Kirtzman on Sean Bell and the Luck of Bloomberg

How much credit does Michael Bloomberg deserve for the relative calm that’s followed the Sean Bell verdict? It’s a question that’s more than just academic, given the potential for racially fraught episodes just like this one to have a defining impact on a mayoral legacy – and on a mayor’s political fortunes moving forward.

According to veteran New York political reporter Andrew Kirtzman, who I emailed for his take on the question, Bloomberg has been more lucky than skillful in presiding over what has been, so far, a restrained fallout.

Here’s Kirtzman’s take, from early this weekend:

Assuming the streets stay calm through the weekend, a lot of credit is going to flow Michael Bloomberg’s way. The conventional wisdom is that the mayor has calmed racial tensions in the city in the last few years by eschewing the kind of hot-headed rhetoric for which Rudy Giuliani was derided. Yet the only major riot to break out in modern times didn’t occur under Giuliani; it occurred under David Dinkins, in Crown Heights. Whatever you may think of him, Dinkins never fanned the flames of anything.

My point is that restraint from City Hall only gets you so far in these situations. The truth is that Bloomberg has been pretty lucky when it comes to race relations: Economic times have been good; minority neighborhoods are flowering and safer than ever (a trend that began under Giuliani); an African-American running for president is sparking hope in poor neighborhoods and Harlem has sent one of its own to the governor’s mansion. Then there’s the fact that Al Sharpton has grown decidedly less militant over the years. Today he’s more of a political power-broker than a street activist, and no one has come close to assuming his former role.

Bloomberg has benefited from a lot of these trends. As a result, he’s been mostly spared the hornet’s nest of racial conflict. If, God forbid, a racial conflagration were to result from the Sean Bell verdict, it would be represent the mayor’s first real test. Whether he’d emerge looking like a fair-minded healer or an out of touch billionaire is something we don’t really know. Let’s hope we never have to find out.

Kirtzman on Sean Bell and the Luck of Bloomberg