How our mayor has given us the business
After a charmed first decade in politics, Mayor Mike Bloomberg is mired in his first sustained losing streak.
Bloomberg LP's headquarters, the Bloomberg Tower. Nicknamed "the Death Star" by fans and foes alike, the huge screens displaying data, the glass walls, and the open floor space in place of private offices or even cubicles are all meant to symbolize "transparency"—one of the many buzzwords from his business that Citizen Bloomberg brought with him to City Hall.
His third term has been shaky, marked by the Snowpocalypse, the snowballing CityTime scandal, the backlash to Cathie Black and "government by cocktail party," and the rejection by Governor Andrew Cuomo of his plan to change how public-school teachers are hired and fired. With just a couple more years left in office, Bloomberg is starting to look every one of his 70 years.
Soon, he'll be just another billionaire.
The mayor's legacy is remarkably uncertain—largely because he's done his best to keep New Yorkers in the dark about what it is he's really set out to do in office.
In part, this is because the mayor has been far more effective at selling his Bloomberg brand than in getting things done. But it's also because what he has done—remaking and marketing New York as a "luxury city" and Manhattan as a big-business monoculture—he prefers to discuss with business groups rather than the voting public.
Withholding information while preaching transparency is a Bloomberg trademark. He aggressively keeps his private life private—meaning not just his weekends outside the city at "undisclosed" locations, but also his spending, his charitable giving, and his privately held business.
New Yorkers who have received city, campaign, or Bloomberg bucks in one form or another and who expect to do business again in the future agreed to speak anonymously with the Voice about the mayor's personality, the intersection of his political and private interests, and the goals he aims to achieve.
Several sources agreed to speak only after hearing what others had said. "It's Julius Caesar time," said one source. "There's lots of knives, but no one wants to be first." Others refused to be quoted, but encouraged me to give voice to their complaints—which sometimes diverged but often built into a sort of Greek chorus, an indictment of Bloomberg's mayoralty from those who have seen it in practice, and are vested in it.
"Hanging out with a billionaire does bad things to your brain," a source said. "It makes you think you're right."
The candidate who first ran in 2001 on his private-sector résumé and a deluge of advertising never did bother telling voters much about his agenda.
He pledged in that first run not to raise taxes and to step away from the daily running of his private company if elected to public office, but he brushed aside both vows after the election. In the case of his business, he claimed to have kept his word until his own testimony in a lawsuit unsealed in 2007 showed that he'd been far more active than he'd previously acknowledged.
The vast redevelopment schemes he unveiled in office were never mentioned on the stump.
New Yorkers have no trouble picturing Giuliani's New York, or Dinkins's "gorgeous mosaic," or Koch's "How'm-I-doing?" New York, or Beame's bankruptcy, or Lindsay's "Fun City."
After two full terms and change, what do you call Bloomberg's New York? In many ways, the mayor has been merely a caretaker.
While Bloomberg has called himself the "education mayor," his claimed success with the public schools has been exposed as largely accounting tricks.
When asked to describe the boss's vision for the city, aides and allies tack post-partisanship on to a checklist of Bloomberg LP buzzwords: transparency, data-driven results, and a CEO fixed on the bottom line. Pressed for actual accomplishments, the city's post-9/11 resurgence usually is mentioned first.
The attack and its economic fallout played key roles in all three of Bloomberg's runs, though the story has less to do with strong leadership than with good timing and salesmanship.
The attack itself, along with his opponent Mark Green's fumbled response to it, helped put Bloomberg over the top in 2001. The ensuing Fed-sponsored low-interest-rate bubble inflated New York's markets just in time to help rescue the mayor from record-low approval ratings and ensure his re-election in 2005. When that bubble finally burst in 2008, the Wall Street meltdown became the public rationale for the "emergency" third term.
"Post-partisanship" has always meant the party of Bloomberg, a convenient handle for a lifelong Democrat who left the party to avoid a contested primary in New York. After the presidential plotting that occupied most of his second term fell short (the big hit that began his losing streak), Bloomberg aimed for a soft landing with a nakedly undemocratic "emergency" bill to allow himself a third term. Instead, it alienated New Yorkers and wrecked his expensively built reputation as a "post-political" leader in the process.
Transparency has always been something Bloomberg has preferred to pitch rather than practice. In his 1997 business memoir, Bloomberg on Bloomberg—a sometimes valuable guide to the mayor's approach—he notes that "if public companies change what they're doing midstream, everyone panics. In a private company like Bloomberg, the analysts don't ask, and as to the fact that we don't know where we're going—so what? Neither did Columbus." It's a philosophy Bloomberg brought with him to City Hall.
"Data-driven"? It's hard to credit that when crime numbers are artificially deflated by re-classifying rapes as misdemeanors, NYC-reported public school gains disappear when compared to outside measures, and when the city's 65 percent graduation rate is undercut by state tests showing only 21.4 percent of city students are ready for college.