When Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office six months ago, the political establishment predicted that this private-sector entrepreneur would quickly find himself lost in a bureaucratic netherworld of union leaders, lobbyists, career government workers, elected officials and screaming Al Sharptons. But Mr. Bloomberg’s opening lap has been marked by a surprising string of successes, and he has encountered nothing to make him revise his rationale for running in the first place-namely, that the application of power in the private sector is, at bottom, no different from the exercise of power in government and politics.
“Journalists always say, ‘Oh, the difference between government and the corporate world is, in the corporate world you say “Jump!” and they jump. If they don’t jump, you fire them,’” Mr. Bloomberg said in an interview with The Observer . “Not in any company I’ve ever seen. In the corporate world, you have to build a constituency; you have to get your suppliers and your customers and all of your staff on board. You can’t go fire people, just walk in and say, ‘You didn’t do what I told you. You’re out.’ That’s not the real world. It is about the same in government. You’ve got to deal with people. You’ve got to build a constituency. And there’s decision-making at the top.”
By refusing to waver from his conviction that City Hall can indeed be run like a business, Mr. Bloomberg, New York’s first Mayor of the 21st century, is changing the way New Yorkers think about municipal power. He is quietly dismantling an old model that held sway in the last century-the idea of the imperial mayoralty. He is replacing it with a new model, one that depoliticizes the office, sees public crusades as counterproductive, refuses to use the City Hall pulpit to create a commanding presence in the media, and eschews short-term political hits in favor of bland, long-term promises of bottom-line success.
Mr. Bloomberg has little patience for the time-honored rituals of politics-such as the inevitable question, posed to him by The Observer , of whether he intends to run again.
“People say, ‘Oh, you can’t say you’re not going to [run], because then you’re a lame duck,’” Mr. Bloomberg said. “And I probably will, I guess, when I get there.”
“The Bloomberg approach is not a formula for building a memorable or mythic political personality,” said Maureen Connelly, a political consultant who worked on Mr. Bloomberg’s Mayoral campaign last year. “His approach is basically looking at the bottom line and saying, ‘If we succeed in what we have to do, the rest will take care of itself.’ Rather than looking in the mirror, he is looking at others and seeing what they can help him accomplish.”
The three most memorable Mayors of the last century-Fiorello La Guardia, Ed Koch and Rudolph Giuliani-were supposed to embody an unshakable truth about politics in New York: Only an outsize, domineering personality, a commanding political presence, could tame the city’s unruly populace.
But Mr. Bloomberg’s young Mayoralty is subjecting that idea to a severe test. He is the antithesis of what New Yorkers have come to expect in a Mayor. He’s erasing partisan politics at City Hall, giving huge amounts of his personal wealth to Republicans in hopes of winning good will for the city, even as he endorses Democrats and moves to revise the City Charter to institute nonpartisan elections. He treats potential political battles like meaningless distractions from the job at hand. He consistently refuses to use a Mayor’s command of the news cycle to frame issues in an aggressive way. He discusses the most controversial issues in the tone a math professor might bring to a calculus problem. And he often acts as if no rhetorical trope is more persuasive than a set of hard numbers. At a town hall meeting in Queens the other day, Mr. Bloomberg defended the police department’s crime fighting success by noting, perhaps wishfully: “You measure that job by the numbers. The numbers-not what people perceive-the numbers.”
Rather than articulate a sweeping vision for the city’s future, Mr. Bloomberg wants to be remembered as the best delegator the city has ever known. Asked by The Observer to describe what he hopes the city will look like after four years of Mayor Bloomberg, he said: “People will look back at the previous four years and say, ‘That’s the best group of commissioners and agency heads anybody’s ever put together.’ That, to me, is my main job. So I hope I’ll do it better than anybody …. People are the main asset any organization has, and you want to empower them. The disadvantage is that they do some things you don’t agree with. And you have to live with that.”
It seems fair to predict that if Mr. Bloomberg maintains this course and has a moderately successful mayoralty, the public won’t tolerate the return of an imperial Mayor, one who sucks up all the oxygen, who constantly wages war on various constituencies and measures success by his collection of political scalps. Indeed, in the interview with The Observer , Mr. Bloomberg noted that he hopes his style of governance will have a lasting impact on how business is done at City Hall. He noted that he could raise the bar on what people expect from their future Mayors in terms of their willingness to share credit and reach out to people across the political spectrum, much as Mr. Giuliani raised expectations on crime.
“If you set a new standard for openness, it would be hard to turn it back,” he said.
