In his second and final campaign event of the evening of July 20, Michael Bloomberg visited a steaming hot volunteer headquarters in Riverdale, where he talked about his attempts to narrow the achievement gap between minority and white students.
He was troubled.
“People said you couldn’t do anything about it in the last seven years,” he said, sweating in a monogrammed white shirt. “And I think in the next four years, assuming we get mayoral control back, which I still think we will—but don’t hold your breath—we can get rid of that gap or certainly reduce it dramatically.”
The thing that was bothering the mayor was the fact that the Democratic-run State Senate has allowed a law granting the mayor control of city schools—his signature legislative achievement—to expire, and has refused to consider renewal until a number of demands involving greater control by parent groups are met.
At the event in Riverdale, the mayor merely groused about it. At other points over the preceding few days, though, he fully lost it, denouncing the idea of appeasing the Democratic conference and publicly initiating a lusty exchange of insults with other officials, during which he was called a “yenta” and a plantation owner.
For Mr. Bloomberg, who had deliberately, steadfastly kept his distance from the toxic mess in Albany last month, this was something different.
“The mayor is now more personally embroiled in this issue than he has ever been before,” said State Senator Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat from the Upper West Side.
That’s not an entirely bad thing for Mr. Bloomberg. As David Paterson can attest, it’s simply impossible to lose a public-relations war with the deeply unpopular, nationally mocked State Senate. And to the extent that the brawl draws attention to the mayor’s position on education—an issue his campaign is trying to put front and center—it’s a bonus.
One danger for the mayor is that his outbursts make him look like a petulant billionaire—not his best side, in the context of his reelection campaign against nice-guy Democrat Bill Thompson—and that his direct exchanges with angry, say-any-old-thing senators will leave him covered in mud, too. Another is that his attacks on individual senators serve to stiffen institutional resistance to him, guaranteeing that it will take that much longer to regain mayoral control—a potential addition to the list of Bloomberg projects that have gone to the Capitol to die.
After the hostile exchanges, the Bloomberg campaign moved to put some of its endless resources toward a targeted response, releasing three television ads and a radio spot about the mayor’s education agenda on July 20, and planning a further TV ad on the same topic later in the week featuring Geoffrey Canada, the respected CEO of the Harlem’s Children Zone.
THINGS BEGAN looking down, from the mayor’s perspective, when a bungled Republican coup in the State Senate produced Brooklyn’s John Sampson, a committed opponent of mayoral control, as Democratic conference leader.
On July 7, Mr. Sampson tweaked the mayor on The Brian Lehrer Show for predicting that chaos would overtake the school system with the expiration of the mayoral-control law on June 30, despite the fact that the mayor had staffed the new emergency Board of Education with like-minded deputies and borough presidents to keep the school system running as it had been.
Mr. Bloomberg responded later in the day by telling reporters, “I have no idea what he’s talking about. I think that’s the nicest way to phrase it.”
It still wasn’t clear at the time that things were going to unravel.
Mr. Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for education, Dennis Walcott, and his Department of Education lobbyist, Micah Lasher, worked furiously in the Capitol to negotiate a deal that would bring a mayoral-control bill, which had already passed in the Democratic-controlled Assembly, to the Senate floor for a vote.
They had the support of all 30 Republicans in the 62-member body. They had many of the Democrats. They had the votes. They thought.
On July 9, two leaders of the Democratic conference, Mr. Sampson and the Senate’s nominal majority leader, Malcolm Smith—a supporter of mayoral control who had effectively been stripped of power by the Senate coup—went so far as to write a letter to a colleague who favored mayoral control, Daniel Squadron, assuring him that he could leave town for his honeymoon with a clean conscience.
“Regardless of other factors,” they wrote, the bill “will receive a full vote on the floor of the State Senate by July 17, 2009.”
Negotiations over the details between the Senate and City Hall continued, but went badly.
On July 14, when the State Senate returned to session, Senator Carl Kruger of Brooklyn, a longtime opponent of mayoral control, called the bill “D.O.A.”
