Michael Bloomberg: The impossible mayor of the possible




New York’s Michael Bloomberg had riches and a can-do spirit, but after 12 years he had outstayed his welcome, says Jim Dwyer.

THE question was a trap, put to a novice politician who had just been elected mayor and had no government experience.

Would Michael Bloomberg be keeping seasoned hands from the administration of his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, who had been acclaimed after 9/11 as ‘America’s mayor,’ Time magazine’s ‘person of the year,’ and who had tamed New York City?

Bloomberg wouldn’t be keeping any, but he wasn’t about to say that. He praised the Giuliani team. Then, he explained why he needed new faces.

“After you’ve done a job for six or eight years,” Bloomberg said, “you know what can’t be done.”

Bloomberg wanted to take on the impossible, or, at least, the seemingly so. And he did. A man whose public personality came in a plain-brown wrapper presided during an era of radical change and rebirth in New York city, much of it fostered by his administration.

Bloomberg has stayed so long that he and New Yorkers are getting on each other’s nerves: he increasingly peevish and deaf to his critics; they no longer able to grant him any qualities beyond arrogance.

Mayors rarely leave new York office on affectionate terms. In the case of Bloomberg, a relationship that was always fraught — could it have been otherwise with a mayor whose net worth, enormous to begin with, increased every 15 minutes by more than the city’s median, annual household income — has frayed.

Baffling, visionary, obstinate and brilliant, Bloomberg had complications that could be maddeningly hypocritical or endearingly human.

He preached the virtues of dietary sodium restrictions, but sneaked shakes of salt onto slices of pizza. His staff let it be known that Mike Bloomberg had a regular-guy palate for beer and a hot dog; at dinner, with a few commissioners, he confided that he didn’t see why anyone should have to pay more than $300 for a good bottle of wine.

He led the country — indeed, the world — in strong measures to reduce carbon emissions, anticipating that the city’s population would grow by one million in the decade after he left office; meanwhile, he flew everywhere on private jets, the least-carbon-efficient form of transportation on or above the Earth, whether going to spend weekends at his house in Bermuda, or to lecture at a climate-change conference in Copenhagen.

He was not inclined to soaring oratory, so, on his rare forays, the eloquence was indelible. Practically alone among elected officials in the United States, Bloomberg spoke, in 2010, for the right of a Muslim group to open a mosque a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Centre attacks, citing the founding principles of the nation. As he stood on Governors’ Island, with the Statue of Liberty visible over his shoulder, Bloomberg said: “We would be untrue to the best part of ourselves, and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans, if we said no to a mosque in Lower Manhattan.”

Last August, during a news conference in city hall, the same mayor snarled at a judge who had ruled that police searching of the pockets of millions of young black and Latino men was a violation of constitutional rights. The moment lacked even a whisper of the grace that had made his voice so powerful on Governors’ Island.

It would be futile to try squaring those two Bloombergs.

Yet, as he departs city hall, to be replaced by Democrat Bill de Blasio, the full arc of his era is coming into view. Mayors are often spectators, forced to play the hands dealt them by history, the economy, the public, their allies or campaign contributors. As much as any mayor of modern New York, Bloomberg has been a transformative figure, a shaper of his time.

The numbers game

Elected to lead what was the grieving, wounded site of an atrocity, he has departed as mayor of a city where artists have decorated a mighty park with thousands of sheets of saffron, for no reason other than the simple joy of it; where engineers have figured out how to turn sewage gas into electricity; where people are safer from violent crime than at any time in modern history.

Bloomberg is shrewd and has often had good luck, and when that happy combination was in short supply, his vast personal fortune patched things over, doing good deeds, buying allies. He was not conventionally partisan, and was clumsy in dealing with the baroque centres of power in Albany.

The ideology that shaped his goals was, broadly, the allure of large numbers: get enough rich people and companies here, and they will support a government that can keep the city running for everyone else; make policies in public health, education and policing that, when multiplied across eight million people, will create a healthier, smarter, safer city.

The love of big numbers led to great success and, at times, toxic excess.

But Bloomberg has had a knack for avoiding unnecessary political fights, and had little anxiety about trying and failing. At his best, that combination of emotional efficiency and fearless experimentation changed not only the city, but the world. He didn’t want to know what couldn’t be done.

Imagine the deep, drawn breaths of the audience — the gasps — at the finale of a special show held at the Time Warner Center, in Columbus Circle, on Feb 24, 2005.

