Can New Mayors Learn from the Bloomberg Legacy?

We owe the former mayor of New York City a debt of gratitude for what he accomplished, but should also remain cautious with how he got things done.
January 9, 2014
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It was with some regret that I watched Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio take the oath of office in front of his house in Brooklyn just after midnight on January 1, 2014. I lived just down the street, and I would have walked down to see the event, if I had known about it.

Instead, I was a few blocks away with my family in the beautiful Prospect Park, watching bouquets of fireworks bloom over my head.  I caught de Blasio’ swearing in the next morning on television.

As the tall, Democratic new mayor steps in, full of pledges about reducing inequality, it’s surely worth a moment to stop and regard the man he replaced: physically short, nominally Republican or Independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is leaving office after a dozen years.

He is one of an unusually large number of departing mayors in cities big and small, including Boston, Minneapolis, Detroit, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Seattle. In all these cities, citizens are pivoting, getting ready for a new mayor with new styles and new priorities. But perhaps nowhere is the contrast greater than in New York City.

Bloomberg was an extraordinary mayor in content and methods. He was sui generis, and a deux ex machina in the city’s story line in that he arrived from outside the normal political process and operated outside it as well. Because of this, Bloomberg was able to solve or at least make substantial progress on several fronts often considered intractable.  The city owes him a debt of thanks, and a newfound sense of caution.

He won back mayoral control of city schools; he tamed streets with bicycles and plazas; he built hundreds of thousands of homes for middle and lower income families; he catapulted forward the quality of city architecture; he completed the first extension of a major city subway line in a half century or more (the 7 line); he produced a model long-range comprehensive plan called PlaNYC; and much, much more.

On the whole, he was an extraordinarily liberal in his policies, even in the blue city of New York. It as an example of the distorting lens of political eyesight that Bloomberg is seen as occupying the right, and incoming De Blasio the left. Their difference is more of rhetoric and style. Bloomberg, as a billionaire media mogul from the finance world with a 55-story in midtown Manhattan bearing his name, has a very different symbolism, then de Blasio, with his African-American wife and children, and humble Park Slope row house. Of course, in actuality, Park Slope is now a very wealthy neighborhood, and houses on De Blasio’s street are valued at roughly $2 million.

I praise Bloomberg for his policies, most of which I supported, but also for who he is and who he is not. He used his money and time to make the city a better place, as he views it. As a billionaire, he could have flown his private jet to his Bermuda house and bought all the rum and cokes he wanted. Or, more ominously, he could have used his fortune to buy more power and money. As everyone from Ghenkis Khan to Madonna has shown, successful people often seem to have a limitless appetite for power and wealth.

Compare Bloomberg to former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, another billionaire media mogul. I’m not an expert in Italian politics, but Berlusconi, who was continually caught in one scandal or another, seemed to have entered politics mostly for personal aggrandizement. Even the worst critics of Bloomberg have not accused him, to my knowledge, of using his position as mayor to enrich himself or his company. 

But because Bloomberg was a good and effective man makes him dangerous. He offers voters the seductive appeal that a rich guy can come into office and solve all their problems for them, outside of the messy kitchen of democracy. And outside of it he was, apart from simply being elected. The New York Times estimated at the very least he spent $750 million of his own money on city and political business while in office.

Bloomberg used his money to buy everything he needed, including experts and his own staff. He didn’t have to dispense patronage jobs and or assemble coalitions in the usual way. If he wanted to explore some options, he paid for it. He didn’t have to win funding from a legislative body for this, or carefully use a sliver of a limited city budget where every dollar is fought over. He showered donations on non-profit groups in the arts, public health and social services. Such money made it difficult for them to oppose the mayor’s policies. Bloomberg didn’t just use his fortune to get elected; he used it to govern.

Now, average citizens and leaders of all types will have to accustom to the sausage making of democracy, to assembling support, to compromising, to divvying up limited budgets. They may find themselves yearning for another billionaire mayor to solve their problems, but they should resist temptation, even if one offers him or herself.

Our ancestors did not fight for that.

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