Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s State of the City address on Jan. 26 sounded familiar to anyone who paid attention to his re-election campaign. But it is unlikely that the Mayor’s “blueprint for New York’s future” resonated with any of the 800 people packed into the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island as much as it did with Ester Fuchs, an academic with short black hair and a Queens accent, who applauded from a seat in the auditorium’s wing.
That’s because Ms. Fuchs may be more responsible than any deputy mayor or commissioner for the issues the Mayor will tackle over the next four years, from charter schools to health benefits. Her influence stems from her stint as the Mayor’s special advisor for governance and strategic planning during his first term, and her role as the Mayor’s tutor on the issues and inner workings of city government during his first campaign.
In short, the 54-year-old Columbia University professor could be called the left hemisphere of the Mayor’s brain.
“He was very interested in new ideas, how to make things better,” Ms. Fuchs said over eggs and Earl Gray tea during a 90-minute breakfast at a diner close to her office. “I’ve never had trouble with new ideas.”
When Ms. Fuchs began her tutorials with Mr. Bloomberg, some supporters of his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, were horrified. Ms. Fuchs had been a sharp critic of Mr. Giuliani and was perceived to be precisely the sort of ivory tower leftist whose ideas had brought the city to near-ruin in the early 1990’s.
But by the time the Mayor released a statement on Jan. 12 announcing Ms. Fuchs’ resignation from city government to return to Columbia, where she runs the University’s Center for Urban Research and Policy, some of her critics had been won over.
“I thought she would be a radical, sort of a firebrand,” said Henry Stern, the Parks Commissioner under Mayors Giuliani and Koch. “But she turned out to be a very constructive member of the Bloomberg administration. She leaves with respect.”
The wariness of Giuliani supporters was understandable, given that Ms. Fuchs—who had served as an advisor to Mayor David Dinkins during his 1993 campaign—incessantly accused Mr. Giuliani of bullying the city’s disenfranchised. She penned articles like a 1993 Newsday column titled “Can Four White Guys Run New York?”
In 2000, Doug Schoen, a high-powered consultant to Mr. Bloomberg and an old friend of Ms. Fuchs, invited her to spend the Christmas break drafting issue papers for the then-unknown billionaire, who was planning an unlikely Mayoral campaign the following year. Mr. Bloomberg obviously liked what he saw and heard, and so did Ms. Fuchs, who admired his “quiet, outraged view that people didn’t have access to education” and marveled at his independence from moneyed interests. When he tapped her as a special advisor in 2002, Mr. Giuliani’s backers wondered aloud if the new Republican Mayor was veering sharply to the left.
“Principally, he brought her on because he was trying to make the point that he was going to have a broader ideological focus than Rudy did,” said Steve Malanga, an editor at City Journal and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “Rudy was very much a true Republican. Bloomberg was really a moderate Democrat.”
In a proclamation that the Mayor gave to Ms. Fuchs after she left office last month, he joked that he was happy he could fulfill her lifelong dream of working for a Republican.
Kidding aside, Ms. Fuchs recognized that the Mayor had made a statement by hiring her in 2002 and applauded him for being “willing to have somebody like me come to City Hall—who was not viewed as sort of a shrinking violet.”
Though she refused to compare Mr. Bloomberg to his predecessors and bit her tongue when asked about Mr. Giuliani, she did criticize the lack of infrastructure that Mr. Bloomberg inherited when he came to office in 2002.
“The truth of the matter is that we came into City Hall and there was no e-mail. The Department of Information Technology was a shell. All the support agencies that you would have to help agencies do their work, much of the oversight capacity of the city—it didn’t work or it didn’t exist, or it worked minimally. And this is what the Mayor has spent a lot of time on with his commissioners and other people: building an operational infrastructure for the city.”
That reconstruction required an especially strong army of commissioners, which, Ms. Fuchs said, complemented the Mayor’s “flat management” philosophy. “He expected a lot of the policy and transformations to come directly from the agencies, from the commissioners themselves,” she said.
