According to recent polls, a surprisingly large majority of city residents see Mayor Michael Bloomberg as an aloof dilettante who cares more about the perils of secondhand smoke than he does about the economic plight of ordinary New Yorkers.
But even as that view congeals in the minds of potential voters, a small but influential minority of New Yorkers has come to see Mr. Bloomberg in far more flattering terms. This group is best described as the Manhattan-based social, cultural, opinion and business elite; it includes the members of the boards of the city’s good-government groups and cultural institutions, civic-minded business executives, former City Hall officials and other members of the city’s permanent government, well-heeled philanthropists and members of The New York Times editorial board.
These are the New Yorkers who like Mr. Bloomberg. In their view, he is, in many ways, a dream Mayor: He’s a meritocrat, promotes the idea of good government, and keeps the city’s political and racial temperature at a comfortable 98.6 degrees. These people have great difficulty fathoming the dislike of Mr. Bloomberg that seethes among New Yorkers outside their circles.
“I’m confused by the Mayor’s low approval ratings, given that he’s trying to provide leadership in a very difficult fiscal environment,” said Karen Brooks Hopkins, the president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Ms. Hopkins, who is also the head of the Cultural Institutions Group, which represents dozens of cultural organizations throughout the city, continued: “Even though I’m deeply concerned about the level of cuts to our budgets, I like him. He’s honest, forthright and generous. I’m baffled by the polls.”
Linda Stone Davidoff, the executive director of Citizens Union, a century-old civic group, said of Mr. Bloomberg: “He respects the notion that government is not the enemy-it is a powerful, critically important institution that can play a good role if it is well managed …. He doesn’t make enemies; he just looks for solutions.”
These views are hardly widespread. Mr. Bloomberg has a dismal standing in the polls-a recent New York Times survey found that only 24 percent of respondents approve of the job he’s doing-which can be attributed to the Mayor’s tax hikes, service cuts and expensive ticketing policies. Polls have also found that middle-class and outer-borough New Yorkers believe that the billionaire Mayor, who has offered few words of sympathy to those coping with his harsh fiscal remedies, is indifferent to their plight.
This has confounded Mr. Bloomberg’s advocates, who believe that the Mayor isn’t getting credit for his big-picture attributes and long-term policy victories. That sentiment was captured by a Times editorial in May lauding him for securing billions of dollars in state aid for the city.
“Now he has won help from lawmakers in Albany to close the city’s $3.8 billion budget shortfall,” the editorial read. “It was an amazing feat, accomplished with Mr. Bloomberg’s trademark cool reserve and unflagging confidence. The cheers from New Yorkers are deafening. No, wait. That’s whining you hear-over higher taxes and fees, layoffs, increased transit fares, rising rents and even the slow start by the Mets. The city feels pain and, fair or not, Mr. Bloomberg looks like the dentist holding the drill.”
Mirroring the divergent perceptions of Mr. Bloomberg, the tabloids have mercilessly hounded the Mayor. The New York Post has played Mr. Hyde to The Times’ Dr. Jekyll, caricaturing the Mayor as a spineless, out-of-touch dandy. And the Daily News has mounted a front-page crusade against City Hall’s “ticket blitz.”
Of course, this is hardly the first time that New Yorkers have been so clearly divided over their opinion of their Mayor. Sometimes the split has been along racial lines: White New Yorkers, particularly those from the outer boroughs, saw Rudolph Giuliani as a historical figure whose mission was to restore order to a city roiled by crime, chaos and demographic change; black voters, meanwhile, regarded him as indifferent to their concerns. David Dinkins enjoyed the unwavering loyalty of minority voters, but was despised by many white voters (with the exception of Manhattan liberals), who saw him as a weak and befuddled leader who allowed the city to spiral out of control.
At other times, the division has been roughly along class lines. John Lindsay, a blue-blooded idealist who traveled in exclusive social circles, was loved by well-heeled Manhattan liberals but despised by outer-borough whites.
The split for Mr. Bloomberg isn’t racial; the recent Times poll showed that the Mayor’s unpopularity knows no racial or ethnic bounds. Nor is it strictly class-based. Mr. Bloomberg’s support appears to come from elites who have two attributes in common: First, they’re financially secure, and so can handle increases in property taxes and fees; and second, they’re well-informed about the inner workings of government.
“I have never seen such a Grand Canyon between an official being liked by the business, social, editorial and good-government elites and being loathed by voters,” said Mark Green, who lost a closely contested general election to Mr. Bloomberg in 2001. “Because the Mayor is inarguably smart, well-educated and comfortable in high-echelon venues, he’s very popular with these elites-but at the same time, he’s comparably unpopular in working-class communities outside Manhattan.”
Many elite New Yorkers have embraced Mr. Bloomberg because he has addressed a number of long-term civic concerns that mean nothing to the great majority of New Yorkers, but mean a great deal to members of the city’s permanent government and its civic and cultural leaders.
For instance, Mr. Bloomberg has frequently, and unequivocally, voiced support for the idea that government is a force for good in people’s lives. This was a godsend to many good-government liberals who had grown exhausted by Mr. Giuliani’s habit of slamming various government programs. Mr. Bloomberg has also delighted them by defending higher taxes as a means of maintaining government services.
Even before taking office, Mr. Bloomberg-a political outsider-showed his appreciation for the city’s governing classes by enlisting Nat Leventhal, a long-time city official and the former chairman of Lincoln Center, as director of his transition team. Good-government groups were impressed, seeing the appointment as a sign of Mr. Bloomberg’s commitment to quality government.
“He’s a pro-government Mayor,” said Harvey Robins, a former adviser to both Mr. Dinkins and Mr. Koch. “He has articulated a vision of government that appreciates service delivery.”
Mr. Bloomberg has also addressed many of the perennial preoccupations of the city’s civic and cultural elites. He has taken on such unglamorous but necessary tasks as winning Mayoral control of the schools, developing Governors Island and building a water-filtration plant in the Bronx. He has also kept crime down while reducing racial tensions.
In another largely overlooked initiative, Mr. Bloomberg has essentially stopped handing out tax incentives to corporations that threaten to leave the city. This move, a major break with his predecessor’s policy, was tremendously important for the handful of good-government advocates who have argued that these incentives were nothing more than a form of high-tech bribery.
Whatever good will Mr. Bloomberg has engendered in these circles is enhanced by the fact that he is, after all, one of them. He was a regular at the opera with Beverly Sills and has given huge amounts of money to the city’s cultural institutions; his daughter’s names grace the Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Arms in Armor Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And he still retains extensive ties to the business community.
Alair Townsend, the publisher of Crain’s New York Business and a former deputy mayor under Ed Koch, observed that many of the business, cultural and philanthropic leaders who mixed with Mr. Bloomberg in the past are bound to be less accepting of his depiction as a clueless rich guy. “They know him from his prior incarnation, and they don’t think he’s as insensitive as he sometimes appears,” she said.
Mr. Bloomberg’s support in these rarefied redoubts, however, may be small consolation as he prepares to seek re-election in two years. As Mr. Green, who made his name as a good-government activist before running for Mayor, put it: “It’s important for a Mayor to be respected by and supported by established leaders of the social, business, editorial and good-government communities. But they are certainly not a voting bloc.”