Mayor Mike Needs One Crisp Story

Michael Bloomberg is a Mayor in search of a narrative.

In the year that has passed since he took office, Mr. Bloomberg has managed, against very long odds, to gain direct control of the schools, ban smoking in bars and restaurants, unveil an ambitious plan to redevelop lower Manhattan and maintain the city’s reductionin crime. He has scrapped the idea of the imperial Mayoralty-the notion that only an overbearing personality can effectively govern New York-and installed an administration that, in word if not always in deed, avoids conflict and places a premium on respect for one’s fellow pols.

But despite these successes, some of Mr. Bloomberg’s senior advisers are not happy. That’s because the Mayor has yet to articulate an overarching theme, a strong plot line, that should be driving and defining his Mayoralty. In short, Mr. Bloomberg needs a story.

This is a matter of great concern for some of Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers. As they take stock of the past year and look forward to the next one, some Bloomberg aides are privately saying that the administration has failed to script a clear, all-encompassing story line. They’re worried that the city’s fiscal crisis will, by default, become the story of the Bloomberg Mayoralty-a dreary tale of service cuts and tax increases whose central character is a leader forever ladling fiscal castor oil into the mouth of the electorate. That image was best summed up in a recent front-page headline in the New York Post : “GLOOMBERG.”

“You need to find a narrative that will get him through difficult times and help him weather two years of budget cuts,” one senior aide to Mr. Bloomberg told The Observer . “How can you stitch together his vision for New York? Will it be a big-enough picture that people will really stick with him?”

A strong plot line is an essential ingredient of any successful Mayoralty. Rudolph Giuliani’s self-assigned mission was to restore confidence among middle-class New Yorkers who felt alienated by the city’s changing demographics, high crime and civic breakdown. Ed Koch’s tenure was about restoring growth, about taking the city from the bankruptcy of the Abe Beame years into the Wall Street and real-estate explosions of the 1980′s. Fiorello La Guardia used pluck, charm and his favorite-son status with President Franklin Roosevelt to lift the city out of a financial and psychological depression.

These Mayors were able to sell the public on controversial initiatives because they conveyed a sense that their programs were part of a broad movement from point A to point B. The electorate knew where these Mayors wanted to go and how they intended to get there.

“A strong narrative enables a Mayor to mobilize support behind initiatives that might be met by opposition from special-interest groups,” said Fred Siegel, a Cooper Union professor and senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. “New York is a honeycomb of these groups. Without a strong narrative, there’s no way to break through the city’s gridlock.”

So what’s your story, Mr. Mayor?

Mr. Bloomberg, a billionaire-turned-Mayor who is impatient with the conventions of politics, doesn’t have one yet. At times, his overarching goal seems to be to prove that a Mayor can govern while avoiding conflict at all costs. At other times, he seems to come across as a Mayor who simply wants to keep the city’s house of cards from collapsing until the fiscal winds die down. Then there are moments when his overriding objective appears to be to introduce a customer-service ethic into City Hall-as when he brings a startling amount of passion to his discussions of the city’s new 311 telephone information system.

Still, Mr. Bloomberg can’t be pigeonholed merely as a “C.E.O. of City Hall,” as the journalistic shorthand has it. He has his pet crusades, and some of them have a strong moral component, such as his takeover of the Board of Education or his anti-smoking crusade. And yet, these initiatives don’t give us a clue to his broader ambitions for the city. There seems to be a somewhat random quality to them; there’s nothing to draw them together.

“We don’t have any sense of how his Mayoralty will be characterized in a Ric Burns documentary 30 years from now,” said City Council member Eric Gioia of Queens. “In his second year, he has to do a gut check and say, ‘Who am I? What will I fight for? What am I about?’”

Who Needs Narrative?

William Cunningham, Mr. Bloomberg’s director of communications, dismissed the idea that that the Mayor could be compromised by the lack of an overarching story line.

“If we spent time worrying about the narrative-whatever that is-we wouldn’t be doing our jobs, which are to make sure the city’s strong and to make sure the budget is balanced,” he said. “If we all work hard, and if the Mayor accomplishes everything he sets out to achieve, then the politics will take care of itself.”

Mr. Cunningham added that the Mayor will be defined by his performance in the fiscal crisis and predicted that he’d be seen as a Hugh Carey–like leader, bravely steering the city through the fiscal tempests of the next two years.

“If you put off the city’s problems and pray for sunshine, the public will see through that, and they will not reward you,” said Mr. Cunningham, who worked for Mr. Carey in the 1970′s. “Hugh Carey got re-elected after imposing strict financial regulations on the city and after cutting jobs at an astronomical rate.”

There’s no quibbling with Mr. Bloomberg’s successes. The Mayor won control of the schools with barely a whimper of protest. He ignored months of ceaseless lampooning of his smoking ban, and the City Council finally gave him his way. He didn’t buckle when the conservative press launched an all-out assault on his decision to raise taxes; rather than parrot anti-tax orthodoxy the way his predecessor did, he instead made the controversial (these days, anyway) argument that services like trash collection and police protection are essential to the city’s quality of life. He has won praise from the city’s work force for constantly stressing their importance–a stark departure from eight years of attacks by Mr. Giuliani.

But, as Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers well know, these gains may not be enough to help him punch through the cutting-and-taxing narrative. So they’re rolling out a number of new initiatives, large and small. Last month, Mr. Bloomberg broadened his anti-noise crackdown to the outer boroughs. Several days ago, he unveiled an ambitious plan to redevelop lower Manhattan. And on Dec. 17, he outlined an array of public-safety and quality-of-life accomplishments, part of a year-end publicity barrage designed to portray the administration as tough on crime.

Yet the question remains whether these ideas will gel into a broad, resonant and defining vision in time for next year, when service cuts and the possibility of more tax hikes are up for discussion again. The Mayor already is under assault in the New York Post and on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which are trying to define him-before he defines himself-as a soft-headed politician who lacks Mr. Giuliani’s authoritarian streak. (This, of course, is meant as a negative.) Conservative commentators have trashed him as everything from Dinkins redux to a Lindsay-without-the-charm dilettante who obsesses about secondhand smoke while the city is tanking all around him.

If and when these mudballs start sticking, Mr. Bloomberg-a billionaire political neophyte-may find himself with no traditional political base to turn to for support. Indeed, some supporters worry that this lack of a base led to his surprisingly poor showing in a Quinnipiac College poll taken last month, just when the first round of taxes and service cuts were under discussion.

“The question is, will his broad sense of the city enable him to build political support that will stay with him?” one aide asked.

In the end, it’s a strong story line that enables a Mayor to do just that. David Dinkins’ story-the first black Mayor comes in to heal searing racial divisions-earned him unwavering loyalty from blacks and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Latinos, at a time when everyone else abandoned him. Mr. Giuliani’s narrative-his ongoing war on urban disorder-enabled him to nurture a long-term relationship with outer-borough Catholics and Jews. He told New Yorkers that they had a right to be safe, and he said it again and again and again, until he seemed to morph into a walking embodiment of the idea. The result was that just about all his initiatives, no matter how unsightly-from restrictions on pedestrians to crackdowns on illegal ferrets-seemed to serve a grand narrative.

“Everything Rudy did made sense as part of the larger story he was telling,” said Democratic political consultant Richard Schrader. “That story resonated so strongly with half the city voters that it gave him a bedrock of support that wouldn’t have softened if he had walked out of City Hall wearing a toga. Without a strong story, Bloomberg won’t be able to achieve that level of voter loyalty.”