Bloomberg’s Grid: When Lights Blow, He’s Management

On Tuesday morning, Mayor Michael Bloomberg stepped to the podium in a brightly lit Long Island City building not far from the blacked-out areas in Queens to commiserate with an audience about the city’s “tough week.”

He did not pound the lectern. He did not raise his voice. And, despite outraged protests from residents, political officials and the media, he did not criticize Con Ed.

“Once again New Yorkers have shown what they’re made of, and their resilience, and everybody is sad that it happened,” said Mr. Bloomberg. “But I think we’ve come out of this as well as we could have.”

Can the same be said of the Mayor’s reputation?

Perhaps more than any other crisis he has faced in his tenure, the blackout is testing the limits of Mr. Bloomberg’s often-exalted model of businesslike governance. For years now, efficiency has come before empathy, progress before politics. But it’s one thing to withstand special interests and reinvest surpluses back into the budget; it’s another entirely to side with an impersonal utility company that left New Yorkers to stew in their darkened apartments, some for more than a week.

And Mr. Bloomberg’s persistent support of Con Ed in the face of bread lines, portable generators and tens of thousands of angry residents may cost him dearly in terms of political capital.

“It’s certainly among the toughest weeks he’s had,” said political consultant Norman Adler. “A lot of citizens are unhappy, and they don’t feel that he has done anything for them. Sometimes the Mayor is a politician, and sometimes he can’t help himself and reverts back to being a businessman.”

Rarely, for Mr. Bloomberg, has playing the role of a manager committed to results above petty politics had such a steep potential downside. Now, eight months since his 20-point re-election, some lawmakers and political observers have gone so far as to call this his John Lindsay moment, referring to the politically catastrophic inability of that ambitious Mayor to clear snow from the streets of Queens in 1969. And normally sympathetic politicians, who are jumping at the chance to kick the colossal utility while it is down, are professing their utter bewilderment at Mr. Bloomberg’s defense of Con Ed.

“Do I share my good friend Mike Bloomberg’s view about the C.E.O. of Con Ed?” said Attorney General Eliot Spitzer at a televised gubernatorial debate on Tuesday night. “Absolutely not. I was stunned that he said it.”

Such feelings were most clearly on display this week as a number of Queens Democrats, standing behind the Mayor at a City Hall press conference, looked like they were sucking on lemons as Mr. Bloomberg talked about the debt that New Yorkers owed to their power company, and how Con Ed president Kevin Burke “deserves a thanks from the city.”

About the only people not expressing disbelief at the Mayor’s behavior were power-industry experts, who guessed that the term-limited Mayor was placing his working relationship with Con Ed above the voters’ opinions.

“Politicians are trying to figure out what the partisan advantage is; there are no votes in being with Con Ed,” said Steven Cohen, a professor of public administration at Columbia University who specializes in science policy and management. The explanation Mr. Cohen came up with was that, since Con Ed is a regulated utility and there is no alternative company for delivering the city’s electricity, the city had no choice but to make the best of the situation. “If you are the Mayor, you have to work with the resources you have,” Mr. Cohen said.

“I think the Mayor’s office is very committed to working with Con Edison,” said David Bomke, executive director of the nonprofit New York Energy Consumers Council, who served as a member of the city’s Energy Policy Task Force, which worked on improving the city’s energy efficiency, new clean-energy capacity and infrastructure planning.

On Tuesday, which Mr. Bloomberg said he hoped would be the day that power returned to the last blackout victims, the Mayor cast himself, not for the first time, as a fair-minded pragmatist, impervious to whatever political winds happened to be blowing at the time. “Going out and vilifying anybody when something happens to a network that was designed 20 years earlier doesn’t seem to me to make any sense,” he said to reporters after his event on Tuesday.

“I look back over the last week and I don’t think you could have asked any more from any of our city agencies. And from what I can see as an outsider, I think Con Ed—given that they found themselves in a situation—responded the way we would want them to.”

While it is too soon to tell how the public will react to his handling of the situation over the long term, the Mayor’s performance has been severely scrutinized in the press—the New York Post mocked it as a minor version of the botched reaction to Hurricane Katrina, while The Times assigned four reporters to a story documenting negative reaction to the Mayor’s defense of Con Ed.

(Contrast that with the glowing tone of a New York Times editorial on Mr. Bloomberg’s handling of a blackout in 2003: “When New York City lost its power, Mayor Michael Bloomberg exercised his, leading the city relatively unscarred through a situation rife with potential disaster.”)

And the Mayor’s unexpected application of the Bloomberg doctrine provoked the ire of normally friendly officials, who seemed forced into expressing selective dismay over the Mayor’s actions.

Councilman Eric Gioia of Queens professed to be “perplexed” by the Mayor’s remarks and said he plans to hold Council hearings on Thursday.

Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who lost power in his Queens home, has called on the borough’s district attorney to investigate Con Ed for reckless endangerment. “Anyone who as been involved in this disaster over the course of the last week could not possibly say anything other than Con Ed has failed miserably,” he said. “For the Mayor to say anything else, I don’t know what he is thinking.”

And Representative Joseph Crowley, a Democrat from Queens, added, “The Mayor doesn’t want this to happen again. This isn’t helping anyone politically. In this particular crisis, people were to some degree looking for more of a touch.”

So far, the most obvious expression of the Mayor’s displeasure with Con Ed—other than a comment that he was “annoyed” by the company’s initial low estimates—has been to appoint Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff to oversee a commission investigating the blackout that will report to City Hall on Aug. 2. City Hall officials suggested that depending on the findings of that and subsequent reports, Mr. Burke may yet be held accountable for the blackout.

“[Mr. Bloomberg] looks at things from an empirical point of view. There is still no good data to explain what’s going on, so why pile on here?” said David Hepinstall, executive director of the Association for Energy Affordability, which also contributed to the Energy Policy Task Force. “The jury is still out.”

In the meantime, Con Ed workers continue to pull scorched wire and Mr. Bloomberg continues to stick to his line, even if it makes the residents of Queens cringe.

“You want to encourage people to do their best; criticizing them, particularly when you need them, is not a ways to incent people,” he said on Tuesday morning in Queens. “And the politics are what the politics are; everybody should conduct themselves the way they think is right.” Bloomberg’s Grid: When Lights Blow, He’s Management