The Magazine

The Mystery of
Michael Bloomberg

Why does a popular but mediocre mayor think he should run for president?

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By FRED SIEGEL and MICHAEL GOODWIN
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New York

There is a stunning disconnect between Michael Bloomberg's modest accomplishments as mayor of New York and his elevation to a figure worthy of presidential consideration--albeit as an independent candidate. In Bloomberg's own words, "How likely is a 5′7″-Jew-from-New-York billionaire who's divorced and running as an independent to become president of the United States?"

The answer is obvious, but that doesn't mean Bloomberg and his billions couldn't become a major force in national politics. Or that he doesn't have a plan that would, under the right conditions, put him in the Oval Office. His plan, he tells confidants, is to spend upwards of $500 million of his own money--about twice as much as the major party nominees--on TV ads and get-out-the-vote efforts, a strategy that's worked for him twice in New York. The only catch is that he first wants to see who Democrats and Republicans nominate. If the parties put up fringe-leaning nominees, leaving the middle open, Bloomberg would use his moneybags to try to create a centrist path to victory.

Meanwhile, the outlines of his platform are clearly visible. He's been zigzagging across the country, including in some primary states, leading the charge for handgun control, public health reform, and his "reformist" educational policies. Think of a sane George Soros.

The Washington Post has featured his presidential possibilities on its front page; Slate has touted him as a great manager; the New York Times, New York magazine, and the New York Sun are enthusiastic about a Bloomberg run; Rupert Murdoch was quoted as saying the mayor "would be my choice" for president, while savvy consultants are mapping out the scenarios that would give him a chance. In a mixed omen, Al Sharpton, warm to a Bloomberg candidacy, has described him as "Ross Perot with a résumé." It's quite an array.

Looming behind the disjuncture between his managerial failures as mayor and the presidential palaver is the mystery of how a mayor so emotionally detached from the lives of most New Yorkers, so aggressively aloof from the supposedly populist sentiments of New York politics, can be riding so high in the local polls. Even after a rough first quarter in this, his sixth year in office, his job approval ratings generally hit 70 percent.

True, his low-key personality was a relief to many New Yorkers after Rudy Giuliani's brawling. But his passionless, matter-of-fact approach to the job stands in stark contrast to the from-the-gut styles of the two most recent successful and popular mayors, Ed Koch and Giuliani. Indeed, Bloomberg's style is closer to that of failures Abe Beame and David Dinkins. Of Koch, who led the city out of the 1970s fiscal crisis, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, "History will record [him] as having given back New York City its morale." Rudy beat down the twin scourges of crime and soaring welfare dependency. After almost a term and a half, it is still impossible to credit Bloomberg with a transformative achievement or discern any legacy.

Bloomberg's reputation is built on the idea that he's not just another politician but an apolitical manager who rises above petty interests. But this image reverses the reality. Bloomberg's failures have been managerial, while he's been a brilliant success politically by catering--via the city treasury and his own fortune--to those petty interests.

Bloomberg's greatest substantive achievement is to have successfully continued Giuliani's reforms regarding crime and welfare. He has also continued Giuliani's aggressive pro-development policies that, combined with the recent economic boom, have led to a record number of housing starts and an unemployment rate that is the lowest in 30 years. But where he has struck out on his own, it has been a different matter.

"Manager Mike," the first mayor to also be the city's wealthiest man, put education at the center of his 2001 run for mayor. Beginning with his first campaign speech, he pledged "to do for education what Giuliani did for public safety." He invited people to judge him on the issue and said he wanted to be the "education mayor." Based in part on that promise of accountability, Bloomberg was given unprecedented mayoral control of the schools, which had been in the hands of a fractious and unaccountable Board of Education.

He has done a marvelous job of selling himself as a model school reformer to the New York press, to the New York elites, and to mayors across the country. Mayors Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C., have spoken of Bloomberg as their model, "the standard-bearer for educational reform."

But the "reformed" school system led by Bloomberg's chancellor, Joel Klein, a former high-ranking Justice Department lawyer, has been more notable for administrative upheaval and noncompetitive contracts than higher test scores. Over the last five years--despite $4 billion in additional spending (the annual operating budget for education is now more than $16 billion and the city has a five-year, $10 billion education capital budget) and three harrowing reorganizations of the original "reform"--student performance has been basically flat. Reading scores in many elementary schools are up, but math scores in middle schools have declined. Graduation rates have inched up, but still barely 50 percent graduate in four years.

Bloomberg and Klein have lurched from their initial strong central control of the schools to a recent attempt at decentralization, both of which have sown confusion. Things began badly when they instituted a "progressive" education curriculum that had failed everywhere it was tried. More recently there has been a school bus fiasco: Roughly 7,000 students were left stranded in the dead of winter when a new routing plan imposed by an expensive consulting firm with a no-bid contract proved unworkable. Blasted by parents and critics, Bloomberg denounced them as know-nothings "who have no experience in doing anything." The parents, he snapped, just need to call 311, the all-purpose gripe-and-information line he established.

