To celebrate our 10th anniversary, we’re re-publishing some of our best pieces from throughout the years. This profile on Michael Bloomberg looks at the New York mayor’s approach for his third term, after having agreed with city council to extend mayoral term limits. It originally ran in Next American City magazine in Issue 24, Fall 2009.
You are invited to toast to 10 years with us at an evening of cocktails and storytelling on November 15, at the renowned Joe’s Pub in New York. Mingle and hear first-person accounts from urban luminaries while supporting the next 10 years of Next City. Buy your tickets today.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg pulled off quite a quiet coup last year. Nearing the end of his second term, which would be his last under city law, Bloomberg cut a deal with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whose mayoral aspirations paradoxically benefited from waiting an additional four years for her to run, since she had recently garnered negative publicity (contrary to the maxim, there is such a thing) for allegations that she misused a Council slush fund. In October of last year the Council and mayor agreed to extend New York’s elected official term limits from eight years to 12, allowing Bloomberg to seek another term.
This would seem to contradict both the principle that in a democracy those in power do not change the law to benefit themselves, and a provision of New York’s City Charter that says the same. A lawsuit was filed against Bloomberg by a group of plaintiffs that included the city’s comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr.; the public advocate, Betsy Gotbaum; voters; and aspiring City Council candidates contending, among other complaints, that if he and the Council wished to extend term limits it could take effect only after he left office. The federal courts sided with the city and dismissed the suit.
Thanks to Bloomberg’s successful tenure to date, his popularity with the city’s political elite and his willingness to co-opt his critics by hiring them for his high-spending reelection campaign, the mayor is all but certain to get away with his power grab and win a third term. The rationale for allowing this, expressed widely on op-ed pages locally and nationally, and across the ideological spectrum, is that Bloomberg has been a good mayor and New York will benefit from retaining him. “New York will be better off with Bloomberg because of the economic crisis,” says Kenneth Jackson, a professor of urban history at Columbia University and the editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City. “It may be bad for democracy, but China and Singapore have done okay. If I were him I would have gotten out while the getting was good, but I’m glad he’s taking the challenge.”
But a look at mayoral third terms in the past, and Bloomberg’s record to date, suggests that his third term may be less successful than his first two. Typically, mayoral third terms have suffered from a talent drain and public exhaustion. And the consolidation of Bloomberg’s considerable power may exacerbate his worst tendencies, which run toward an arrogant, autocratic approach to governance.
The consensus among urban historians is that while New York’s three-term mayors — Fiorello LaGuardia (the city’s only four-term mayor), Robert Wagner and Ed Koch — were overall among its most effective, their third terms tended to be rougher than their first two. “All were more popular in their earlier terms,” says Jackson. “While they are generally among New York’s most successful mayors, it is sort of an uphill climb.”
One reason is that after nearly a decade of working long, stressful hours in City Hall, a mayor’s best aides are generally ready to reap a windfall in the private sector, or to spend more time with their families. Bloomberg may not be immune to that challenge: The New York Times reported last year that his three closest deputy mayors all opposed his plan to pursue a third term. “One of the really important things that’s happening is key parts of Bloomberg’s team have peeled off,” observes Thomas Bender, a professor of American history at New York University and the author of The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea. “Some [Bloomberg advisers] are openly opposed to a third term. It’s hard work in a mayor’s office or president’s office. Sometimes the staffers get more worn out than the chief executive.” Daniel Doctoroff — Bloomberg’s longtime, most trusted adviser, who specialized in economic development as deputy mayor — left at the end of 2007 to become president of Bloomberg L.P., the mayor’s corporation.
Koch, the one living three-term ex-mayor of New York, disputes this notion. “Most people think that a third term is generally the least worthy of the three terms,” says Koch, who has endorsed Bloomberg. “I don’t believe that’s true. There is the possibility of doing great things. Bloomberg’s administration is not exhausted and good people will stay.” Koch, naturally, disagrees with historians who consider his third term a disappointment, and claims he lost his bid for a fourth term not because of any failures on his part, but merely due to public fatigue with his assertive personality. He points to achievements from his third term that he considers among his most significant, such as a law mandating smoke-free areas in restaurants and a campaign finance law that, ironically, was enacted in the wake of a corruption scandal that tarnished Koch’s image and which has been undermined by Bloomberg’s massive campaign spending. New York City also completed the renovation and construction of approximately 200,000 units of affordable housing during Koch’s third term. “I think it takes 12 years to get things done,” Koch says.
