During the opening act of his administration, Michael Bloomberg
has gone out of his way to play the role of self-deprecating Mayor,
sidestepping political fights, declining to flaunt his power and conspicuously
sharing the stage with key advisors. He has made himself accessible to everyone
in City Hall, treating them as if they were the happy employees pictured in
glossy Bloomberg L.P. brochures. Once, when he encountered a reporter on the
oval stairs in the City Hall lobby, he remarked: “Seriously-don’t you have a
coffee machine in Room 9?” (Seriously, there is none.)
This self-effacing approach, his advisers say, reflects Mr.
Bloomberg’s natural reluctance to dominate the stage in the manner of
predecessors like Rudolph Giuliani and Ed Koch, as well as the simple
calculation that this style will earn him favorable comparisons to Mr.
Giuliani, who ran City Hall as if it were an Egyptian temple, with himself in
the role of King Tut.
“You can be strong by yelling and banging the table, or you can
show quiet strength,” David Garth, the veteran political consultant who helped
elect Mr. Koch, Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Bloomberg, said in a recent interview with
The Observer . “Mike is not Rudy or
Koch. On the other hand, he’s also not a softy. He has a kind of built-in
confidence that has already been established in the business world. He’s a very
tough guy. Gary Cooper never raised his voice.”
But only two weeks into his Mayoralty, Mr. Bloomberg’s
conciliatory style is being subjected to its first real test, as political
skirmishes brew on two fronts. First, The
Observer has learned, a behind-the-scenes conflict is taking shape between
advisers to Mr. Bloomberg and aides to Gov. George Pataki over a real-estate
deal on the East Side-a conflict that is the result of the Bloomberg
administration’s willingness to allow aides to talk to the press. And second, a
series of moves Mr. Giuliani carried out in his final days as Mayor are now
coming to the fore, testing Mr. Bloomberg’s ability to wield the formidable
power of the City Hall pulpit, which seems utterly foreign to his laid-back
The potential fight with Pataki advisers concerns a deal,
negotiated by Mr. Giuliani and supported by the Pataki Administration in which
the city-run United Nations Development Corporation, a public corporation that
facilitates development in the U.N.’s neighborhood, would sell off property to
a private developer. Aides to Mr. Bloomberg, who will have the final say, have
prematurely signaled to the press that the Mayor may block the deal,
infuriating members of the Pataki administration.
Then there’s the looming conflict with Mr. Giuliani. In the final
days of his Mayoralty, he signed tentative deals with the Mets and Yankees for
new stadiums. More recently, it was revealed that he amended the city’s leases
with the teams to give them added leverage over the new Mayor. On Jan. 15, Mr.
Bloomberg conceded that he didn’t know about his predecessor’s 11th-hour
maneuver-then dismissed the whole matter as if it were merely a polite
boardroom misunderstanding, rather than the municipal equivalent of a slap in
the face with a white glove.
“I think in all fairness to Mayor Giuliani, the basic terms of
what he agreed to were described to me with exception of those two things,
which I don’t view really as substantive in the grand scheme of things,” Mr.
Bloomberg said on Jan. 15.
Given Mr. Giuliani’s willingness to insert legal booby traps for
his successor into the stadium deals, and given the importance Mr. Giuliani
places on them, it seems like a matter of time until the former Mayor attacks
the current Mayor over the volatile issue. That seemingly inevitable scenario
has begun to preoccupy City Hall insiders. They are wondering whether Mr.
Bloomberg’s rejection of the idea of the imperial Mayoralty may diminish the
power of his Mayoralty, or worse, leave him incapable of withstanding the
crucible of sustained political combat, particularly with an overwhelming
personality like Mr. Giuliani.
“New Yorkers judge their elected officials by the force of the
persona they project through the media-not through the force of their
arguments,” said one seasoned Republican operative. “Bloomberg is used to
playing out business scenarios in the boardroom. He’s not used to playing out
political scenarios in the media.”
In a more immediate sense, Mr. Bloomberg and his advisers are
finding that their freewheeling ways can produce unexpected backstage
conflicts-in this case, the battle that could develop with the Pataki
administration over the United Nations land deal. It started when former State
Senator Roy Goodman, the new Mayor’s chairman of the U.N. Development
Corporation, told the New York Post
that Mr. Bloomberg might block the deal. The deal would allow the UNDC to sell
off three valuable East Side land parcels to an Israeli company as part of an
effort to get the city out of the development business and bring in new tax
revenues for the city.
Mr. Goodman’s comments, as it happened, angered members of the
Pataki administration, according to an administration official who spoke to The Observer . The source said that,
while it is the Mayor who ultimately signs off on the deal, the Pataki
administration, which has several appointees to UNDC’s board, had a big stake
in its success. The source added that the Pataki administration had been
working on the deal for about seven years, and viewed it as not just good for
the city and state, but also as a potential boon to his re-election campaign.
“Pataki wants to be able to say that he scrapped unnecessary
bureaucracy and got government out of areas that are better-handled by the
private sector,” the official said. “Getting the deal done was part of the
basic mission of Pataki-appointed board members at the UNDC.”
“I don’t think anybody in Albany should get upset, because
Senator Goodman does not set policy,” said William Cunningham, a spokesman for
Mayor Bloomberg. “He’s entitled as he walks into that shop to take a look at
what’s confronting him. But the Mayor will speak for himself and announce what
he wants to announce on that.”