The short-term verdict on Mr. Bloomberg’s style is that it appears to be working in practice. For one thing, Mr. Bloomberg has succeeded, at least temporarily, in disarming the permanent chorus of critics that earn their keep by taking shots at the Mayor. While it’s true that Mr. Bloomberg is enjoying the benefits of a political truce that seems to be reigning in post–Sept. 11 New York, the Mayor’s style has unquestionably made it tough on potential critics. He tends to respond to criticism with an extended lecture, insuring that the dispute dissipates in a swarm of numbers and legalisms.
Mr. Bloomberg’s supporters say that this approach, combined with his refusal to engage those who want him to hit back, is a conscious strategy designed to disarm even the most determined antagonist.
“In order to get into a good fight, you have to have someone who will punch back,” said David Garth, the veteran political consultant who worked on his campaign. “He doesn’t do that. He doesn’t give you a target. He takes the time to explain his position, so when you start to rant and rave you look like a fool. In a certain sense, he uses decency as a weapon.”
Of course, as Mr. Bloomberg well knows, his low-key style carries some risks. If disaster strikes in the form of another terrorist attack, the public could crave a larger-than-life presence again, and may refuse to be reassured by Mr. Bloomberg’s business-like method.
Mr. Bloomberg’s intriguing approach-and its potential limitations-were on display at the recent town hall meeting in Queens. Although residents gave him a standing ovation, they grew restive as they peppered him with questions about a new neighborhood shelter. He responded again and again with numbers and legalisms, and was visibly annoyed by the crowd’s refusal to grasp the city’s legal predicament. Didn’t they understand, he said, irritated, that a federal judge had mandated that the city house these homeless people?
He was far more at home when the discussion turned to the most technocratic of subjects-his plan for a 311 system-and as he elaborated on his plans, he grew forceful and enthusiastic.
“Go look in the phone book,” Mr. Bloomberg said, his voice rising. “There are 11 pages of entries under New York City. If you have a fire hydrant that’s leaking and you want to do something about it, I defy you to find the part of city government that can help you …. The job should be the city’s to help you-that’s called customer service!”
String of Successes
Mr. Bloomberg’s recent string of victories can be partly attributed to the new style he’s brought to City Hall. The last month has been marked by three successes: He won control over the schools, he reached a negotiated settlement with the teachers’ union, and he agreed on a budget with the City Council. Mr. Bloomberg’s victory on the schools was largely the result of good timing: The rest of the political establishment had decided that the public wanted immediate action. Still, Mr. Bloomberg was able to seal the deal by keeping his mouth closed-he held his fire when State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s surrogates attacked him for being intransigent-a move that kept other parties from blowing it up. He closed the deal with the teachers the old-fashioned way-with a generous contract-but his refusal to wage a Giuliani-style assault on them unquestionably helped. And while the budget deal was enabled by some shrewd last-minute maneuvering by the Council, Mr. Bloomberg’s odd mixture of intransigence and politesse helped carry the day.
These victories have produced a seemingly unshakable confidence on the Mayor’s part that has led him to promise the impossible-a turned-around school system. He has told New Yorkers again and again to measure his success as a manager against the schools’ performance, and in the interview with The Observer , he laid out specific areas where he hopes to make improvements.
He said: “If I show that in the next four years the education system is getting better-there’s safety in the schools, discipline in the schools, supplies delivered at the beginning of the season, fixed broken windows, we’re able to retain and attract good teachers, and we have a management structure that really works, and reading scores and math scores are starting to go in the right direction-if you could do those things, then it would be hard for anybody to turn it back. If I can’t do it in seven years, you can’t do it.”
One of the reasons Mr. Bloomberg has been able to portray himself as a non-ideological, managerial leader who is exclusively focused on the big picture is the same asset that got him elected in the first place: his huge personal fortune. The fact that Mr. Bloomberg can spend up to $100 million on his reelection without batting an eyelash means he doesn’t have to resort to the traditional tactic of using the city budget, or other policy initiatives, to build a coalition for the next campaign.
“Instead of using taxpayer money to build his coalition as he goes along, he can think of the big picture,” said political consultant Norman Adler. “He doesn’t have to worry about buying people off in the short term if he can pay to communicate his achievements at election time.”
Mr. Bloomberg, for his part, sees his opportunity as unique. His immense personal wealth, he says, is both liberating-a historic opportunity to go where no other Mayor has gone before-and also an obligation to succeed on issues off-limits to other Mayors.
“I see myself as being in a unique position where I’m not beholden to anybody other than the eight million people of New York,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “I’m sympathetic to other elected officials, who are afraid to attack third-rail problems. But I also think it would be a sin if I didn’t go attack them. I’m in a unique position where I can do it.