But few were as busy as she was in building the woodwork necessary for, to use her words, “governing a 21st-century city”— which happens to be the subject of a book she is working on.
During her four-year stint with the administration, she restructured the City’s Workforce Development program and the Out of School Time system by taking the seemingly logical but onerous step of joining the Department of Youth and Community Development, which has the primary responsibility for after school programs, with the Department of Education.
Education Commissioner Joel Klein said that she had done “great work” in managing that collaboration. She also streamlined 13 human-service agencies as the head of the Integrated Human Services project, which made social service benefits more accessible to eligible welfare recipients. As chair of the 2005 Charter Revision Commission, she produced two ballot initiatives on ethics and fiscal policies, both of which passed easily last year.
Yet, for all her activity, Ms. Fuchs stayed mostly behind the scenes, acting as the connective tissue between the flexing muscles of the Bloomberg commissioners.
“It’s always good to have one person who has no formal line of responsibility, because that’s the person who could think more out of the box,” said Ms. Fuchs. “I ended up doing a lot of stuff on what looks like the periphery, but would be very supportive of the main event.”
Indeed, Ms. Fuchs attributed a reference in Mr. Bloomberg’s recent State of the City address to a six-month job-training and union-apprentice program to structural changes she helped make during the Mayor’s first term. Those changes, she said, faced sharp opposition from the more conservative voices within the administration.
“I had a very hard time. They tried to kill my projects—literally. But in the end, the Mayor supported me,” she said. “These are my babies, and I nurtured them.”
Like the Mayor, Ms. Fuchs hailed from a Jewish middle-class family in a leafy neighborhood. She grew up in Bayside, Queens, the third of five children raised by her mother, who stayed at home, and her father, a Polish immigrant and diamond cutter. He also sang as the cantor in the local Orthodox Jewish center. Ms. Fuchs still keeps Sabbath.
She said that her first political memory was of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, when she was 11. Soon after, she began developing a worldview that tilted to the left.
“When you go into government and your name is in the newspaper, people who went to elementary school find you,” she said. “Somebody sent me my eighth-grade yearbook—you know you have the quote [adjacent to your portrait]—and my quote was, ‘It’s not fair.’”
She took that sense of indignation to Bayside High School, where she excelled and graduated at age 16. She went to Queens College, where she joined the reform Democratic club and was elected to the county committee.
“The person running against me had fraudulent signatures on the ballot. You only needed like 30 signatures,” she said, laughing.
She said she resisted the more radical elements of campus politics after attending a meeting hosted by the leftist Students for Democratic Society.
“It was so rabidly anti-Israel. I grew up Orthodox and a very big Zionist, and I was involved in Soviet Jewry—I had to leave,” she said.
Yet Ms. Fuchs still had her moments of activism, participating in a demonstration that closed down the Long Island Expressway to protest the Vietnam War. She took a few lumps on the head from police nightsticks.
“It’s hard to change your view about the police—which I have—if you were a student in the 70’s and did any activism,” she said.
After graduating in 1972, she worked on George McGovern’s Presidential campaign as a volunteer before heading off to Brown University for a master’s degree and then to the University of Chicago for a Ph.D. After teaching at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., for a few years, she came back to New York and met her future husband, Daniel J. Victor, at a bris. He is now an executive at Sesame Street.
They married in 1983 and have three children. Since then, she has taught at Barnard and Columbia, and has written several books, including Racial Politics in New York State. In addition, she edited New York City: The End of the Liberal Experiment and the prescient Mayors and Money: Fiscal Policy in New York and Chicago.
She says that from an early age, “I really understood you have to be inside it to fix it.” But, after four years inside City Hall, she grew eager to get back to academia.
“You sort of have to be true to who you are,” she said. “And I had this extraordinary opportunity that most academics never get. I feel like I have an extraordinary lens to bring back to the classroom.”
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