city speech to declare that the city’s budget, larger than that of 42 states and about half of which goes to payroll, was unaffordably large, Bloomberg promptly took layoffs off the table, raised property taxes, and burnt his honeymoon political capital on a smoking ban he’d never mentioned as a candidate. (Defending the ban, he argued that “more people [would] die from second-hand smoke than were killed in the World Trade Center.”)

When the transit workers threatened a strike in a clear test of the new mayor, he had one more chance to stand by the tough fiscal rhetoric he’d campaigned on. But rather than invoke the state’s Taylor Law, which make such strikes illegal, he showed reporters his new $600 bike and suggested other New Yorkers buy one. Shortly thereafter, he folded, and offered the TWU generous terms for a new contract.

Few were surprised then, when the mayor told a Manhattan business group that he saw New York as “a luxury product.” And he’s governed with the support of Manhattan on just this premise. The smoking ban, for instance, had the least effect in Manhattan, where businesses could afford the city’s huge fees for outside seating (which Bloomberg nearly tripled). Property owners and small businessmen, the middle class residents notably absent from Bloomberg’s luxury vision, took the brunt of his tax hike.

With his re-election run approaching, Bloomberg has returned to the fiscally conservative rhetoric of his first run. But in practice, he has yet to set priorities on the basis of which he might be judged. Dinkins offered a “gorgeous mosaic” at the head of a new urban coalition, Giuliani’s city was one in which public space could be reclaimed from crime and disorder. But no one seems to have a clear sense of Bloomberg’s New York. Bloomberg’s LLC’s has a clear bottom line — is the company making money? — a city’s success is far more difficult to measure, and the mayor has yet to offer a yardstick.

Bloomberg has been at his most successful in administering over and maintaining his predecessor’s accomplishments. To his credit, the billionaire has kept a lid on both the crime numbers and the welfare rolls (though he has encouraged a massive and costly expansion in Medicaid). Even in gaining mayoral control of the schools, easily his biggest accomplishment to date, Mayor Mike reaped the fruits of his predecessor’s frequent attacks on the Board of Education, which set the stage for the city’s takeover. And while Bloomberg has made managerial improvements, he has little in the way of educational accomplishments to show for his control of the public school system.

Bloomberg has asked to be judged by the voters of his handling of the city’s schools. But he may be remembered instead for his support of the CFE decision (likely Democratic foe Fernando Ferrer’s Drum Major Institute was a party in the suit), that will billions in new state spending on the city’s schools.

While the mayor seems to regard this free money, more than half the state’s revenues are gained from the city, meaning this will almost certainly result in a fiscal crisis in Albany, and new taxes on New Yorkers from either the state, the city, or both. In his dependence on revenues from a state that takes far more from the city it tax dollars than it returns, Bloomberg most resembles a more competent Dinkins. Depending on who wins the Democratic primary, whose crowded field includes the fire-breathing Ferrer and the bought-and-sold Gifford Miller Mayor Mike may prove the best of bad alternatives, but is this all NYC has to offer?

It’s one thing to run a stealth campaign as an outsider, but after four years in office, it’s time New Yorkers demand to know: Mister Mayor, what is Bloomberg’s New York?

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