The Magazine

Bloomberg's Bombast

New York's mayor buys himself a third term.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By FRED SIEGEL
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The folks over at Newsweek have a sly sense of humor. They put New York mayor Michael Bloomberg on the cover of their November 3 issue and let him dispense fiscal advice to the next president. In the article, Bloomberg, who has presided over record levels of spending and debt increases, chastised "Washington" for putting us in a hole by "spending with reckless abandon for years." The lofty Bloomberg told Newsweek's readers, "Programs that don't pass a cost-benefit analysis, that have been driven by politics rather than economics, should be cut."

This is excellent advice. But Bloomberg has never taken it. One of the few things economists agree on, for example, is that subsidized sports stadia are a bad investment of public funds. They are also one of Bloomberg's passions. The mayor tried and failed to subsidize a West Side football stadium to the tune of roughly $600 million, but succeeded in sending similar sums toward his developer friend Bruce Ratner for a massive Brooklyn project, centered on a basketball arena, now stalled, for which there was no demand. He subsidized the Mets' new home, Citi Field, and, through direct and indirect subsidies--some of which are now under New York state and congressional investigation--Bloomberg has been paying for the construction of George Steinbrenner's new Yankee Stadium. The costs to the city so far are $458 million (with tax breaks provided to the two teams for the stadium projects further costing the city an estimated $480 million in revenue). Yet, the mayor tells Newsweek's readers that national infrastructure projects have to be funded "strictly on merit."

The man who has helped preside over the gigantic hole at Ground Zero--where rebuilding is many years behind schedule and massively over budget--nonetheless insisted in Newsweek that the federal government hold the states and the cities "accountable for building on time and on budget."

Newsweek's offices are in New York City; shouldn't Bloomberg's assertions have raised a few red flags? But on he went. The mayor, who has nearly doubled spending on education with no known return on the investment other than a vastly expanded PR staff and chaos in repeatedly reorganized schools, talked about "our [educational] success in New York." Did Newsweek notice that the additional $9 billion he's spent on education hasn't shown up in any improvements on national tests?

The article closed with Bloomberg's heartfelt advice to the next president to "demonstrate that your talk of bipartisanship is not just talk." Here his deeds have generally been as good as his words. He has been willing to spend vast sums to buy support in both parties to achieve the greater glory of Bloomberg. He has the money, resources, and advisers to be his own party and is less bipartisan than he is an alternative political pole, one that offers Michael Bloomberg as the sole program.

A knockoff of Berlusconi, he's a man with a media empire who has dedicated his efforts to saving not his city or country but himself from the boredom of buying influence by merely giving away pieces of his fortune. A lifelong Democrat, he suddenly became a Republican in order to run for mayor in 2001. He later left the GOP to become an independent, and his staff is now exploring the chances of his running as a Democrat for reelection in 2009.

Whatever his formal identification, Bloomberg is desperate to remain on the national stage. For the past year, he ran a shadow campaign for national office. He toured the country and ran ads touting his educational "achievements" to boost the idea that he was the indispensable man for America's future. Long before Newsweek turned itself into his doormat, he had garnered adoring articles in Esquire, Vanity Fair, and GQ explaining how he had risen above the ordinary categories of politics to accomplish extraordinary fiscal and educational feats. But Bloomberg, whose billions make it possible to insert himself into any campaign at almost any time, saw his presidential and vice-presidential hopes dashed. He has been reduced to buying a third term as mayor of New York.

Until a few weeks ago New York had a term-limits law--twice ratified by public referenda--that limited the mayor and the city council to eight years in office. Bloomberg could have held a referendum on overturning them--a referendum he was very likely to win given his 70 percent approval rating. But there were dangers in taking the democratic path. The referendum would have been scheduled for February 2009, and, as Baruch College's Doug Muzzio notes, voters are likely to be hit before then by hikes in their property taxes, water bills, and subway fares. The tough times, though softened for the political class by Bloomberg's deep pockets, might have produced only a narrow victory unbefitting a Great Man. Instead, operating on the basis of ambiguities in the city charter, Bloomberg strong-armed the city council into overturning term-limits: threatening to cut off funds to their districts and stop his "anonymous" donations to the nonprofits they count on to get out the vote if they opposed his plan.

Bloomberg--who, according to some sources, has convinced himself that he's doing the public a favor by refusing to get out of the limelight--expected, quite reasonably, an easy ride from the oft-intimidated, oft-bought, scandal-ridden city council. When it came to the question of how the horses hauling Central Park carriages were being treated, the city council held 13 hearings. Term limits were rammed through after just two days of "deliberation."

The trouble was that in allowing Bloomberg to run for a third term, the council members were also voting a third term for themselves, and this velvet coup ran into unexpected public opposition. Newsweek's hero was compared to Putin, Hugo Chávez, and Tony Soprano by respected journalists, and the council, which is almost always nearly unanimous in votes, in the end backed Bloomberg by a count of only 29-22.

While the path may be clear for Bloomberg's third term, there remains the question of whether he will serve it out? City Hall, notes political consultant Jerry Skurnick, is a poor consolation prize for someone who believes he's entitled to a place on the national or international stage. During his shadow presidential campaign, "Mayor Mike" repeatedly pantomimed non-denial denials about his intentions. The Newsweek article set off a similar display of mummery--complete with nods and winks--about how he wasn't looking for a spot in an Obama or McCain administration.

For the time being Bloomberg, who presided over the great spending spree of the last few years, has been reduced to insisting that only a genius like himself can save Gotham from the fiscal dangers imposed by Wall Street's collapse (and his own maladministration). This seems odd since the man who spoke of New York as "the luxury product" has shown no interest in nurturing small businesses, which are essential for regenerating the economy and have been squeezed hard by his administration's search for revenue. Though Newsweek might not have noticed it, there was a net middle-class out-migration from New York City even in the midst of the late lamented boom.

For the last five years, while Bloomberg has been playing a golden tuba as the sky was raining Wall Street money, there was little point in criticizing a man whose unprecedented concentration of personal and political power made him as much feared as admired. But the skepticism and even open hostility elicited by his power grab has, for the moment, cracked his carapace of invulnerability. If the city is lucky, this will be the beginning of a 2009 mayoral campaign that will have to deal with a New York shorn of Wall Street as we once knew it. Who knows, Newsweek might actually take note of the city where its editorial offices are located and cover Bloomberg as if he were something less than the sum of his PR clips and bank accounts.

Fred Siegel is writing a history of modern American liberalism.