Bloomberg could advance the same argument about some of his signature projects, such as his attempt to improve the performance of city schools through mayoral control, the city’s efforts to revive New York’s waterfront and his PlaNYC for ecological sustainability and its components, such as reorienting the city’s streets around bicycles and pedestrians. Instead Bloomberg’s primary justification for undoing the term limits law has been that in these fragile economic times the city needs a mayor with his business experience. That’s politically shrewd, since economic anxiety speaks to voters on a visceral level more than any other issue, with the possible exception of crime. But the extent to which Bloomberg’s policies have actually bolstered the city’s economy is arguable.
Trust Me — I’m a Billionaire
Certainly the city has prospered under Bloomberg and has avoided the post-9/11 economic catastrophe that many feared. But it is hard to ascertain how much of that is due to Bloomberg’s decisions and how much the long bull market and massive Wall Street bonuses simply drove the economy on their own. New York’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) would, for obvious reasons, like you to believe it was the former. “We’ve rezoned nearly one-third of the area in the city,” says David Lombino, a spokesman for the EDC. “Neighborhoods that had been dormant are now booming. Quality of life is a precondition for economic development. By continuing to lower the crime rate and improve schools we’ve opened up neighborhoods outside of Manhattan that had seen disinvestment, like Long Island City and Bushwick. Our changes give confidence to private investors to put their money in.” Lombino also points to fiscal management that has improved the city’s bond rating, allowing it to pay a lower interest rate on its debt.
In the current crisis, Lombino says, the city is “creating jobs for tomorrow” in a variety of non-industrial sectors including fashion, media, arts and nonprofits, as well as shipping and bioscience. They are converting Brooklyn waterfront warehouses to lab space, for instance. “The strategy is diversification,” says Lombino. “We need to be less reliant on cyclical industries like Wall Street.” In July, Bloomberg announced a $1.5 million city plan that he claimed would save 6,000 to 8,000 media jobs. The Wall Street Journal reported that the plan would include the “NYC Media Lab, a facility that will coordinate research being done by universities and businesses, and Jumpstart New Media, a training program that places midlevel traditional-media workers into new-media companies for 10-week internships.”
Community activists contend that on economic development Bloomberg and Doctoroff have tried to bulldoze, sometimes literally, local opposition to development schemes. The Bloomberg administration aggressively pushed a now-defunct plan for developing the West Side of Midtown Manhattan that, while in some ways quite visionary, scared residents with its proposed football stadium, which would have brought massive traffic on game days. In Brooklyn, Bloomberg supported a plan to take properties, including million-dollar condos and active businesses, through eminent domain, declaring them “blighted.” The redevelopment project that would replace them, called Atlantic Yards, would disrupt the street grid and build a mega-block encompassing a basketball arena, offices and apartment towers. While the economic case for pursuing the proposal is legitimate, Bloomberg seemed not even mildly concerned about the impact it would have on both displaced residents and neighbors who would see the character of their quiet brownstone neighborhoods radically altered. Lombino notes that both the West Side and Atlantic Yards proposals were primarily being developed on state-owned land, so while Bloomberg supported the projects, the community-review process was not under the city’s control. Lombino proudly notes that the city is pressing ahead with the most popular part of the West Side plan, extending the 7 subway line to 10th Avenue to spur residential and apartment development on the far West Side.
Whatever the particulars, one can identify a trend in Bloomberg’s approach to economic development — a favoritism toward the interests of his allies, be they his wealthy neighbors on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, developers, or the Republican Party to which he belonged until recently, and a tendency toward grandiose ambitions, even when it contradicts common sense. Bloomberg recently proposed raising revenue to help cover New York’s budget shortfall not, as some Democrats had hoped, by raising income taxes on the richest New Yorkers, but by raising the regressive sales tax by half a cent on the dollar and eliminating the exemption for clothing sales of less than $110. This would mean that a janitor buying school clothes for his kids will now have to pay more in taxes, while an investment banker putting an addition on her summer house will not.
The New York Times’ editorial page, generally a pro-Bloomberg bastion, recently criticized him for pressuring the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to spend billions on building privately owned office towers at the former World Trade Center site, rather than making needed repairs and upgrades to the Lincoln Tunnel, Penn Station and the city’s airports. “Mr. Bloomberg of all people should recognize that real estate is not the best investment for a public agency,” wrote the Times.
