Tycoon Mike Bosses the City Like His Shop

Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris is the most senior of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s aides to have followed him from Bloomberg L.P. into public life. When she speaks, it is widely assumed, she speaks for the Mayor. And when she berated cultural executives for giving money to one of the Mayor’s rivals, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, as The Observer reported last week, she made the source of the rebukes clear:

“Her message has been, ‘The Mayor’s furious, the Mayor’s outraged,’” said a person familiar with the conversations. Two people who spoke to Ms. Harris backed up that account.

But Mr. Bloomberg’s anger wasn’t a typical politician’s demand for loyalty. It was a tycoon’s tantrum. Before Mr. Bloomberg was a Republican, never mind the party’s nominee for Mayor, he was a patron of the arts. And when Ms. Harris chided arts executives for being “disloyal,” she wasn’t talking about recent government support from City Hall. She was referring to about 10 years and tens of millions of dollars worth of arts patronage from Mr. Bloomberg himself.

Nearly three years after Mr. Bloomberg emerged from the private sector to succeed Rudy Giuliani, New Yorkers still have to strain to see the tycoon behind the Mayor. Ms. Harris’s rebukes-which drew gasps from good government groups-provided the latest vision of the two Michael Bloombergs: the supremely confident self-made billionaire and the sometimes fumbling political neophyte.

Politically, the conversations were a ham-handed exercise that a lawyer who helped draft the City Charter, Gene Russianoff, called “inherently coercive.” Personally, they made perfect sense for a man who gave a thinly veiled “anonymous” contribution of $10 million to several arts organizations on May 25.

Denizens of the arts world, where Mr. Bloomberg was a player long before he controlled the city’s more than $100 million in annual cultural spending, may have the clearest view of something most New Yorkers still don’t understand. More than any Mayor in memory, more even than Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Mr. Bloomberg has a source of confidence, prestige and power entirely apart from his public office. The asymmetry between the tycoon and the public servant sometimes looks like a split personality. He’s a budget-cutter with deep pockets, a monotone public figure and an irascible fighter behind the scenes, a man who hasn’t taken a vacation since he was elected, but who renews his all-seasons tan during mysterious weekend absences.

Mr. Bloomberg has also made it clear that he doesn’t need the job as Mayor. “I always joke that my Plan B is better than the other guy’s Plan A,” he said recently. As he (or his ghostwriter) wrote in his tough-talking 1997 autobiography Bloomberg by Bloomberg , he was assured “a long obituary in The New York Times ” well before he became Mayor. He often appears to have little need for the approval of voters, delivering bad news with a kind of glee at his own capacity for straight talk.

“It’s not just money,” said Charles Millard, a former Republican Council member who is now an investment banker. “If he had been born with four billion dollars, he might need to do things to get public approval. But he built Bloomberg-a hugely innovative, influential and successful business. He’s already done something that in some people’s minds is bigger than being Mayor.”

Mr. Millard said the Mayor’s capacity for straight talk played into “one of the most important traits in a New York Mayor: He does not mind taking the heat.” But others see the Mayor’s “Plan B” as a liability.

“It’s kind of that cocky, a little arrogant thing that ‘I don’t have to worry about it-you all do and I don’t have to,’” said the Public Advocate, Betsy Gotbaum. It’s an attitude, she said, that creates unnecessary enemies. “I don’t see how you can reform the Department of Education unless you get the teachers to come along with you,” she said.

Whatever you may think about the Mayor’s notion that he doesn’t need the job, however, everybody knows it’s true. Indeed, when Mr. Bloomberg announced his campaign, many who knew him from his former life were surprised-not because they thought he couldn’t win, but because they couldn’t imagine why he would want to take the step down to politics.

“I think he’s out of his mind,” said one admirer of his business career, a former partner at Salomon Brothers, where Mr. Bloomberg was one of a handful of partners to be forced out in a merger in 1981. “Who wants to take their holiday weekends and go to a hundred different parades?”

Mr. Bloomberg was pushed out at Salomon in part, some say, because his straight-talking bond trader’s candor sometimes translated into a willingness to upstage more senior partners.

