Like Cambridge and Hollywood, New York is considered a hotbed of left-wing, blue-state ideology, the place where liberal Democrats come to think big thoughts and discuss big ideas.
But it may be time to put away that hoary cliché. This year’s Mayoral election, like others in the recent past, has shown that New Yorkers prefer competence and results to ideology and partisan assertion.
And if you’re Mayor Michael Bloomberg, this turn of events is a good thing.
At a recent campaign rally, Mr. Bloomberg stood on a stage between his predecessors, Republican Rudolph Giuliani and Democrat Ed Koch, and declared to great applause, “People know this election is not about partisanship, it is about leadership.”
While it’s crucial for the nominally Republican Mr. Bloomberg to convince Democratic voters in a Democratic city to think beyond party affiliation, the familiar refrain from his campaign speeches also reflects a deeper truth about this election. Partisanship, ideology and a clear divergence of vision are largely absent from the race. In their place is technocratic talk that doesn’t do much to stir the passion of partisans, but may be the new language of New York politics in the 21st century.
As the election nears, Mr. Bloomberg’s opponent, Democrat Fernando Ferrer, has tried desperately to differentiate himself from the Mayor, resurrecting the controversial “Two New Yorks” mantra in the debates and slapping a “He’s not like Mike. He’s more like you” tag line on his television ads.
But the differences that Mr. Ferrer highlights have more to do with personality and personal finances than any radical difference in which direction he’d like to take the city. In that respect, New York—which has often been the country’s incubator for new ideas, for both the left and the right—is now similar to many other big cities in America.
Increasingly starved of federal or state aid, urban governments now have less tolerance for the nuances of ideological debate. Money is short and political leaders need to get things done, so the emphasis has shifted to problem solving. Into that new paradigm has stepped Mr. Bloomberg, perhaps the leading iteration of a new class of successful technocratic mayors.
“In the difficult work of making progress in a big American city, there is a tremendous opportunity to move beyond the old labels of the past and to move into the new age of performance-driven politics,” said Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, who has brought a similar problem-solving approach to government in his own city. “I think we are ushering in a new era of politics from the ground up. It is more data- and results-driven than anything before.”
Mr. Bloomberg’s aides note that there’s a significant difference between ideology and inventive ideas, and that the current administration is brimming with ways to build up the city’s infrastructure and concretely improve New Yorkers’ lives. His supporters note that under Mr. Bloomberg, crime rates have continued to drop, public-school test scores have improved, and the city’s bars have become free of cigarette smoke. They also point out that rezoning has allowed the city to reclaim its waterfront, the 311 information line has improved citizen access to City Hall, and the streamlining of city agencies has fostered a greater sense of accountability in government.
“In order to be successful as a mayor in the 21st century, you have to transcend ideology,” said Ester Fuchs, a professor of public affairs at Columbia University and a special advisor to the Mayor on policy.
Ms. Fuchs said that decades of urban breakdown helped to create the post-partisan emphasis on fixing what’s broken. Tired ideology no longer suffices, so Mr. Bloomberg has set out to “create the infrastructure for opportunity,” said Ms. Fuchs.
While the results-driven philosophy to which Mr. Bloomberg subscribes has had obvious advantages, it also seems to have muted the once-raucous debate over big ideas that added intellectual substance and spice to New York’s election campaigns. This year’s Mayoral campaign has sometimes felt like the candidates could be swapping scripts.
Instead of attacking Mr. Bloomberg’s housing plan, Mr. Ferrer complained that it was his idea first. When the two candidates responded to a Citizens Union Candidate Questionnaire sent out this summer, the answers could have been written in an echo chamber. They both promised to confront budget deficits by demanding that Albany take on more of the Medicaid burden; they both called for equal education funding from the state; and they both claimed that affordable housing was the city’s “most pressing” issue.
“In the Mayor’s race, it is pretty clear that Ferrer and Bloomberg are pitching similar ideas about the issues that matter to them,” said Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs at New School University. “Their differences in ideology are expressed in how they propose to fund those very similar policies. But that’s pretty subtle for the average viewer.”
Mr. Bloomberg’s name will appear on the ballot under the Republican, Independence and Liberal Party lines, and even Bloomberg supporter Ed Koch conceded, “I believe that these candidates generally convey that they see the particular issues in the same way.”
But in recent days, Mr. Ferrer has tried to mark the contrast in ideology, not by noting his liberal stock-transfer tax, but by attempting to equate Mr. Bloomberg to President George W. Bush, arguing that the Mayor’s $7 million donation to the host committee for the Republican National Convention constituted the largest donation in the history of the Republican Party.
Mr. Bloomberg’s camp argues that the gift was intended to garner favor with the White House for much-needed national funding, but it’s the very fact of the Mayor’s money that has proved most divisive.
Buying an Election?
According to Mr. Bloomberg’s most recent expenditure filing, the Mayor has spent more than $63 million on his campaign, including more than $10 million on television ads, more than $2 million on campaign workers and $11 million on consultants. The campaign event where Mr. Bloomberg declared that the election was about leadership, not ideology, a breakfast for Jewish supporters at the Hyatt, cost more than $100,000.
That has led some critics to recall his assertion to a group of corporate executives that the city is a “luxury product,” and to charge that this election has less to do with ideas on how best to lead New York than it is about the Mayor’s willingness to use his vast financial fortune to essentially buy the election.
“One of the things he has tried to keep out of this is ideology,” said Tom Ognibene, the Conservative Party candidate for Mayor who criticized Mr. Bloomberg for taking instruction from polls. “It’s no longer about Republican or Democrat, or liberal or conservative—it’s about who has the most money.”
Others argue that, with the exception of William F. Buckley Jr.’s largely experimental run in 1965, the conservative challenge to John Lindsay’s re-election in 1969 from John Marchi and Mario Procaccino, and Mr. Giuliani’s emphasis on crime and welfare in the 1990’s, the ideological differences between candidates has generally been negligible, mainly because liberal Democratic ideology has prevailed for so long.
But Mr. Bloomberg is different. His critics say he is nonideological to the point of aimlessness. They point to his reliance on people like Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Daniel L. Doctoroff and Health Commissioner Thomas R. Frieden as unprecedented, and argue that he keeps his commissioners on such a long leash that they actually end up leading him.
His supporters say that while he hires good people, the notion of his being led is just plain wrong.
“A lot of the best ideas come from him,” said Ms. Fuchs. “There isn’t a thing that he doesn’t look at.”
Some policy experts said that the Mayor’s lack of ideology has allowed him to move the city beyond the ethnic, geographical and racial politics that have long dominated elections here.
“I don’t think that Mayoral elections have ever been about ideology,” said Susan Fainstein, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University. “They were about race, ethnicity and class. Perhaps Bloomberg’s greatest achievement is that he has calmed down that conflict.”
Calmed the conflict, maybe, but not the competition for ethnic votes. Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Ferrer have both actively pursued the black swing vote, though they have so far mostly avoided doing so on blatant, and divisive, ideological terms.
Ms. Fainstein noted that as national politics has become more and more divisive, there is more of a preference in big cities for inoffensive, technocratic personalities.
“The future is that, unless you get a regime in Washington that cares about cities, local governments are going to pay less attention to ideology and are just going to be minding their own gardens,” she said.