After winning an easy re-election, Mayor Michael Bloomberg came out swinging in his second term, narrowing his sights on ambitious issues like the billions of dollars in city education money tied up in Albany and changing gun-control laws in Washington. To get more aggressive, he made key substitutions in his corner, replacing battle-tested city government officials like Marc Shaw and Peter Madonia with Patricia Harris, Kevin Sheekey and other big-idea wunderkinds of his hugely successful campaign.
Now a series of slipups and setbacks has led many City Hall watchers to question whether the administration has its head too high in the clouds—and to ask if Mr. Bloomberg made a mistake by letting some experienced government workers go.
“My concern is that the Mayor has lost people who really understood how to get things done, on the ground and underground,” said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College. “The new team ran a great campaign; there are very talented people there. But still, I wonder if they can deliver on his expansive promises—if City Hall can deliver with the personnel they have.”
While the Mayor made a point to show that he was still running a tight ship by firing an employee for playing solitaire on city time, a spate of bad news in recent days and weeks suggests a loss of control.
Right after his inauguration in January came a crisis, when the Administration for Children’s Services failed to prevent the death of a child known to have been abused. Subsequently, there has been no shortage of bad news. The city Housing Authority proposed narrowing a $168 million budget gap by increasing fees on its poor tenants. The city projected a $509.9 million deficit for the Health and Hospital Corporation. The F.B.I., suspecting bid rigging, raided a street-lighting company that has about $92 million in contracts with the city’s Department of Transportation. Add to that continued inertia at Ground Zero and the Snapple debacle, and you have a lackluster start to the second term.
To be fair, some of those mishaps are the results of first-term programs. The Bloomberg administration also counters each disappointment with a reasonable explanation. For one thing, they say, the deficit in city health care can be attributed to increased competition from private hospitals for Medicaid patients, and the Mayor has also been a champion of hospitals that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani sought to close. They also highlight the Mayor’s remarkable approval ratings in polls, the widely admired and prudent budget he delivered, and the city’s swift reaction to a record-setting snowstorm. It should also be noted that second-term personnel changes are part of the natural selection in any government’s evolution.
Still, after shifting his priorities and shaping his staff for a fight with Albany—and however much he was strengthened by a landslide win last year—Mr. Bloomberg has often found himself on the defensive. Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has accused the Mayor of not putting enough pressure on Governor George Pataki to get money for city schools. Across the aisle, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno reminded Mr. Bloomberg that “bullies end up getting bloody noses,” after the Mayor floated the idea of backing a Democrat in a key State Senate election in order to put pressure on Albany for that education money.
At the same time, the cubicle of Mr. Shaw, who will take a job with Extell Development Co. later this month, has been moved further away from the Mayor. On a damp and chilly March 9 morning, he spent nearly an hour conducting business via cell phone while chain-smoking cigars on the steps of City Hall. While the official line is that he needed a more lucrative job to support kids in college, many insiders believe that Mr. Shaw, a veteran of more than 25 years in government, was forced out. Indeed, his resignation was announced nearly three months after the Mayor named Ms. Harris as his successor. Mr. Madonia, the chief of staff who many expected to take over for Mr. Shaw, left after the announcement. Political advisor and longtime government operative William Cunningham took a job at a public-relations firm.
Some critics think that things would be going a lot smoother with the veterans doing the negotiating. But even some of those very veterans disagree.
“Sometimes only the Mayor can deliver things, and these people know how to get the Mayor to use his bully pulpit in a way he hadn’t before,” said Mr. Madonia, now the chief operating officer of the Rockefeller Foundation, of the new inner circle. “They know him very well, and what he is prepared to do and not to do. There are two things you are looking for—one is experience, and the other is a chemistry with the Mayor. That is an aspect very few can bring to the table.”
Other former City Hall officials saw the Mayor’s more aggressive posture since January as a good thing.
“The nature of ambition is that it causes friction, and friction is necessary sometimes,” said Anthony P. Coles, a former deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration. “You have to assume that any Republican that wins by a huge margin in New York City has the right people to persuade others.”
