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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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.