Only a year ago, few New York Democrats would have relished the thought of challenging Michael Bloomberg in the 2005 Mayoral election.
Although he was elected by the slimmest margin in city history, Mr. Bloomberg seemed to have hit upon a winning formula, garnering extensive praise as a post-partisan Mayor who got the city’s business done with little fuss. He used his ample wealth to win allies from both parties. And his aides let it be known that he was prepared to spend $100 million on his re-election.
But now, with Mr. Bloomberg sinking in the polls and the city very much mired in a fiscal crisis, Democrats are openly discussing the Mayor’s weaknesses as a candidate for reelection. And they have begun to test the arguments they hope will lead to the Mayor’s defeat in two years.
“Bloomberg will be enormously vulnerable in 2005 if the economy doesn’t turn around in a dramatic way and reflect itself in improving city finances,” Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president, told The Observer in his first extensive interview about Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure and about the 2005 Mayoral race.
Mr. Ferrer, who finished a surprising first in the Democratic Mayoral primary in 2001 and then lost a bitter runoff to Mark Green, continued: “Bloomberg will be vulnerable if he doesn’t figure out how to be a more vocal advocate for the city with his Republican counterparts in Albany and Washington.”
Mr. Ferrer, who said he’s considering another run, is widely regarded as one of the best-positioned Democrats to take on Mr. Bloomberg. He is being urged to do so by some of the same Democratic power brokers who backed him the last time, including former Bronx Democratic Party chairman Roberto Ramirez. In an interview, Mr. Ramirez said that Mr. Bloomberg was “unelectable” and described him as “a king without a country.”
In the view of some Democrats, Mr. Bloomberg is suddenly vulnerable for a host of reasons. It isn’t just the dreary cycle of recent events-tax hikes and service cuts-that is likely to be repeated next year, and perhaps even in 2005. Mr. Bloomberg’s fundamental flaw, these Democrats say, is his open disdain for the idea that a Mayor should give voice to the emotional needs and moods of the electorate.
For one thing, they say, he has failed to engage in a sustained dialogue with core outer-borough supporters who carried him to City Hall, leaving him without a reliable-and loyal-base of voters. For another, he has sidestepped several potentially high-profile fights: He declined to take on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority over recent fare hikes and its dubious bookkeeping, and has yet to take on Governor Pataki, whose fiscal policies-had they not been foiled by the Legislature-would have left the Mayor with little choice but to implement his so-called doomsday budget.
This low-key style has endeared him to the Manhattan-based good-government groups, opinion-makers and the boards of the big cultural institutions. But it has provoked a backlash among ordinary New Yorkers who expect their Mayor to throw his weight around a bit on their behalf. More important, the Mayor’s style has also handed the Democrats a huge opportunity: a chance to fill a vacuum of sorts by addressing the restlessness, discontent and even anger that many New Yorkers feel as they’re pinched by rising taxes and fees.
“At this moment in time, there’s an opening for a candidacy that says: ‘Look, there are too many people who are being priced out of their town,’” Mr. Ferrer said. “There’s an opening for a candidacy that says: ‘I will not tolerate an M.T.A. process that basically misleads people. I will not tolerate a Governor who has misled people about the financial condition of this state and now refuses to help.’ You must know how to manage, but it’s not only that. It’s understanding that running the city isn’t moving beans from one pile to another. It’s saying: ‘This is what I believe in.’”
Mr. Ferrer, who said that he wanted Mr. Bloomberg to succeed for the good of the city, also said that the Mayor had offered only passive resistance as his onetime ally, Mr. Pataki, abandoned him during budget negotiations.
“He got rolled by the Governor,” Mr. Ferrer said. “If I were the Mayor, I’d be very angry. I’d be feeling very embarrassed- very embarrassed that he took advantage of me, that he took advantage of my good will, that he will continue to try to take advantage of my being a partisan Republican to take advantage of the people I represent. I’d be angry about that; I’d be publicly angry about that.”
Mr. Ferrer further said that Mr. Bloomberg’s approach to Albany had been a “failure” and rife with “tactical errors,” adding it was “extraordinary” that the Mayor had tried to present the budget deal reached in Albany as a victory for City Hall. The State Legislature’s deal for a $2.7 billion aid package to the city didn’t include the commuter tax long sought by Mr. Bloomberg, relying instead on taxes that will target city residents.
“To say this was a win,” Mr. Ferrer said, is “a breathtaking attempt to alter reality.”
