Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn’t waste time on the normal pleasantries when he placed an early-morning phone call on May 10 to the freshly elected Mayor of Newark, Cory Booker.
True to Mr. Bloomberg’s preferred style of interaction, the call was all business, moving with astonishing speed onto policy issues like gun control and balancing the budget before coming to a quick end.
Not that Mr. Booker minded. For him, the Mayor of New York is not just a flavorless technocrat with a monotone voice and an occasionally abrupt manner. He is a political role model.
“I do think there is a sort of zeitgeist going through the nation now—you are seeing management-style leaders more than you are seeing charismatic leaders,” said Mr. Booker. “In government, Bloomberg is in many ways on the cutting edge.”
It may seem somewhat odd for a politician like Mr. Booker, who is known for his exceptional oratorical skills and media savvy, to aspire to imitate a man with a visible and sometimes visceral unease with retail politics.
But he is not alone.
Now, it seems, is Mr. Bloomberg’s moment, with a generation of officials and office seekers looking to copy the Mayor’s dry administrative style—and thumping electoral success—at a time when voters say they care more about results than big personalities or partisan allegiances. It has reached the point where the Mayor’s uninspiring, almost militantly non-ideological philosophy has sprung something akin to a national movement.
“For charisma, you used to think of J.F.K. and George Wallace and people who were able to move large numbers of people, but I think Bloomberg, in his own way, in the private sector and public sector, inspires people by his seriousness and purpose rather than soaring rhetoric,” said Martin Linsky, who lectures on public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. “People are looking to him as someone to emulate.”
Since his overwhelming re-election victory last year, it has become increasingly common for local and state elected officials to look to Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure in New York as a template for governance. For example, aides to newly elected New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine, a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, have suggested that Mr. Corzine was attempting to create a similar atmosphere in the New Jersey State House that Mr. Bloomberg had in City Hall. And it is no coincidence that Mr. Corzine appears to have adopted the Mayor’s take-your-medicine-and-like-it leadership style as something of an inspiration for the first few months of his own term.
“What Governor Corzine has done is look across the river to New York City and see what Mayor Bloomberg has done and said, ‘Well, here is a guy who made tough decisions early on and has weathered the storm and is now looked upon as one of New York’s most popular mayors,’” said David Rebovich, the managing director of the Rider Institute for New Jersey Politics.
Even more tellingly, though, a succession of sitting mayors and candidates from America and beyond has made pilgrimages so regularly to City Hall to receive tutorials that Mr. Bloomberg’s aides have given the process a name: “Bloomberg 101.”
In early May, Adrian Fenty, a Democrat who is running for mayor of Washington, D.C, received a tour of the City Hall bullpen, which is just one of the Bloomberg innovations he plans to copy if elected. This followed a visit in March by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, a self-proclaimed “admirer” of the Mayor who consulted with Mr. Bloomberg and his top aides about educational reform.
Non-American mayors have been no different. Sam Sullivan, the highly acclaimed mayor of Vancouver, examined the Mayor’s 311 information hotline during a visit in February, while the mayor of Dusseldorf, Joachim Erwin, sought out Mr. Bloomberg’s advice last month on CompStat—the computerized crime-tracking tool first instituted here in 1994 and used by the Bloomberg administration to keep crime at its lowest levels since 1963.
Mr. Bloomberg’s syllabus essentially emphasizes delegating responsibility to competent administrators, giving them room to work and then using numbers to extract accountability from them. It stresses making unpopular budgetary decisions when necessary and without hesitation or apology. Mr. Bloomberg reminds visitors, for example, that he took the highly unpopular positions of raising property taxes and banning smoking almost immediately after his election in 2001.
Despite Mr. Bloomberg’s palpable lack of enthusiasm for politics, at least in the traditional sense of the word, his reputation beyond New York has led to rumors of a run for higher office. A “Bloomberg for President” plotline even received semi-serious treatment in a story this week in The New York Times.
While the notion of a national run for office is speculation of the most optimistic sort, it is indisputably true that Mr. Bloomberg is now targeting his message to a national audience. Last week, the Mayor delivered a commencement speech to graduates of the Johns Hopkins Medical School that attracted attention across the country as an unwavering declaration of faith in technological and scientific progress.
For Mr. Bloomberg, these are the central pillars of his political faith. Technology, in the form of the ubiquitous Bloomberg computer terminal, is what made him a billionaire. And he has lavished millions of dollars on scientific research.
But the Hopkins speech, written with the help of City Hall aides, was nonetheless a remarkable one for a Republican, even a nominal one: railing against the conservative politics impeding scientific progress and, according to one Bloomberg official, echoing the strong opinions that Mr. Bloomberg often shares with friends at private dinners.
“I work at the city level, dealing with real-world problems and delivering actual services,” said Mr. Bloomberg in the speech. “We can’t let ideology get in the way of truth.”