Likewise, the West Side stadium proposal was part and parcel to his hopes to attract the 2012 summer Olympics to New York, even though recent Olympics in Atlanta and Los Angeles lost money for their host cities due to security costs and the “crowding out” of normal business and tourism. In 2004, Bloomberg, then a Republican, offended local sensibilities by recruiting the Republican National Convention (RNC) to New York, which voted 4-1 against George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. The city was filled with Iraq War opponents who greatly resented the Bush administration’s use of their suffering on 9/11 to justify the unrelated invasion of Iraq. Bloomberg claimed the city would benefit from the tourism dollars and positive publicity, although New York hardly lacks for tourists in August. Massive planned protests required so much police overtime and street and office closings that some estimates showed the convention to be a net revenue loser for the city. Bloomberg pushed forward to make the convention run smoothly, and praised Bush from the convention podium. Bloomberg helped Bush capitalize on the memory of the attacks of 9/11 to win reelection, despite Bush’s desultory record on urban issues.
A Shorter Fuse
Bloomberg’s record on development and protest, among other issues, points to what some see as an autocratic nature that may be getting worse over time. “I think there’s a very authoritarian streak in Bloomberg,” says Thomas Bender. “It was clear in the RNC.”
“We had high hopes for him,” says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). “Even before the RNC” — when the police arrested nearly 2,000 protesters — “we were quickly brought down to reality about the mayor’s First Amendment views.” Civil libertarians have a number of issues, from the NYPD’s handling of protests to Bloomberg’s implementation of mayoral control in schools, where they say Bloomberg has failed to respect dissenting views. “The police under Bloomberg had a policy of denying permits for street protests,” says Lieberman, citing the international anti-Iraq War protests of February 2003. Bloomberg denied the protesters a marching permit, many were prevented from attending the rally, and hundreds were arrested.
On Bloomberg’s pet issue, education, his critics contend his behavior has been equally controversial. “One can see this [tendency toward authoritarianism] in his attitude toward the schools,” says Bender. “There should have been real town halls on public education.” The NYCLU argues that Bloomberg has removed opportunities for public discussion of new rules governing schools, and that he has subjected school children to discipline without oversight of the disciplinarians. “The mayor has functioned, and his Department of Education has functioned, in a way that treats the department as not a city agency,” says Lieberman. “New rules don’t go through the comment period that even the NYPD is subject to. For example, the ban on cell phones in schools: He just did it, no discussion of what it means for kids who go to school far away and have to pick up their younger brother, or have health problems.” The New York City Department of Education did not respond to an interview request for this article.
The NYCLU is also critical of the role of school safety agents, who are not supervised by school administrators. “There are now 5,200 school safety agents who are answerable only to the police,” notes Lieberman. “What are they doing to protect the kids from rogue school safety agents? We’ve seen principals arrested for trying to protect their students.” Paul Browne, deputy commissioner of the NYPD, contends the school safety agent program has been successful at reducing violence, has hired a largely female and nonwhite population, and works cooperatively with principals. According to NYPD data, school crime has dropped 42 percent since the 2000-’01 academic year, with greater drops at specifically targeted schools.
Being out of touch and autocratic is Bloomberg’s signature characteristic, one that his supporters actually tout. When the multibillionaire first ran for office in 2001 and dropped $73 million of his own fortune on his campaign, Bloomberg’s cheerleaders offered his attempt to buy public office as a rationale for supporting him: He did not “need” to be mayor and would not be bought by campaign contributors, so he would govern in the public interest. After a relatively successful first term, and the good fortune to face a Democratic Party weakened by a divisive primary, one might have thought Bloomberg would limit his spending and let his record speak for itself. After all, the argument that Bloomberg needed to compensate in buying name recognition for a life spent in the private sector no longer applied. But Bloomberg spent $85 million in 2005, snapping up top Democratic consultants with lavish salaries so his opponents could not hire them.
Good-government groups say Bloomberg’s insistence on outspending his opponents by $50 to $75 million has undermined New York’s campaign finance laws, which are among the strongest in the country. “He’s put a different kind of ‘for sale’ sign on City Hall,” says Gene Russianoff, an attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “In his case it’s wealth and connections. When he ran the first time he said, ‘I have to spend because I’m not well-known and it won’t be necessary next time.’ Then in 2005 he said, ‘I’m a rich guy and will do what I damn well please.’ He could have been a limited participant who accepts the limit but doesn’t take public money.”