Then he skipped town.
On July 15, Bloomberg spokesman Stu Loeser called on the governor to enact an extraordinary session for the senators and “keep them in Albany.”
On July 16, Senator Kevin Parker, who has been indicted on assault charges and recently referred to Mr. Paterson as a “coke-sniffing, staff-banging” governor, introduced an education bill that effectively proposed to strip the mayor of all control of the city schools. The measure was defeated.
That night, Mr. Sampson scuttled the negotiations, saying that the compromises offered by the mayor’s office, according to the education blog Gotham Schools, amounted to “not one-tenth of what I need.”
On July 17, during his weekly radio show on WOR, Mr. Bloomberg started naming names.
Of Mr. Sampson, he said he had always, and apparently mistakenly, thought he “was a smart guy.”
“He voted for mayoral control the last time,” Mr. Bloomberg added. “And in his district, test scores have gone up dramatically. Now he is against it.”
The mayor questioned the intelligence of other senators—Tom Duane, Toby Stavisky, Joe Addabbo—and said that when it came to Senator Hiram Monserrate, “I don’t know what the heck he wants.”
He called on Mr. Paterson to send state troopers to “drag them back” to session, and said, “Giving them the summer off is, as we say in Gaelic, meshuggeneh.”
And, talking about negotiations, he said, “If you remember Neville Chamberlain, no matter how many times you said yes, that’s the starting point for the next round. There’s always more, more, more.”
TWO DAYS LATER, on July 19, nine of the senators most critical of Mr. Bloomberg marched on City Hall.
“We believe it would be meshuggeneh not to include parents in the education of our children,” said Mr. Monserrate, a Queens Democrat who was indicted for cutting his girlfriend’s face with a broken glass. “As opposed to loosely using the word ‘meshuggeneh,’ we would also say we don’t need a yenta on the other side of this argument and this debate.”
Senator Bill Perkins of Harlem accused the mayor of “treating us like we’re some people on his plantation.”
At a press conference in Sunset Park on July 20, Mr. Bloomberg added fuel, perhaps unintentionally, to the war of words. Asked by New York 1 reporter Rita Nissan whether he actually meant to compare the senators to Nazis, the mayor said, “I certainly did,” and, “What part of that did they not understand? This is ridiculous.”
Mr. Loeser, the Bloomberg spokesman, quickly released a statement saying that the mayor had misheard the question and that the “Chamberlain” comments referred generally to the dangers of appeasement.
On July 21, Mr. Bloomberg himself successfully convinced Councilman Bill de Blasio and Assemblyman Dov Hikind to cancel press conferences they had scheduled to criticize his Munich analogy, arguing that he had sincerely misheard the question.
But Mr. Bloomberg’s enemies show no intention of relenting.
“I stand by what I said,” said Mr. Perkins, adding, “I think he needs to back up and stop calling people names and trying to denigrate the Senate.”
“It raises the question as to whether or not he can handle this sort of democratic process, with a little ‘d,’” said Mr. Perkins.
Mr. Schneiderman, who is often supportive of the mayor and who thinks that there will eventually be a resolution on the education bill, said of Mr. Bloomberg, “I don’t think those comments helped.” (He declined to comment on the remarks of Mr. Monserrate and Mr. Perkins.)
Assemblyman Michael Benjamin of the Bronx, a Democrat who supports mayoral control and who, like Mr. Perkins, is African-American, called the suggestion that Mr. Bloomberg was a racist risible.
“Senator Perkins does seem to talk off the top of his head sometimes,” he said. “I guess part of that is frustration that they’re not getting their way—they’re not getting the mayor to bend to their demands.”
Speaking as a supporter of Mr. Thompson, though, Mr. Benjamin said he thought the argument with Albany could harm Mr. Bloomberg politically.
“Because the mayor’s personality will come out,” he said. “Those are things that can pile up and show what his record is and be used to not reelect him.”