Mayor Michael Bloomberg has returned to planet Earth. With a white-cheeked gibbon swinging from branch to branch and a Malayan Tapir drooping its head over a muddy puddle behind him at the Bronx Zoo, on Nov. 24, Mr. Bloomberg explained why, after all the talk over the last couple of years about the stratospheric national offices he could fill, New York needed him for another term.
"We can improve our schools, but we can do better," Mr. Bloomberg told The Observer during a press conference in the zoo's misty jungle world wing, where staff filled the empty seats between a handful of reporters. "We can diversify our economy, but we can always do better. We can help people get a job and have the dignity of being self-supported, but there's always more to help."
"We can always do better," he added, in a municipal echo of Barack Obama's "Yes We Can" refrain. "So the basic answer to your question is, that's what the campaign is all about, but we should never think what we have done is enough. Hopefully, it will be the prelude to doing an awful lot more."
Having dispensed with the pesky detail of referendum-approved term limits, Mr. Bloomberg will almost certainly get the chance to do more.
What Mr. Bloomberg will also get is a four-year stretch that bears no resemblance whatsoever to all the big, wondrous things imagined for him by some of his senior political aides who are, by most accounts, far less enamored with the prospect of staying in City Hall than the mayor is.
In this Bloombergian bargain, the mayor has traded the status-enhancing (if entirely theoretical) notion that he could be president, vice president, Treasury secretary, overseer of a historic bailout or sitting national financial oracle in exchange for the grim near-certainty of continuing on as a bad-times mayor.
"You know one in the hand is worth two in the bush?" said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College, explaining the mayor's calculation. "One in the hand is worth all those in the bush."
It should be said that it's not entirely clear what national jobs, if any, Mr. Bloomberg actually gave up to be mayor again. The administration-generated rumors about Mr. Bloomberg's presidential (and then vice presidential) ambitions achieved press attention and some laudatory name-checking from the actual candidates, but the idea never went past the hype stage.
And as for a financial-guru role in the incoming administration, sources close to Mr. Obama made it clear during the search for a Treasury secretary that Mr. Bloomberg was not in consideration for that or other top jobs, especially after the mayor moved to overturn the two-term limit that would have ended his time in office.
But to hear Mr. Bloomberg's present and former aides tell it, the mayor's decision was a selfless one, necessitated by a sense of duty rather than a lack of options.
He willingly sacrificed a legacy of unprecedented competence and popularity in order to continue to serve the city. He could have gone back to his company and expanded his empire, they say, or flown into Washington like a financial Superman.
"The easiest thing would be to leave and rest on those laurels," said Bill Cunningham, a longtime adviser to Mr. Bloomberg and his former communications director. "He looked around at what's looming for the city and made the decision that he would try to change the law."
"He knows what it is like to be booed in the parades," said James Anderson, the mayor's director of communications. "Popularity doesn't do you any good unless you use it to make the city better."
Another aide to Mr. Bloomberg, speaking on background, recalled how Mr. Bloomberg, a multibillionaire, has often professed a you-can't-take-it-with-you philosophy, intending to give all of his money away and believing that one can be considered a financial success only if the check to the undertaker bounces.
"Why should it be any different with political capital," asked the aide. "He would want his check to the political undertaker to bounce. What good is it if you step away from this?"
Perhaps the most immediate beneficiaries of Mr. Bloomberg's decision to try and stick around for another term are his commissioners, who essentially get an extension for their long-term efforts to implement reforms.
"The potential of the mayor having a third term could ensure that these projects actually come to fruition, which is something we always worried about," said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. "We can get these projects off the ground, but what happens if another mayor says we have other priorities?"
Kate Levin, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, said a prolonged Bloomberg presence strengthened her hand against the agency's antagonists.
"When they think they can wait you out," she said, "it means that they can't wait you out."
Ever since Mr. Bloomberg reached the point of no return and pushed to overturn the term-limits law, the administration has fallen into line behind the idea of a third term. But before he tipped his hand, some of his key aides, including his political right hand and deputy mayor for government affairs, Kevin Sheekey, and his former communications director and now deputy mayor for operations, Ed Skyler, argued against it, according to several City Hall insiders. Mr. Skyler, as recently as a June 26 interview with The Observer, was talking in the soon-to-be-past tense about the mayor's time in office.
"I think one of the challenges, one of the reasons people are struggling with the question of what his legacy is," Mr. Skyler said, "is because unlike some mayors who were known for one or two things, Mayor Bloomberg has a ton of accomplishments behind him."
Mr. Skyler, who did not return requests to comment for this story, is said by people in the Bloomberg orbit to be exhausted and eager to leave City Hall. And several present and former advisers to Mr. Bloomberg said that other aides would leave the administration in the event of a third term.
"Eight years is pretty exhausting, it's grueling," said Jay Kriegel, who served as a chief of staff in City Hall under John Lindsay.
Mr. Sheekey, the architect of some of the most fanciful national fantasies for Mr. Bloomberg, replied in typically un-earnest style to a request for an interview about the deferment of those dream scenarios by writing, "I'm living the dream."
A third key aide who has been with Mr. Bloomberg throughout his transition from businessman to politician, Patti Harris, would only say that she loved her job.