It is Mr. Bloomberg’s exaltation of what he called “common sense,” and his numbingly insistent reliance on quantifying achievement with hard data, that seems to have made him so attractive to colleagues around the country, especially among mayors, a secular breed who spend most of their time seeking pragmatic solutions to everyday problems.
Take, for example, the case of Bradley Tusk, a former special assistant in the Bloomberg administration who was hired in March 2003 by Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois.
When Mr. Tusk, now a deputy governor, was an aide to Mr. Bloomberg, his duties included compiling a list of the 380 campaign promises that the Mayor made after his election, scoring which ones were fulfilled and which were broken. He said that he wound up in Illinois in part because his boss shares Mr. Bloomberg’s straightforward approach to issues.
“The public doesn’t care about process, they care about results,” said Mr. Tusk. “And the Mayor understood that. That’s a model we try to embrace here.”
Mr. Bloomberg’s appeal to his fellow politicians is only made more remarkable by the fact that as a galvanizing speaker, he ranks somewhere between Sheldon Silver and Stan Lundine on the all-time list of New York public orators. The Mayor, like a city-government Gallagher, is most comfortable when working with props.
At an April press conference, the Mayor stood between two flat screens in the Fire Department’s headquarters in Brooklyn, explaining with relish how the global-positioning satellite technology will help dispatchers deploy emergency resources more accurately.
And when he delivered this city’s executive budget address a month ago in the Blue Room of City Hall, standing at the podium and pointing a red laser light at a flat screen full of charts, he was breezy, on his game and in his element.
But out on the stump, or mixing with others in the performance of his ceremonial duties, it can be a different story.
Witness a campaign stop Mr. Bloomberg made at a pita bread factory in Brooklyn as he barnstormed through the five boroughs on the day before his re-election last year. Dressed in a white baker’s coat, he gamely affected an interested air as he inspected the dough-kneading machines and flour-dusted conveyer belts for what was supposed to be a quick visit.
But after roughly 20 minutes of inspecting pita, Mr. Bloomberg had clearly had enough. Just as he was about to leave, the owners offered the Mayor a tray of their favorite sandwiches.
“You take it—whatever,” he said, passing the tray off to an aide. “We’re out of here.”
And just last Wednesday, Mr. Bloomberg stood in the backyard of Gracie Mansion, posing for photos in a dark business suit at an event honoring the city’s farmers’ markets. To each guest on line, he offered his standard: “Nice to see ya.” And after each click of the camera, he politely but purposefully moved the guests along, pausing to chat only when prompted.
After the line dispersed, former Mayor David Dinkins dropped by to say hello. Mr. Dinkins, a staid tennis enthusiast, wore a checkered blue tuxedo jacket and a bow tie that made him look like a showman next to the Mayor.
Mr. Bloomberg, for his part, did what he usually does when he’s forced to speak with someone: He folded his arms, rocked back on his heels and, turning his head askance, looked at the blue sky more than Mr. Dinkins’ blue eyes.
“Everyone is entirely different and has their own style,” Mr. Dinkins said afterwards. “I had my style, Rudy had his style—I would not emulate that one, though. We’re all cut from a different cloth.”
City Councilman Charles Barron, a frequent critic of the Mayor, positively mocked the idea that Mr. Bloomberg was a role model for other public officials. “He certainly is not a model of a charismatic public speaker,” said Mr. Barron. “He is flat and dry and monotone. We can all take a siesta when he starts his speeches.”
But charisma is one thing, and success is quite another. “He hasn’t got the right face for charisma,” said Tann Vom Hove, editor and publisher of a London-based organization, City Mayors, which examines urban government in the world’s major cities. “In the supermarket, you wouldn’t recognize him.”
In a recent study of mayors around the world, however, city mayors ended up giving Mr. Bloomberg some of the highest marks of any of its subjects.
Mr. Vom Hove said that the mayors of both Berlin and Paris now emulate Mr. Bloomberg, whom he credits with making New York a more attractive destination for tourists.
“He was always described as boring, but for a boring mayor to get such election results is impressive,” said Mr. Vom Hove. “Maybe we need more boring politicians, not populist mayors.”
John Hickenlooper is one person who agrees.
Mr. Hickenlooper, now the mayor of Denver, said that he’d studied Mr. Bloomberg before deciding to make his first bid for public office in 2003. An entrepreneur like Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Hickenlooper paid special attention to the way the Mayor appointed leaders from the private sector to top administrative positions.
“It’s not the traditional way of running a city,” said Mr. Hickenlooper.
He said that he’s considering adopting the Mayor’s bullpen to increase communication and accountability in Denver. And he has already lifted at least one Bloomberg initiative after a visit to New York during February’s blizzard.
“They were offering free sledding and hot chocolate—that’s the type of thing city government should do,” said Mr. Hickenlooper. “I came back and copied it.”
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