Bloomberg heading to a press conference in Central Park. Credit: Ernst Moeksis on Flickr
Bloomberg did not take long to start indulging his autocratic tendencies. In March 2002, almost immediately after taking office, he unilaterally abrogated Rudy Giuliani’s agreement to let the Museum of the City of New York move into the grand Tweed Courthouse next to City Hall, which would have moved the museum to a more transit-accessible location than its current home on upper Fifth Avenue. Bloomberg insisted that the building should house a charter school to demonstrate his commitment to education. When the building was determined to be unsuitable for a school, he installed the Department of Education there.
One of the classic traits of the urban autocrat is a hostile attitude toward the press. Giuliani’s administration was infamous for its secretive nature and aggressive behavior toward reporters; Bloomberg, too, has done an impressive job of bullying reporters. In May, Bloomberg interrupted a perfectly legitimate question from a reporter from The New York Observer, dismissing it as “unserious,” and called him “a disgrace.” (The reporter, Azi Paybarah, had the audacity to ask whether Bloomberg’s optimistic assessment of New York’s economic outlook that day undercut his contention that he needed a third term to see the city through economic turmoil.) Meanwhile Bloomberg has begun to bully reporters who cross him in even the most minor of ways. In April, Michael A. Harris, a disabled reporter, was unable to turn off his tape recorder that started playing during a press conference because he could not reach it from his wheelchair. Bloomberg glowered at Harris and sighed loudly, saying, “Can we just stop this, and maybe we’ll start again?”
Jackson concedes that Bloomberg “seems to have a shorter fuse” of late. But one person’s autocrat is another person’s effective administrator. “Koch and Bloomberg are take-charge, type-A personalities,” says Jackson, who regards both as successful mayors. “If you don’t have that personality, you don’t become mayor of New York City. You have to be autocratic because you have to be self-confident, strike back.”
While Bloomberg has an imperious side, he also has a conciliatory one. Koch credits Bloomberg with healing the racial tension that roiled the city during Giuliani’s tenure by reaching out to black leaders such as Al Sharpton. Bloomberg’s sensitivity toward victims who suffered violence at the hands of police has also played a role. “There are incidents where we are responsible for loss of life,” says the NYPD’s Browne. “The mayor is the first to be at the home of the aggrieved party. He has built a reservoir of good will. That allows the police to do their job effectively.” Certainly crime, which has continued its remarkable decline under Bloomberg’s tenure, is one area where the mayor seems to have struck a balance between Jackson’s model of strong leadership and community sensitivity — something Giuliani, who was famous for siding with the police in any instance of brutality, failed to do.
Third Time, No Harm?
Third-term doldrums is such a well-known phenomenon that Bloomberg’s likely Democratic opponent, city comptroller Bill Thompson has cited it. Even Bloomberg’s spokesman Howard Wolfson admitted to The New York Observer that “everyone is aware of the possibility of a third-term malaise.” That’s because the problem is by no means limited to New York: Chicago’s legendary Richard J. Daley had an impressive record of infrastructure and economic development in his early terms, but he’s best remembered for his heavy-handed response to rioting in 1968. The case for term limits is also bolstered by the example of mayors such as Sharpe James in Newark, N.J., and Marion Barry in Washington, D.C., who came to City Hall with reformist credentials but became complacent and corrupt over time. Also, there is recent history in the New York state government, where three-term governors Mario Cuomo and George Pataki saw their approval ratings sink during their third terms as budget deficits, perennial gridlock in Albany and other intractable problems dragged them down. Examples of long-serving mayors with enduring popularity, such as Thomas Menino of Boston, do exist, but history is not on Bloomberg’s side.
If Bloomberg retired tomorrow he would go down in history as one of New York’s best mayors. Whatever his flaws, it is impossible to deny that he equipped the NYPD to combat street crime and terrorism, began a long overdue process of greening the city, successfully navigated economic anxiety in the wake of 9/11 and made an unflagging effort to improve New York’s public schools. But will Bloomberg, after he presumably serves a third term, instead suffer the fate of so many other assertive mayors who overstayed their welcome?
Even Bloomberg’s fans think the risk is real. “Maybe [mayoral autocracy] gets more tiresome,” concedes Jackson. “We think it’s cute the first time because they’re fighting the bad guys, but by the third term you’ve insulted everybody.”
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.