"This would not be the first time that Kevin, or others, might have had an idea on what Mike should do and in fact that's not what Mike ended up doing," said Mr. Cunningham. "And, in fact, Mike ends up doing something perhaps against the advice of people around him."
It's not hard to imagine the pitch against a third term.
For people with ideas of moving onward and upward with the mayor, the creamy yellow walls, blue carpets and portraits of long-forgotten municipal executives can begin, after eight years, to seem somewhat confining. The sights, over time, become remarkably familiar: There's Eric Gioia shaking hands again! There's Christine Quinn, who backed the mayor's overturning of term limits despite her own mayoral ambitions, popping out of her office in a long winter coat and calling "Hola!" to a friend. There's Councilwoman Melinda Katz leading about a dozen demonstrators in a press conference on the steps, for the benefit of one print reporter, and declaring that she had started a Web site called "WhereIsMyTARP.com."
More importantly, though, the politics of a third term-to the extent that politics were a factor in the decision-simply don't compute.
The economy is going to stink, forcing the mayor to execute an unending stream of painful and unpopular budget-balancing maneuvers. The strong-arm move to avoid a referendum and overturn term limits in the City Council has injured, perhaps irreparably, the extra-political brand Mr. Bloomberg had built.
The prospective campaign against Representative Anthony Weiner, who plans to run as a loud defender of the middle class and outer boroughs against an out-of-touch billionaire, will be an irritating grind.
On Friday afternoon, across the hall from the mayor's offices where the ever-fashionable Ms. Harris flitted past the small glass conference rooms decorated with antique pictures of the city, Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, stood in front of Room 9 informing reporters that the mayor's popularity had dipped from 68 percent to 59 percent, and that a downturn in the economy might ultimately do more damage to Mr. Bloomberg's standing than the controversial term-limits move.
"Bloomberg is clearly banking on the idea that he is a financial guru and that he will be somewhat immune to the downturn," said Mr. Miringoff.
Some of the few people who have been in Mr. Bloomberg's shoes said they understood the reservations of his aides, but also the mayor's decision to plow ahead.
"In terms of the problems that would ensue, they were right. If you wanted to avoid the problems," said former Mayor Ed Koch. "They wanted to avoid the pain. His position, I think, is 'Pain be damned; I'm going to do what I want to do and do best.' That is to say, if the people want him. And in my own view, if they don't want him, they are fools."
Mr. Koch didn't think the mayor was necessarily foreclosing the possibility of a grander future, because, he said, expectations for New York in the near future are so bleak that the mayor could get massive credit if the city gets through the crisis close to intact.
And as for the fact that mayors simply tend to have miserable third terms, the former mayor thought that Mr. Bloomberg might be able to get around that, too. The current mayor has a less expansive personality than he did, Mr. Koch explained, and so people would tire of him less easily. Plus, he was "a young man with $20 billion," a numerical fact that tends to "open doors."
Former Mayor David Dinkins also thought that Mr. Bloomberg had a trying time ahead.
"It's always been difficult for everyone in the third term," said Mr. Dinkins. "But he's good, he's gifted. There are many things he might do."
Asked whether he thought Mr. Bloomberg was passing up on any more exalted alternatives in order to serve another term, Mr. Dinkins said, "It gets to be a function of what those other choices are, doesn't it? And I don't know what those other choices are. All I know is, he knows and has made this judgment."
Mr. Muzzio, who worked as a campaign adviser to Mr. Dinkins, characterized Mr. Bloomberg's decision as a choice between "buying the mayoralty and all that comes with it against a crap shoot that he has got to know in some way is the Wizard of Oz. Mike Bloomberg is too smart. He is betting on the sure thing, and he is getting a big payoff with almost a 100 percent certainty he gets it."
As for the aides who pushed for national office, Mr. Muzzio had the following recommendation.
"Get over it and get off the pipe; this is the real world," he said. "This is the real Mike Bloomberg. This is the way he was. This is the way he is. This is the way he will be. What you were thinking was fairy tale."
Hours after the mayor stood in the sweltering jungle world at the Bronx Zoo-the event was meant to showcase some of the low-cost cultural activities available to New Yorkers; one citizen speaker referred unironically to Staten Island as a "Cultural Mecca"-he showed up wearing a more formal tie for a charity event at the Plaza.
Mr. Bloomberg sat with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson while he waited to receive an award from the Randall's Island Sports Foundation.
SNL comedian Darrell Hammond warmed up the crowd of wealthy donors and ended by saying, "As Mayor Bloomberg told me, always leave them wanting more. And then if they do want more, stay on for another four years."
Mr. Bloomberg laughed and applauded.
When it was his time to speak, the mayor paid tribute to Mr. Paulson, saying there was no "magic wand" to fix the crisis and that "everyone in this room knows how tough it is and you are sewing the seeds of recovery in this country." He then said that he assumed Hillary Clinton, who would show up about a half an hour later, would be the next secretary of state and "do another great job for this country."
The next morning the mayor presided over a press conference announcing a light bulb initiative, "Broadway Goes Green."
-Additional reporting by Azi Paybarah
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