As Term Wanes, Bloomberg’s Temper Boils Up
For more than six years, Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr. and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have enjoyed a warm relationship. So when the councilor spotted the mayor outside City Hall on a recent sunny morning, he greeted him amiably, shook his hand, and turned to go on his way.
There was no indication that the mayor was about to explode.
“What’s this I hear about you objecting to that power plant?” Mr. Bloomberg, who usually keeps his business private, barked out.
“He kept raising his voice. ‘What’s the matter with you? You know we need the power,’ ” Mr. Vallone, from Queens, recalled the mayor saying. “Then he finally just screamed something about not moving it.”
Mr. Bloomberg is often a man of quaint politeness in public. But in recent days, as he has endured setbacks on projects crucial to his legacy, another Michael Bloomberg has spilled into view: short-tempered, scolding, even petulant.
The mayor has watched the collapse of his congestion pricing proposal and the blocking of his plan to link teacher tenure to student test scores. He is hoping a revived deal to develop the far West Side of Manhattan, another crucial part of his vision for transforming the city, can become a reality.
And, with his presidential hopes shelved, the often fawning attention from the media has faded, too.
Suddenly, as he enters the twilight of his term, he is openly dressing down commissioners, taking obvious shots at officials who disagree with him and invoking the royal “we” while refusing to answer questions whose topics or phrasing he finds distasteful.
He threw a sharp elbow last week toward Senator Charles E. Schumer over his suggestion that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey take over as the lead agency for the stalled Moynihan Station project.
“We set the city’s priorities,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “They don’t come out of Washington.”
Mr. Bloomberg’s chief spokesman, Stu Loeser, played down the recent bouts of temper, saying, “It’s very easy to analyze things into other explanations for ordinary human behavior by someone who, over all, is a very optimistic person.” He added: “Mike Bloomberg is only human, and since he first started running for office in 2001, New Yorkers have seen him happy and sad, irritated and elated.”
But several current and former officials say the public is just now getting a sustained look at the impatience and occasional anger that Mr. Bloomberg, a self-made billionaire unused to answering to any authority higher than his own, feels toward those who would stand in his way or challenge his motives. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Mr. Vallone said of Mr. Bloomberg’s mood.
Mr. Bloomberg has long been a man of contradictions: jocular and flirtatious one minute, earnest and moralizing the next. Described as down-to-earth and sharply funny, he might greet a political consultant by joking, “Any of your clients get arrested today?” He can be solicitous of his colleagues, once inviting City Councilman Lewis A. Fidler’s son Max to City Hall for a sit-down interview for his school project, rather than simply providing written answers through an aide.
“He was extremely nice to my kid,” said Mr. Fidler, from Brooklyn. “So there’s clearly a soft side to him.”
But he is also demanding and prone to outbursts of angry hyperbole, according to current and former associates, most of whom would speak only anonymously for fear of offending the mayor. They described a suddenly red-faced man who, in full view of others in the bullpen, the open workspace at City Hall, might scream, “You’re destroying my administration!” at an aide over a slip-up, or unleash a profanity-laced question about why he had botched a step in a project.
In some respects, associates say, Mr. Bloomberg’s anger stems from incredulity that systems do not function as they should, and from never fully adjusting to the last-minute, secret deal-making culture of politics, which he believes is a bad way to conduct business.
These officials and associates say that Mr. Bloomberg’s temper burns hot and fast — he can erupt, and then turn around and invite the target of his anger to join him for dinner. The attacks are not so much personal as an expression of his extreme impatience, said Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright of Harlem, who clashed with the mayor at times over the congestion pricing proposal.
Mr. Bloomberg’s fury “pales in comparison” to that of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who would threaten to “bury you,” Mr. Wright said. He added that Mr. Bloomberg would yell things more focused on policy issues, like, “ This is good for the city! You’ve got to do this!”
Mr. Bloomberg, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has acknowledged his quick temper, writing in his 1997 autobiography, “Bloomberg by Bloomberg,” that when he was first setting up the media and information behemoth Bloomberg L.P., he slammed a door so hard in a fit of rage that the latch broke, locking him in, and he had to sheepishly ask his officemates to let him out.
Like many successful, self-made people, Mr. Bloomberg can be single-minded in his pursuits and supremely confident in his views. Comparing himself with other entrepreneurs in the autobiography, he wrote, “I too think I can do everything better than anyone else.” He added: “Still, my ego does allow for the remote possibility that someone might be as good at one or two little things. I’ve admitted there’s a slim chance that ideas coming from others could be valuable as well.”
As mayor, Mr. Bloomberg has worked to shield these traits from the public. But of late, he has been revealing an unusual level of emotion.
“People think that the guy is a cool operator, he’s a business technocrat, and I think people really can’t comprehend that he gets frustrated with the slow pace of government, that he can’t just wave the magic wand and say, ‘This shall be done,’ ” said Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, who said he had been on the receiving end of both rage and joy from the mayor. “Now that they’re focused on the endgame, let’s face it: This legacy, this large canvas, needs a lot more paint before we can step back and really look at it.”
Mr. Bloomberg seemed reflective at a commencement address he gave at the University of Pennsylvania on Monday, describing how exciting and flattering the “buzz” was when he was viewed as a possible presidential hopeful this year, which landed him on the covers of Time and Newsweek.
“But in the end, I decided to stay with my current job — one that has 591 days left before I’m term-limited out. But who’s counting?” the mayor said.
Mr. Bloomberg’s mercurial nature has been emerging most clearly in his dealings with members of the news media, with whom he has recently come to resemble the “Seinfeld” Soup Nazi of municipal government.
At a news conference on May 1, Mr. Bloomberg snapped at a reporter who tried to ask him about a discrimination lawsuit at Bloomberg L.P. “What does this have to do with the budget?” he asked, even though he had already offered his views on other issues. “Next time, don’t bother to ask us a question. Stick to the topic. Everybody else plays by the rules; you’ll just have to as well.”
Last week, at another news conference, he cut off a reporter who used the word “maintain” in a question, calling the word inappropriate because of its confrontational connotation.
“Next time you have a question, you want to insinuate that I lie, just talk to the press secretary,” he said, jabbing his finger toward the reporter. “I don’t think we have a question for you.”
But others in his orbit are feeling his upset, too. At an announcement in late March highlighting more bus service in the Bronx, as the outlook for congestion pricing grew bleaker, he rebuked his transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, as she tried to expand on his remarks about why the proposal would not be a pilot program.
Mr. Bloomberg was already upset that day because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had reneged on $30 million in promised service enhancements linked to fare increases.
“That’s it, that’s the answer to the question,” he said. “I’m answering the questions here at the press conference.”