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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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.