In an elegant performance hall, 13 honoured guests, delegates from the International Olympic Committee, had been treated to aperitifs and a 40-minute revue that captured the New York of story, song and cinema.

Mayor Bloomberg and his committee had spared nothing in the enchantments, hoping to lure the 2012 Olympics to the city.

Dancers whirled. Meryl Streep charmed. Whoopi Goldberg cracked wise. The trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, pulled rhythm and melody from sky and cellar. A reel of iconic movie clips rendered the city in every shade, from the noir to the gaudy.

Finally, at the back of the stage, a giant curtain began to drop from a three-storey wall of glass, shifting the spectacle to the actual city.

Framed in the giant window was Central Park. Its winter browns were pillowed in snow and swaddled in streaks of the saffron cloth of The Gates, an art installation that was glowing, thanks to lights held by volunteers stationed along miles of winding paths.

Overhead, fireworks spattered rivers of colour in the sky.

The only word for it was breathtaking: what human brain, trying to process such a scene, would not instantly demand more oxygen?

Now, eight years later, all of that evening’s shimmer has been stilled, the last trumpet notes have faded with the embers from the rockets and the pinwheels. The 2012 Olympics went to London, not New York.

That is the way of political administrations: a million struggles and crises and circuses, “an October surprise every month,” as Mayor Ed Koch once said, so many of them vanishing in the wink of a New York minute.

Tucked into that evening was something beyond a fling with the Olympics, which many New Yorkers could not have cared less about. Beyond the overreaching was something far-reaching. In the gasps at the finale, in every breath drawn by the audience, was the invisible substance that could be counted as Bloomberg’s most enduring, radical work: cleaner indoor air.

The room was free of tobacco smoke. Even during cocktails, no one lit up. And not just on that gilded night, in that privileged space at the centre of Manhattan, but in every restaurant, bar and watering hole throughout the five boroughs, since Mar 30, 2003.

Soon after taking office, Bloomberg had met at Gracie Mansion with his first health commissioner, Dr Thomas Frieden, who urged him to push for a complete ban on smoking in places where people work — no exceptions, no special pleadings by hotels or small places, or by private catering halls. A person who spent one minute in a smoky bar, Dr Frieden said, would be exposed to as much pollution as someone who stood in the Holland Tunnel for 60 minutes at rush hour.

Would such a ban save lives, Bloomberg wanted to know?

Yes, Dr Frieden said.

Then, go ahead, the mayor said.

With that, Dr Frieden continued his briefing by mapping the political heat that would be applied by the hospitality industry.

The mayor cut him off.

“He told me, ‘the first rule of business is, once you make a sale — leave’,” Dr Frieden said in Joyce Purnick’s authoritative biography, Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics.

Most dramatically, the New York ban included bars and restaurants, whose trade lobbyists tried to stop it by warning of economic disaster. Commentators jeered about ‘Mommy Mayor’ and the ‘nanny state.’ Bloomberg pushed past the catcalls and got a bill through the city council, which, in addition to the ban, included money for cessation programmes, and steep taxes on cigarettes. The smoking rate for adults declined by a third, and for young people by half.

California, and a few cities and towns in the United States, already had similar restrictions, but they were little-noticed beyond their borders. After New York City took the step, the crusade, started by Mayor Bloomberg and Dr Frieden, crossed the country and then the oceans.

Since New York City passed its law, 500 other cities in the United States, and 35 states, have enacted smoke-free legislation. In March, 2004, a national smoking ban in public places was adopted in Ireland, making it the first country in Europe to have one; anyone who had frequented Irish pubs fogged with smoke might have thought they would be the last places on Earth to stub out cigarettes.

A BREATH OF FRESH AIR

There was more. On the night, in 2005, of the Olympic spectacle, only one of the 10 countries with delegates in the audience had a law that restricted smoking in public places.

Now, nine of those countries do. By the end of 2012, 48 countries had followed New York in adopting smoking bans, protecting 1.2bn people. That works out to about one in seven of all the humans now on Earth: breathtaking and breath-giving.

Not just the air changed. City parkland grew by about 800 acres; 750,000 new trees have been planted, toward a goal of one million, an initiative that took off after the parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, reported that every dollar the city spent on a tree returned $5.50 in savings on heating, cooling and public health.

The transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, added 285 miles of bike lanes and turned over parts of Broadway, near Times Square, to pedestrians.