The imperiousness was striking, and it is often more than stylistic. Mild-mannered Democrat Bill Thompson, the city comptroller and former Board of Education president who plans to run for mayor in 2009, when Bloomberg will be forced out by term limits, complains that "I can't talk to the mayor about education," because Bloomberg sees criticism as either a front for the unions or as a personal attack on Klein.

Thompson had a sometimes rocky relationship with Giuliani but notes that while "Rudy could be a pain in the ass, . . . he really understood this stuff." Added Thompson: "If you asked for more money, he wanted to know exactly how it would be spent."

Giuliani, by legal training and temperament, was hands-on, sometimes to a fault, but he almost always knew enough about a topic to evaluate the advice he was given. Bloomberg, on the other hand, has never immersed himself in the details of either city government or education. He delegates responsibility to deputies like Klein, who himself has limited interest in budgetary and programmatic intricacies. "You ask Joel," explains Thompson, "where the money is going, and he'll say something like 'to improve reading scores.'" Asked whether he sees any real gain in schools under Bloomberg, Thompson says only that "the jury is still out."

Yet the public doesn't blame Bloomberg. He gets credit for trying to fix the schools, and Klein gets the blame when things go wrong. The pattern is similar with the NYPD. Bloomberg gets credit for keeping crime low, but when cops recently killed an unarmed black man in Queens in a hail of 50 bullets, activists demanded the scalp not of Bloomberg, but of the very successful police commissioner Ray Kelly.

Both cases illustrate how Bloomberg has managed the politics by greasing the usual skids. With the police shooting case, Bloomberg abandoned the cops, three of whom were later indicted and now await trial. Shortly after the shooting, the mayor said, "It sounds to me like excessive force was used" and deemed the incident "inexplicable" even before the details were known.

On schools, Bloomberg has neatly separated himself from Klein by handing out generous raises to the very teachers' union fighting Klein's reforms. The contract that runs through the end of his term provides cumulative hikes of nearly 41 percent. And while there have been modest productivity gains--30 minutes were added to the school day, meaning teachers must be in the schools all of 6 hours and 50 minutes--time- and money-wasting work rules and perks, all part of a 204-page contract that Klein tried to reduce to 8 pages, have survived largely intact. So while the unions detest Klein and openly urge he be fired, Bloomberg skates on by.

The managerial failures don't stop with the schools. Nearly six years after 9/11, the city has only begun to make real progress on Ground Zero in large part because it was never a Bloomberg priority. Like mob bosses, he and Gov. George Pataki divided up Manhattan--Pataki got downtown and Bloomberg focused on the far West Side of Midtown. In his first term, Bloomberg tried to succeed where Giuliani failed by building a football stadium there for the New York Jets, hoping then to use the stadium as the centerpiece of his plan to lure the Olympics to Gotham.

Indeed, Bloomberg's early economic development program, aside from some sensible rezoning proposals, consisted mostly of attracting the Olympics. Money was no object. Bloomberg proposed to subsidize the well-endowed Jets ownership by giving them for a mere $200 million a West Side Manhattan property worth a billion dollars on the open market. The plan was defeated by the opposition of the Dolan family, which owns Madison Square Garden, and by State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, the entrenched Democrat who represents a district in lower Manhattan. The International Olympic Committee finally ended the wrangling by awarding the 2012 games to London.

Bloomberg's dogged pursuit of his unpopular stadium plan and his record level property tax hikes combined to give him a 24 percent approval rating, the lowest ever held by a modern mayor. It was no mean feat to be rated below the disastrous David Dinkins. Midway through his first term, it appeared that Bloomberg would have a hard time winning a second one.

But to Bloomberg's great good fortune, the former Bronx Borough president and Dinkins ally, Democrat Freddy Ferrer, again came to his rescue. Ferrer, who called himself the "un-Giuliani," working with Sharpton, had made Bloomberg mayor in 2001, when he devoted all his energies to subverting the campaign of fellow Democrat Mark Green.

In 2005, Ferrer, who campaigned on repealing the Giuliani policing reforms and raising taxes, made for such an appalling alternative that his candidacy, plus Bloomberg's ability to spend considerably more on consultants than Ferrer spent on his entire campaign, carried Bloomberg to a record level victory margin. In his two campaigns, Bloomberg has, with the aid of top notch consultants, directly spent nearly $160 million, while his opponents spent a total of $24 million.