That includes people in Washington, where the gun-control debate is centered. Mr. Sheekey, Mr. Bloomberg’s boyish campaign manager and now deputy mayor, has worked on Capitol Hill and seems uniquely suited to take on the gun-control issue. But while some admire the Mayor’s new brain trust for taking on the major issues of the day, others think that they are doing so at the cost of properly running the city.
“Are they hurting? Sure. At this point, the city is definitely under-managed,” said Henry Stern, a former Parks Commissioner. “There are almost enough deputy mayors to make up the candles on the menorah, but many of them are not really lit.”
Some critics question the point of having so many top aides—Mr. Bloomberg has seven deputy mayors—and there is much sniping about the role of Deputy Mayor Carol Robles-Roman, who lost her city car’s siren after it was reported that she was using it to get to meetings on time. But these critics also look to the commissioners of embattled city agencies and ask why nobody has been fired.
One name that has repeatedly popped up in conversations with City Hall insiders is Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall, who is married to Senator Charles Schumer. Ms. Weinshall has been criticized for her agency’s handling of the Staten Island Ferry crash more than two years ago, as well as the delay in addressing complaints about traffic congestion caused by trucks and, now, the potential street-lighting scandal.
“There have got to be standards,” said Brandon Ward, a D.O.T. official who is also a tireless critic of the commissioner and the president of the New York chapter of Blacks in Government. (He recently wrote an open letter to Ms. Weinshall in which he asked sardonically if a lack of qualifications is required for promotion within the agency.) “Where is the gravitas of transportation experience that informs decision-making?”
The Bloomberg administration counters that Ms. Robles-Roman is a critical member of the team and that Ms. Weinshall is a successful commissioner who saw the city through a blackout, a record snowstorm and the introduction of the successful “thru streets” program. More broadly, they say that many of the apparent shortcomings in city agencies are signs of innovative thinking.
“You want people who try things that may fail, people who are innovative,” said the Mayor’s spokesman, Stu Loeser. “People have to know that they aren’t going to get fired for just trying something.”
“We did a lot of things in the first four years,” added Mr. Madonia. “Everything is not always going to pan out as hoped.”
Mr. Loeser defended other commissioners who have come under fire recently, like A.C.S. head John Mattingly, arguing that the Mayor stands by his people when he believes in their ideas and commitment to improving the city.
“The Mayor has picked the team he wants, and they are well suited to building on the accomplishments of the first term,” said Mr. Loeser. “Now we can take that measure to Albany and Washington and fix long-term problems.”
But there are also the long-term consequences to consider regarding the Mayor’s staffing decisions.
The introduction of Bloomberg loyalists at the top, combined with the Mayor’s reluctance to fire commissioners—even those leading embattled agencies—has stymied mid-level officials looking for advancement, critics say. Some talented bureaucrats have left for the private sector.
“He left in place some people who are not doing anything bad necessarily, but who are kind of stale. The Mayor didn’t fire anybody,” said one former City Hall official, who asked not to be identified. “The people who knew government the best and know how to effectuate long-term change, people like Shaw and Madonia—they’ve left. Now you have people in there who are more about the short term, who pay more attention about what plays well in the papers for a day.
“Really talented people at mid-level have no room to advance. They feel stagnant, frustrated, or they leave. That has been the Mayor’s biggest mistake,” the former City Hall official added.
At the same time, Mr. Bloomberg’s top deputy mayors are expected to follow him back to his philanthropic ventures after he leaves office in January 2010. With those people gone, many wonder who will make up the permanent government so crucial to the Mayor’s legacy.
“It’s a huge question mark,” said Scott Levenson, a Democratic consultant, who admired the new team’s focus on Albany. “It’s such a personal thing that brought them in. You’ve got to believe that despite her commitment to government, Patti Harris is going to go where Bloomberg goes next.”
Mr. Stern and Mr. Madonia were just two of the many bright young officials brought in by Ed Koch, who left behind a generation of protégés to influence City Hall years after he left office.
“I’m very proud of that,” said Mr. Koch about the deep roots he planted in City Hall, adding that Mr. Bloomberg’s top aides were “more private sector in affinity.”
But Mr. Koch also argued that enough people, including Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs, would stay behind to build some sort of legacy for the Mayor.
“Will there be a permanent impact that will last after he leaves, as a result of people in high office staying?” said Mr. Koch. “I believe there will be.”