That confidence may be the defining characteristic of Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure, and the clearest indication of his personal wealth and success. But this may not be what New Yorkers had in mind when they elected a “businessman-Mayor.” Mr. Bloomberg campaigned on the notion that the city needed “a professional manager, not a professional politician,” and raised expectations that he would bring a new eye, and perhaps a new cadre of private-sector managers, to the delivery of government services. Instead, most of his deputy mayors and virtually all of his agency chiefs are government veterans, many of them with experience dating back to the Koch administration. These are government professionals, and Mr. Bloomberg steps back to let them manage.

The only exception to the Mayor’s reliance on the city’s permanent governing class came in his introduction of the “311″ telephone number for city services, something the Mayor’s supporters are quick to point to.

“Businesses focus on results-he’s a results-oriented Mayor. He cuts through all the B.S., and he wants to know what all the facts are, all the numbers are,” said his press secretary, Ed Skyler, who added that the 40,000 calls coming into 311 each day provide a valuable indicator of the city’s needs.

But Mr. Skyler said the idea of a businessman-Mayor created some unrealistic expectations.

“‘Businessman’ was a tough label in the beginning to some extent, because people expected him to pull money out of a hat and solve the fiscal crisis,” he said.

Persistent critics, many of them associated with Mr. Bloomberg’s predecessor, say he has dropped Mr. Giuliani’s war on elements of the bureaucracy.

“So he’s a businessman-show me where it’s reflected in fundamental change in how city government operates,” said one Republican loyal to Mr. Giuliani. “Where was the big revolution in government? Are we supposed to hang our hat on 311?”

But while the city may not have a radically new style of government, it does have a radically new style of Mayor. He has none of the endless hunger for public approval that characterizes successful politicians from Bill Clinton to Ed Koch. People around him say he’s more comfortable with his fellow titans of industry than he is with the politicians whom he spends his Sundays marching beside in parades.

Professional Rivals

That apparent disdain for professional politicians is captured most clearly in his attitude toward Mr. Miller, the 34-year-old Council Speaker whose last job outside elected office was as a staff member to his local Congresswoman, Carolyn Maloney. Mr. Miller was born to the East Side social world that Mr. Bloomberg and his billions took by storm, and while the two men still meet weekly to hash out a budget and set policy, they have never clicked. People close to Mr. Miller say he sees the Mayor as both inept and overconfident, while Mr. Bloomberg makes little secret of his contempt for the Speaker.

“The dislike is unbelievable. It’s very, very personal,” said one City Hall insider. Mr. Miller’s institutional rivalry and his Mayoral aspirations certainly don’t help. And Mr. Bloomberg’s aides still fume over Mr. Miller’s campaign to reopen shuttered firehouses after he agreed to close them.

But the attitude had begun to crystallize early as 2002, when Mr. Bloomberg had a relatively bad golf game against the Speaker.

“Gifford Miller’s misspent youth has made him quite a good golfer,” the Mayor grumbled, according to one observer.

It was a sign, one among many, of what Mr. Bloomberg respects, and what he doesn’t. He doesn’t put much stock, it seems, in the smooth politicking that made Mr. Miller the Council’s Speaker.

This transplanting of private-sector values to City Hall has been particularly confusing for the cultural institutions that depend on city funding, and who remain nervous about Ms. Harris’ rebukes. The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs plans to funnel more than $104 million to 34 major institutions this year. Add Mr. Bloomberg’s $10 million, and these arts groups should have little to complain of. But they have lobbied against any cuts and given voice to public complaints, despite the fact that the arts cuts are just part of across-the-board cuts in city spending. And an aide to the Mayor said that their complaints are a source of particular irritation to Mr. Bloomberg, who thinks they should remember his personal generosity.

But from the arts groups’ perspective, Mr. Bloomberg’s public office has severed him from his past as a philanthropist. If anything, the millions he gives to make up for city cuts pose a sort of trap.

“The attitude is, ‘Holy shit, we can’t let our baseline get eroded like that because sometime we’ll turn around and there won’t be anyone on the philanthropic end,’” said an executive active in the world of cultural institutions.

These people, the Mayor might think, are impossible to please. They complain when you cut them, they complain when you hand them cash from your own pocket. And Mr. Bloomberg’s old friends from the world of finance sometimes wonder why he bothers.

“I’m amazed he would want to do this job,” said the former Salomon Brothers partner.