Bloomberg can thank the hedge fund and private equity boom on Wall Street, the record high stock market, and soaring real estate values for keeping his budget in the black. But not even the good economic times would have been enough to maintain his popularity given his many gaffes if New York were the city it once was or is assumed to be.

Consider the following: The mayor was informed that a set of subway switches had burned out and couldn't be replaced for months or even years, guaranteeing massive delays. Bloomberg, an engineer, nonchalantly said fine, that's the way it will have to be. He reversed himself only after howls of public protest. And only then did transit officials acknowledge that they could do most of the job in weeks.

Or consider this: After a July 2006 blackout produced by Con Ed incompetence left more than 100,000 Queens residents without electricity for a week, Manager Mike declined even to visit the affected areas until the press began to hound him. Even then he declared, "I think [Con Ed CEO] Kevin Burke deserves a thanks from this city. He's worked as hard as he can. . . ."

It's safe to say Bloomberg will never be confused with Fiorello LaGuardia. When it comes to holding people accountable, Bloomberg seems to have taken lessons from George W. Bush.

At a time when Brooklyn is experiencing a private sector housing boom, the same businessman mayor who tried to give away valuable Manhattan property for a song has supported a half-billion dollars in direct and indirect subsidies for the Atlantic Yards apartment, office, and arena complex in Brooklyn being built by fellow fat cat and subsidy king Bruce Ratner. Homelessness is at record levels, but no one has been called on the carpet and, again, the public seems to give the mayor credit for trying, even if he fails. And then there are the civil liberties violations: During the GOP convention, hundreds of mostly nonviolent protesters were penned in by chain-link fences topped with barbed-wire for up to 44 hours.

Had homelessness reached unprecedented levels under Giuliani, the interest groups would have been marching in the streets. Had Rudy proposed a similar level of subsidy for a project like Atlantic Yards, the liberals would have howled with rage. Had Giuliani held protesters behind barbed wire, the Village Voice would have relentlessly argued that fascism had (once again) arrived in New York, and the New York Times would have run a 34-part series about the assault on civil liberties.

Why didn't this happen? It didn't occur for the same reason most Republicans have been remarkably quiet about Bloomberg's penchant for raising taxes and revenue by (1) ticketing store owners with fines for "illegal awnings" (too many letters) and (2) ticketing cars trapped in snow storms. The New York State Republican organization is more of a business, a local franchise, than it is a political party. In 2001, the year he ran for election to succeed Giuliani, Bloomberg donated $705,000 to the state GOP, the largest donation since the days of Nelson Rockefeller. In 2002, while George Pataki was running for reelection for his third and final term as governor, Bloomberg donated another half-million to the party, and he's continued to give. The money buys acquiescence if not adulation.

Similarly, in the years before he ran for mayor, Bloomberg supported worthwhile African-American, Asian, and Latino arts organizations with generous and sometimes massive contributions. Half a million dollars went to the well-respected Dance Theater of Harlem and $100,000 to Ballet Hispanico. As he geared up for reelection in 2005, he donated at least $140 million to more than 800 institutions and groups, including to Lenora Fulani, an anti-Semite who ran the local, cult-aligned Independence party.

All his generosity might not have availed Bloomberg of popularity if New York still possessed a sizable, civically engaged middle class. Instead we have a barbell social structure, with the very wealthy and a vast upper middle class on one side, a massive number of immigrant and minority poor on the other, and little in between. The middle class as such is less than 20 percent of the population here.

Most of its members live by serving the wealthy above them or the poor below. Insulated though they are, the upper middle class resent the truly wealthy who bid up the cost of real estate. But with their kids in private schools and private recreation programs, they have little need for city government outside of public safety. They like the mayor's low-key style. As long as crime remains under control, Bloomberg's failures, in so far as they are even aware of them, don't impinge on them.

The failed schools and the hourglass economy don't provide much upward mobility for workaday immigrant and nonimmigrant strivers. They leave the city anyway, draining off potential discontent. Exit makes far more sense than trying to buck the cost structure and political system beholden to organized interests. Besides, they are continually replaced by new arrivals. Still, soaring housing prices, stagnant job growth, and the highest combined state and local taxes in the country have, notes urbanist Joel Kotkin, produced a high rate of out-migration by the college-educated population.

Bloomberg's slender list of achievements will make it hard for him should he enter the national race. And although he's been running for president--despite demurrals--for some time, he's unlikely to become an open candidate unless one or both of the parties nominate unelectable duds--think Newt Gingrich versus John Edwards. If, come the super-primaries on February 5, 2008, the nominees are Rudy and Hillary, Bloomberg will keep his money in his pocket. He won election as mayor in 2001 by spending $92 a vote, but not even Michael Bloomberg can do that kind of checkbook politics on a national scale.

Fred Siegel, a professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art in New York, is the author of The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life; Michael Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a columnist for the New York Daily News.