William Cunningham, the Mayor’s director of communications, dismissed Mr. Ferrer’s predictions of Mayoral vulnerability. “That’s just Freddy’s litany of ‘ifs,’” Mr. Cunningham said. “The public will reward the Mayor for having the guts for not only making decisions, but sticking by them.”
In addition to Mr. Ferrer, other Democrats considering a run for Mayor in 2005 include City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, City Comptroller William Thompson, labor leader and State Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin, and Congressman Anthony Wiener of Brooklyn.
For all the chest-thumping among Democrats, Mr. Bloomberg is still likely to be a formidable opponent in 2005. His $100 million self-financed campaign treasury insures that the tiniest gaffe committed by a Democratic opponent could be the subject of a TV ad that will be aired virtually nonstop in the weeks leading up to the election. If the city’s finances pick up, he will be able to portray himself as a Hugh Carey–like figure who bravely steered the city through roiling fiscal waters even as his constituents threatened mutiny. And if the polls are to be believed, New Yorkers still think of Mr. Bloomberg as an honest, hard-working chief executive.
“If the public is giving you high marks for honesty, intelligence, integrity, hard work and fighting crime, that’s a good place to start from when seeking re-election,” Mr. Cunningham said.
Meanwhile, many potential challengers have problems of their own. Mr. Ferrer has yet to raise any money and may still be associated with Al Sharpton, one of his most prominent supporters in 2001, as well as his divisive “two cities” Mayoral campaign. Mr. Miller is embroiled in a legal battle to prevent term limits from tossing him out of office next year. And Mr. Wiener isn’t well-known outside of his district.
Still, some Democrats have begun to insist that the damage Mr. Bloomberg has inflicted upon himself may prove to be irreparable. “The reason why Mr. Bloomberg is unelectable for a second term is because the average New Yorker understands that Mr. Bloomberg doesn’t get it,” Mr. Ramirez said. “New York City Mayoral elections are about the incumbent being able to secure a strong following among core constituencies. Mr. Bloomberg has failed miserably in this regard.”
“Bloomberg’s not going to get re-elected unless the city is a lot better off in two years,” Mr. Wiener told The Observer . “I hope that it is a lot better off-but even then, I’m not 100 percent sure that he gets re-elected.”
Mr. Wiener, in what sounded like a preview of a populist-style challenge to Mr. Bloomberg, said that the Mayor had failed to adequately persuade voters that he cared about their travails. “If I were him, I would be out there every day, in the neighborhoods, talking about these things-taking my lumps, giving people a chance to vent, giving people a sense that I understood how difficult things are,” he said. “The Mayor sometimes behaves as if it’s beneath him to engage constituents.”
Mr. Cunningham seemed amused by the idea that Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Wiener would be offering the Mayor political advice. “These guys aren’t dealing in substance; they’re dealing in tactics and spin,” he said. “Us taking strategic advice from potential opponents would be like George Bush taking strategic advice from Saddam Hussein. Not going to happen.”
Mr. Bloomberg came to City Hall only months after the 9/11 attack devastated the city. With a reservoir of good will to draw upon, he racked up a string of early victories, such as winning control of the school system and continuing the city’s historic reduction in crime, even as he received favorable stylistic comparisons to his predecessor.
But Mr. Bloomberg, who made $4 billion in boardrooms selling a financial gadget no one thought would ever catch on, has yet to learn to sell himself or his accomplishments when standing at the City Hall lectern. He underestimated the importance of defining himself before the tabloids did it for him. He doesn’t give people a sense that his budget prescriptions have a larger purpose: taking the city into recovery.
Instead, he discusses the city’s financial problems in terms of legalisms. When asked about choices that are having a real impact on real people, his frequent refrain is this: “The law says we have to balance the budget.” He’s right, of course-but do such abstractions mollify the outer-borough homeowner whose property taxes and water rates are soaring even as his garbage pickups are being cut?
“He’s done a good job. He’s taken the sting out of race relations, and the city’s the safest it’s ever been,” said political consultant Richard Schrader, who managed Mr. Green’s 2001 Mayoral campaign. “But in terms of the budget, he’s not giving people a sense of long-term hope. He hasn’t explained: ‘Here’s why we’re doing this now, and here’s where we’re going to be at the end of all this.’ This has given Democrats an opening to reclaim their voice, by arguing that we need a Mayor who reflects the everyday experiences of people.”