The waterfront on the East River, in Queens and Brooklyn, rezoned to accommodate the Olympics that never came, grew to absorb a population that increases by the thousands every month.

The No. 7 train line is being extended to 11th Avenue, from Times Square, and then south, to irrigate a new crop of skyscrapers being planted on, and around, train yards. The city alone picked up the bill — unusual for transit projects — and intends to pay for it with the real-estate taxes collected from new development.

Bloomberg committed $4bn, more than all of his predecessors combined, to build the third water tunnel, which was first proposed more than 60 years ago.

Construction had begun in 1970, then dragged on through six mayoral administrations, slowing and stopping when money was tight; his acceleration of the project, however far-sighted, had no political upside — it will not be completed until 2018, but property owners have had to pay steep increases in annual water bills.

Cornell University, with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, is building a new campus for applied sciences on Roosevelt Island; the project was instigated by the Bloomberg administration and became possible when the philanthropist, Charles Feeney, pitched in $350m.

The city cut the number of young people detained for trial in juvenile court by as much as 50%, and reduced, overall, the number of people it sent to jail. Crime went down.

At the same time, public-health doctors increased screenings and treatment at Riker’s Island, a likely vortex of communicable disease.

SMART MOVE?

As one of his first acts, Bloomberg sought, and won, control of the schools, saying it would create accountability. He invested heavily in education: the amount of money spent on schools has doubled since 2001. More students graduated from high school in four years, though that success was not closely tied to how much money was spent in a given school; nor were the additional resources able to close the frustrating gap in test scores between higher-performing, Asian-American and white students and their lower-scoring, black and Hispanic classmates.

The city opened 28 career and technical-education high schools, the first new ones since the 1960s. Teachers were paid more, though the city did not negotiate a new evaluation system when it agreed to the increases, and later got into an ugly fight over it.

However, approval of tenure applications, once all but automatic, dropped to 55%, from 97%.

Mayoral control of the education system meant that a central administration had the power to close schools, corral space for charter programmes, and set rigid rules for assigning students to schools.

Many parents found the new educational bureaucracy hidebound and remote, and looked fondly back at the once-reviled community-board system.

Air, water, ground had changed. So had the tone.

Unlike most elected officials, Bloomberg had ample balm to spread around when the city budget dried up; over nine years, he gave about $200m through the Carnegie Corporation to 600 arts and cultural groups, many of which had been cut adrift from the city budget.

“The grants conveyed an indisputable good to the city’s social and cultural fabric,” the investigative reporter, Tom Robbins, wrote in The New York Post, in June. “But political advantage was equally inescapable.”

The giving doubled in 2005, an election year, and tripled in 2008, when Bloomberg sought the right to run for a third term in office, by undoing a limit of two that had been voted into law by public referendum. He spent more than $110m on his re-election campaign, and barely won.

No mayor finishes all the business that needs to be done. When Bloomberg was toying with a run for president, he kicked liabilities down the road.

In recent times, he has said how important it is for the next mayor to negotiate, from the city unions, concessions on pensions and health benefits — something he talked about at the time, but did not win at the bargaining table. Meanwhile, the city’s public-housing authority, which provides homes or vouchers for more than 600,000 people, has deferred maintenance in thousands of apartments. It needs $6bn in capital financing.

And the durability of the experimental spirit that Bloomberg encouraged remains uncertain, as is the $383m in private donations he raised in support of varied pilot projects: stopping domestic violence, preventing black and Latino young men from falling behind, manufacturing green roofs, getting salads into schools.

The siren song of large numbers led the city to multiply the amount of people that the police stopped and frisked.

But the constitution protects the rights of individuals and does not recognise the laws of large numbers. It requires that the more invasive an action the authorities take against a person, the greater the cause must be.

More than a year ago, Bloomberg himself had, sotto voce, said there would be changes to the police approach. The number of stops declined sharply. A more agile Bloomberg would have avoided a needless fight on behalf of a programme that was already being reformed.

Asked about a judge’s order that the police wear body cameras in five precincts for a year, to document precisely what was happening in the streets, Bloomberg seemed especially angry. A “nightmare,” he said. He insisted the test would fail: a police officer might turn his or her head and the camera would miss the action.

The judge said it would be an experiment, a pilot project for a year, but Bloomberg wasn’t having it. “It is a solution that is not a solution,” he said.

Michael Bloomberg had become the kind of expert that 12 years ago he would not hire for his government: someone who knew “what can’t be done.”

(c) New York Times 2013


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