The dispute might have been averted if Mr. Goodman hadn’t felt
free to speak to the press before the Bloomberg administration had reached a
final decision on the deal. According to the Pataki administration official,
Mr. Bloomberg’s budget chief, Marc Shaw, is in favor of the deal, which
suggests that Mr. Goodman’s comments came before anything approaching consensus
had been reached within the administration.
Mike McKeon, a spokesman for the Governor, said, “All I can tell
you is that no one has expressed any concern to me about the [comments] you’re
Meanwhile, there is the question of Mr. Giuliani. Mr. Bloomberg’s
advisers have quietly taken steps to dispel the notion that Mr. Giuliani is
hovering over his successor’s every move. This began almost immediately with
the cosmetic changes to life in City Hall, from the open offices on the second
floor to the fish tanks in City Hall’s West Wing to Mr. Bloomberg’s adoption of
a freer day-to-day tone at City Hall.
On a recent afternoon, for instance, Mr. Bloomberg stood in City
Hall’s Blue Room with board members from the Lower Manhattan Development
Corporation standing behind him in a semicircle. When reporters asked for an
introduction, Mr. Bloomberg had each one step forward and introduce himself,
giving the event the feeling of a college orientation session-a scenario that
would never have happened under his predecessor, who tended to suck up all the
air in the room. After introductions were completed, as reporters kept trying
to get Mr. Bloomberg to speak about the future of Lower Manhattan, he demurred
again and again, instead urging John Whitehead, the commission’s chairman, to
answer questions. Finally, Mr. Whitehead pulled Mr. Bloomberg forward to the
podium, and protested: “This job is temporary!”
“That’s O.K.,” Mr. Bloomberg joked. “So is mine.”
Mr. Bloomberg has also sought to undo a number of high-profile
initiatives that are closely identified with Mr. Giuliani, and he announced
that no new stadiums would be built this year. That move, according to Mr.
Bloomberg’s supporters, was in part designed to dispel the idea that the new
Mayor is merely an extension of the old one.
Ready to Rumble?
“Rudy, who really elected Mike in many ways, has this dream of
two baseball stadiums,” Mr. Garth said, adding that he is not currently advising
Mr. Bloomberg. “But Mike did not go along. You don’t do that with Rudy Giuliani
unless you’re ready to go head to head with him.”
Still, as effective as those measures may have been in staking
out territory for Mr. Bloomberg, now his “quiet strength” approach is finally
being tested in earnest by the developing conflict over the stadium. And sooner
or later, it will be matched against Mr. Giuliani’s brute political force and
his talent for commanding attention in the media. The danger, of course, is that
Mr. Giuliani will somehow contain him just when he is seeking to win the city’s
Mr. Giuliani’s declaration in his final days that the World Trade
Center site should be converted to a memorial can be seen as a coming
attraction of sorts: It’s only a matter of time until the former Mayor becomes
the spokesman for grief-stricken relatives of disaster victims who oppose
development at the site. More recently, he has begun to make his first moves to
establish a public post-Mayoralty presence. He turned up at the State of the
State Address in Albany, prompting one Bloomberg supporter to remark, “What was
he doing there?” And on Jan. 14, he invited a horde of reporters to tour his
new offices, after laying low for all of two weeks.
Most pressing, however, are Mr. Giuliani’s surreptitious efforts
to amend the leases of the Yankees and Mets to give them more leverage over the
city. Mr. Bloomberg’s response to this seeming insult was a disarming one: At a
press conference on Jan. 15 at City Hall, he treated the whole matter as if it
were a momentary misunderstanding, rather than a potential political war with
one of the most muscular politicians in memory.
Peppered with questions from reporters who were eager to see a
forceful display of turf protection, Mr. Bloomberg praised Mr. Giuliani, parsed
the language in the contracts and said he had no doubt that all parties
involved would handle the negotiations in good faith. (Only a Boston Red Sox
fan, it seems, could say such a thing about George Steinbrenner.)
“It’s people working together,” Mr. Bloomberg said of the pending
deals. “We’re not working at cross purposes. Obviously the owners of sports
teams who are at for-profit companies would like to maximize the value of their
teams, and obviously the city would like to get the best economic deal it can.
But … you can do both, and that’s what we will try to do.”
In the end, questions about Mr. Bloomberg’s emerging style are
more than just cosmetic. They go to the heart of how much power he will
ultimately wield. The formula by which a Mayor earns the confidence of the
populace-and the ability to further his agenda-is a complex one, and it often
has to do with the size of his personality and his skill at the pulpit. The
power of the Mayor’s office tends to grow and shrink with the personality of
the person who inhabits it; Abe Beame and David Dinkins, who were not forceful
personalities, saw the power of the office diminish on their watch, while Mr.
Giuliani and Mr. Koch, who used their domineering personalities to bludgeon
through their agendas, took the office’s power to new heights.
Still, people who know Mr. Bloomberg say he is confident, even
serene, about ultimately being seen as a commanding figure by the city’s
fractious and diverse population. Rather than be an imperial Mayor with a grand
personality, they say, he believes that if he focuses on results, they’ll see
him as an effective leader.
“We don’t spend a lot of time wondering about it,” Mr. Cunningham
said. “The Mayor has embarked on his new career of speechifying and consulting.
Who knows what the future holds? What doesn’t kill us will make us stronger.”