Bloomberg’s Big Week: Next Mayor Broken In To Triumph, Disaster

It had been nearly a week into his transition from media mogul to

Mayor-elect, and Michael Bloomberg hadn’t missed a step. Still a newcomer to

the fractious world of New York politics, the Republican convert showed no

small amount of agility in reaching out to embittered Democrats, from Bronx

Borough President Fernando Ferrer to hospital-union chief Dennis Rivera to the

heart of the city’s non-uniformed work force, District Council 37 of the public

employees’ union. He had a morning-after telephone call with former Mayor David

Dinkins, who talked to him about the city’s perilous finances and race

relations. Mr. Bloomberg managed to get a photo op with the Reverend Al

Sharpton that struck a balance between an outright embrace and professional

courtesy. He showed his appreciation for the guardians of the civic culture in

choosing Nat Leventhal, a former aide to John Lindsay and Ed Koch, to head his

transition team.

On the morning of Nov. 12, he was about to unveil his choice for

police commissioner, the popular Ray Kelly, when he was reminded of the

daunting assignment awaiting him. A jetliner went down in the Rockaways, and

the assumption was that New York once again was under attack. That assumption

was probably wrong-investigators say the crash of American Airlines Flight 587

to Santo Domingo very likely was a catastrophic accident, not an act of

terrorism-but for several hours on a brilliant Monday morning, New York reacted

like a city under siege. Bridges, tunnels and airports were closed; the United

Nations was sealed off; the Empire State Building was evacuated. And Mr.

Bloomberg assumed the role of wartime Mayor-in-waiting in a city still on edge

after Sept. 11, still fearful that its suffering may have just begun.

The Mayor-elect was at a breakfast meeting with African-American

leaders in the Alliance Capital building on Sixth Avenue when aides told him

about the plane disaster in Queens. He was taken by car to his corporate

headquarters on East 57th Street, where he had a meeting with Assembly Speaker

Sheldon Silver. Then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called. Mr. Bloomberg asked Mr.

Giuliani what he could do to help, and the Mayor told the Mayor-elect to go to

the disaster-relief center at the Ramada Inn near John F. Kennedy International

Airport in Queens.

It was Mr. Bloomberg’s introduction to the kind of crisis

management he rarely faced in the private sector. By 3 p.m., this once and

future staple of Manhattan night life was doing his best to console relatives

and friends of those on board the doomed flight. Many were Dominican

immigrants, and Mr. Bloomberg offered his condolences in Spanish. He had an

interpreter by his side to help with the more complex conversations with

grieving relatives. Several hours later, he was at a press conference at the

Dominican Sports Club in Washington Heights with his new colleagues-Governor

George Pataki, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer and several Dominican community

leaders.

Though he often seemed awkward and utterly lacking in the common

touch on the campaign trail, Mr. Bloomberg, at this awful moment, sounded

several grace notes in his brief remarks. “All eight million people in this

city grieve with you, and all eight million people promise that we will not

forget you,” he said. “These were our friends. Do not forget them.” After the

press dispersed, the Mayor-elect went to a prayer vigil in Washington Heights.

“You have memories,” he told the stricken audience. “Unfortunately, that’s what

God leaves us with; that’s also what we are so lucky to have. All one can say

to those left behind is: Lo siento mucho ,”

he said, using the Spanish phrase for “I’m very sorry.” He has been studying

the language since he launched his improbable campaign.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11,

Mr. Bloomberg calibrated his campaign to emphasize the need to rebuild-a job,

he was happy to say, which he was qualified for because of his business

background. Unmentioned, however, was another aspect of the job, one that was

particularly important on and just after Sept. 11: the role of the Mayor as the

city’s comforter, its public face during moments of intense grief and, these

days, frightening uncertainty. It was Mayor Giuliani’s performance in this role

that earned him the popularity that he was able to transfer to Mr. Bloomberg in

the campaign’s final days.

“It was a real learning experience in the sense that we have all

watched these things from the outside, and this was a chance to see it from the

inside,” said Bloomberg spokesman William Cunningham.

The Transition Begins

It was a sign of how we live today that by the morning of Nov.

13, when Mr. Bloomberg finally announced that Mr. Kelly will be his police

commissioner, New York took some small comfort in the knowledge that Flight 587

was probably not another terrorist atrocity, that it was “just” the latest in

an unusual string of air disasters that have befallen flights out of the city.

(During his two terms as Mayor, Mr. Giuliani has been summoned to J.F.K. four

times to help deal with catastrophes: Flight 587 on Nov. 12, Egypt Air Flight

990 in 1999, Swiss Air Flight 111 in 1998, and T.W.A. Flight 800 in 1996.) That

knowledge gave an air of normalcy-or at least something approaching it-to the

Mayor-elect’s news conference with Mr. Kelly.

Gone for the moment was the sensitivity he displayed the night

before. In presenting his new police commissioner, Mr. Bloomberg took care to

note that he had talked to “all three [current and former] Mayors of New York …

and all three thought it was a masterful stroke to appoint Ray Kelly as police

commissioner.” This self-congratulation was in keeping with the Mike Bloomberg

who said during the campaign that he probably had more experience dealing with

foreign governments than any other political figure on the planet. And it

signaled to the political classes that perhaps it was all right to get back to

the business of assessing the new man in town and his fledgling plans for the

next four years.

For example, some insiders say that Giuliani administration

officials are worried that Mr. Bloomberg, who ran with Mr. Giuliani’s support,

won’t be needing them after all, despite all the pre-election talk about

stability and continuity. That anxiety wasn’t eased when Mr. Bloomberg said

after Election Day that he figured Mr. Giuliani’s support accounted for only

about “three points” in the polls. “The rumor was that anyone who wanted to

stay at City Hall for a year could,” said a former Giuliani administration

official. “Now it seems like it’s open season, because the transition office is

soliciting résumés from all over the place.”

How much Mr. Bloomberg will rely on talent “from all over the

place” remains to be seen. His choice of Mr. Leventhal to head the transition

team signaled to insiders that this new Mayor, who prides himself on not being

a politician, at least appreciates those who practice the art of politics. “I

don’t think Bloomberg could have picked a better or more knowledgable guy to do

this transition than Nat Leventhal,” said Martin Begun, a Liberal Party

activist, lobbyist and veteran of New York’s political wars. “I’m pretty impressed-Bloomberg

is going for people of talent and commitment, and he seems completely

uninterested in party affiliation.”

Fred Siegel, a professor of history at Cooper Union and a senior

fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, was not nearly as sanguine. “The

new Mayor knows less about the city than any Mayor we’ve elected for at least a

century,” he said. “Not only is he facing a steep recession and fading

prospects for additional federal funds, but also ongoing fears.”

And those fears, as was evident on the morning of Nov. 12, are

part of Mr. Bloomberg’s inheritance as this political novice prepares to lead

the city during a time like no other.

-Additional reporting by

Greg Sargent