The Malaise-Proofing of Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg stood under the fluid white walls of the IAC Building on July 7 and announced another installment of his plan to diversify the city’s economy after the demise of Wall Street.

“With the industry undergoing profound changes,” he said of the city’s media sector, “it’s incumbent on us to take steps now to capitalize on growth opportunities and ensure we remain an industry leader.”

The mayor might as well have been talking about his own situation.

Dispensing with any elaborate pretense about being in a competitive re-election contest, Mr. Bloomberg’s handlers have begun to use the mayor’s public appearances to address what happens after 2009.  Their political task: to figure out a way of avoiding the historic curse of the complacent, unfocused and regrettable third term.

“Everyone is aware of the possibility of a third-term malaise, and as a result, the direction has been clear to ensure that that does not occur,” said Howard Wolfson, the communications director for the Bloomberg campaign. “But that’s not why the mayor is running for a third term. There is still unfinished business, and then there is more that the mayor wants to accomplish in the third that will be new and innovative.”

Of course, given the state of the economy—to say nothing of the malaise—the mayor’s greatest challenge in a third term may simply be to see to it that the city doesn’t fall to pieces on his watch. But the mayor’s campaign says that they intend to defy that script.

Mr. Bloomberg will focus on pre-Kindergarten programs and post high-school community colleges and trade schools in an effort to expand city-funded education. He’ll mandate that some employers provide their employees with sick-day benefits, and try, again, to wean the five boroughs off of cars by expanding public transportation to areas mostly ignored by bus, train and ferry.  He’ll propose aggressive measures, both in the city and Albany, to fight foreclosures and keep people in their homes.

Not surprisingly, many of the policies the campaign is drafting, not to mention those they have already begun rolling out–like the “five-borough economic opportunity plan” discussed at the IAC building–are intended to address the needs of the middle class. That is a function of necessity, but also of politics—a prophylactic against the perennial out-of-touch-billionaire criticisms from his opponents.

“The mayor astutely uses campaigns to take on new policy initiatives and shore up areas where he is weak,” said Jonathan Bowles, the director of the Center for an Urban Future and the co-author of a February study “Reviving the Middle Class Dream in NYC.” “I think he did that in 2005 and I think he’s doing that now. He has a lot of money to hire smart policy people; he has a lot of money to tout his ideas. You can see in his campaign he is clearly taking on issues where he thinks he is vulnerable.”   

On the morning of July 7, two of the Bloomberg campaign’s top policy people sat for an interview in a conference room in the mayor’s sleepy campaign headquarters on West 40th Street.

Andrea Batista Schlesinger, 32, who worked for Democrat Freddy Ferrer in his 2001 race for mayor and then ran the liberal Drum Major Institute before joining the Bloomberg campaign to work on social policy issues, sat next to Brian Mahanna, 27, a veteran of the Bloomberg administration and ‘05 campaign who is working on economic diversity issues.

Mr. Wolfson sat across the conference table and kept them from articulating any specifics that might spoil the official, campaign-orchestrated rollouts of policy initiatives later on.

The policy aides did suggest some themes, however.

Ms. Batista Schlesinger, for example, hinted that the mayor would undertake an aggressive (and presumably costly) effort to expand schooling for non-school-age children and post-adolescents.  

“K-12 is a huge, significant part of education,” she said. “But clearly education starts sooner and goes later. The question is, how young can we start, and how old can we go.”

She also said they were also moving ahead with further plans—distinct from the tree-plantings and engineering of “urban boulevards” that are already well underway–to make the city more environmentally friendly and easier to navigate. Again, no specifics, but the parts of the administration’s PlaNYC manifesto yet to be acted upon include the full implementation of a plan to retrofit the city’s buildings — its largest source of CO2 emissions – and help create an estimated 19,000 “green” jobs.

He would stress pocketbook issues. Mr. Bloomberg’s advisers seemed to suggest that, as he did with issues ranging from smoking to gun control, the mayor intends to play an assertive role in shaping policy that traditionally gets shaped at the state and federal levels, such as providing health insurance to small-business employees.

Last week, at a Working Families Party candidate forum, Mr. Bloomberg said he supported mandates for employers to offer workers sick days at large companies, which was something the policy directors said would be part of a larger theme of middle-class-friendly policy proposals.

“He is looking at what that would mean for small business,” said Ms. Batista Schlesinger. “Clearly the policy now needs to be crafted that’s informed by the principles he laid out.”           

