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
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
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
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