And housing: Ms. Batista Schlesinger also said that there would be new policy to counter the spread of foreclosures.

“I think you’ll see more ideas about how to keep people in their homes,” said Batista Schlesinger. “The sum total of it will be the most aggressive and comprehensive plan, some of it involves local policy, some of it involves state policy, whatever the mayor can do, whether it is the bully pulpit or actual policy, there will be more.”

These bright ideas, if they do end up constituting the centerpiece of the mayor’s reelection platform, will be trotted out in extraordinarily dark circumstances.

A stalemate in the State Senate is costing the city an estimated $60 million a month in tax revenues and has forced a hiring freeze on hundreds of critical city jobs, even as Mr. Bloomberg’s signature accomplishment, direct mayoral control of schools, has been allowed to expire. At the same time, there has been a spike in homelessness, an impasse at Ground Zero and a severe drop-off in property taxes as a result of the collapse of financial institutions.

It’s an indication, if nothing else, that malaise may be the least of the mayor’s challenges.

“Third terms have not been a charm for the mayors of the City of New York, just historically,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, as she left City Hall, after standing beside the mayor during a press conference on mayoral control on July 1.

In a phone interview, City Comptroller Bill Thompson, the mayor’s likely Democratic opponent, heartily agreed.

“Third terms just do not work,” he said.

Mr. Thompson cited the wobbly third term of the former mayor Ed Koch, as well as those of former governors Mario Cuomo and George Pataki, and argued that Mr. Bloomberg’s potential third term, if it came to pass, would likewise be drained of energy.

Councilman Bill de Blasio, who is running for public advocate and who was an outspoken opponent of the extension of term limits, said, “It seems to be there is a pretty clear historical trend that the first term of any executive is fresh and dynamic; the second term, if done right, finishes some of the work started in the first term; but the third term is almost always a time of a kind dropping off, a lack of energy, a lack of direction—a kind of malaise sets in, really.”

A veteran of the David Dinkins administration, Mr. de Blasio also predicted that it would be impossible for the mayor’s staffers to sustain that level of activity for eight years.

“Frankly, the people he relies on the most are kind of burned out right now,” he said.

Naturally, Mr. Bloomberg’s administration argues that it will be different with them.

Mayoral spokesman Stu Loeser said that Mr. Bloomberg’s philosophy of delegating key policy initiatives to entrepreneurial, individually ambitious staffers would keep the administration from inching toward complacency.

In the past, Mr. Loeser said, seemingly modest campaign promises were seized on by such officials and turned into some of Mr. Bloomberg’s most notable programs, such as the national coalition of mayors against gun violence (Ed Skyler) or PlaNYC (Dan Doctoroff).

Mr. Loeser also argued that Mr. Bloomberg’s wont to recruit talented outsiders to implement his broad policy vision would achieve much the same thing.

He noted that after the chairman of the New York City Housing Authority, Tino Hernandez, stepped down in 2009 after seven years on the job, Mr. Bloomberg replaced him with John Rhea, the former managing director of the Lehman Brothers global consumer retail group. Mr. Rhea had no public-housing experience, but Mr. Bloomberg valued his management experience and gave him the job.

Later that month, after Barack Obama selected Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden to be director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mr. Bloomberg replaced him with Thomas Farley, a New Orleans pediatrician and epidemiologist from Tulane University, who has crusaded against obesity.

And in 2007, the mayor replaced transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall, who left to become Vice Chancellor at the City University of New York, with Janette Sadik-Khan, who promptly took a leading role in the congestion pricing fight and who turned Times Square into a pedestrian space.

“From my perspective, we are running as fast as we can and I think getting a lot done,” said Ms. Sadik-Khan, adding that she expected the mayor to build on the accomplishments of his first two terms in his third.

Asked whether Mr. Bloomberg would have the same team in place to do the building, she said, “People have different energy levels, so it remains to be seen. I think there is always a natural transition out of government when people have been there a long time.”

At Bloomberg campaign headquarters, Mr. Mahanna said that knowing that fresh agency heads like Ms. Sadik-Khan were coming aboard and demonstrating an eagerness to try new things gave him “confidence.”

“We are aware of what third terms have often looked like,” said Mr. Mahanna. “The mayor’s aware of it, and we want to come up with a robust vision of where we are going to take the city over the next four years.”

Additional reporting by Azi Paybarah

The Malaise-Proofing of Michael Bloomberg