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The Michael Bloomberg Method

On Tuesday, Michael Bloomberg, who had purchased the New York City and State Republican Party at a fire sale, announced he was leaving the GOP. The next morning, he highlighted a managerial achievement that underlines the rationale for his all-but-declared independent presidential campaign. With the press corps gathered at City Hall, he held a ceremony to mark the 50 millionth call to New York's 311 hotline. This innovation, borrowed from Chicago, has made it far easier for residents to contact city government with their problems. Bloomberg, in high spirits, put his arm around the operator who had received the call and asked with a wink if she was planning to run for president.

The popular mayor--he has a stunning 73 percent approval rating--has good reason to be ebullient. His record-breaking property tax increases have been largely forgotten because Gotham has been going through very good times. Crime continues to decline, racial tensions have been reduced, and a booming stock market--the Dow hitting one record high after another--has produced a tsunami of spending. The housing market is so hot that in Brooklyn there are condos going for more than a million dollars just a few feet from the site of a new jail. In the words of a Brooklyn realtor "We don't care about jails. We just care about parking."

Bloomberg's contribution to the good times has been limited but consequential. Most importantly, he appointed Ray Kelly police commissioner and then largely stayed out of his way. Kelly has driven crime below the levels of the Giuliani years, and his innovative Operation Atlas anti-terrorism program has been a major success, despite a reduction in the size of the police force. The welfare rolls didn't explode, as some feared, and New Yorkers generally have sense that the city is reasonably well run.

New York is going through a sweet stretch, and, naturally, Bloomberg has reaped the reward. But Bloomberg has added a good deal in the way of artificial sweeteners. His lavish public and private spending--the city budget is growing at twice the rate of inflation, and in 2004 alone he gave out $140 million of his own money in donations to 800 worthy and vote-rich organizations--has bought a great deal of good will.

Yet, when you look for Bloomberg's distinctive achievements to support a presidential run, they're hard to find. When you ask Gothamites about Bloomberg's accomplishments, they're brought up short. Some, if their children aren't in the public schools, will mention education, but most draw a blank. Bloomberg's greatest accomplishment has been to continue the Giuliani crime and welfare reforms. But when it comes to his own initiatives, 311 excepted, it's been a different matter.

As mayor of New York, Bloomberg came in vowing to reform the schools and be held accountable if he failed. But when it comes to the schools, Bloomberg has neither succeeded nor, thanks to his fortune, been held accountable for his failure. Ever since the disastrous late-1960s administration of the mayor whom he most closely resembles, John Lindsay, control over the schools had been placed in the hands of the fractious and unaccountable Board of Education. But when Bloomberg became mayor, the state eliminated the Board of Education and gave him unprecedented control over education. The stock market surge has given him the wherewithal to increase New York's already considerable school budget by an additional billion dollars a year for the past four years. But a befuddled Bloomberg has been uncertain about what to do with his extraordinary opportunity. First, he centralized the operations of the schools, now he's decentralizing; first he wooed the teachers with a sharp salary increase, then he reviled them as the equivalent of the NRA, now he's back to wooing them. And while test scores haven't increased, the number of educational consultants and bureaucrats certainly has. City Comptroller Bill Thompson, a far less than adversarial politician, who invests the city's pension funds, has noted that a company that repeatedly changed strategies without showing results would be a "risky investment" in the corporate world.

Bloomberg has used his personal treasury and that of his fat cat friends to run a permanent public relations campaign, including full page ads they've taken out in The New York Times designed to suggest that significant progress has been made in improving education. How many of those well-to-do friends, who treat the schools as another worthy charity, send their children to public schools? Every purported advance in test scores, notes education analyst Sol Stern, has been highly heralded, every subsequent reversal buried. Still, Bloomberg is nothing if not a first-rate marketer of his own interests, and he's used his supposed success to sell his "reforms" and, implicitly, an independent presidential campaign based on managerial competence to fellow mayors around the country.

Bloomberg is so skilled at using his wealth to market himself that his plan to reduce traffic and pollution by charging congestion fees to come into central Manhattan has been hailed by Time, which put him on its cover, as if words were deeds. But congestion pricing is unlikely to be implemented, and, even if implemented, it's not clear that it would reduce congestion. Time was so impressed with Bloomberg's verbal accomplishments that it failed to note that one of the major causes of downtown congestion are the thousands of parking permits generously given out by Bloomberg's own City Hall. Bloomberg, after considerable effort, has succeeded in getting developer Bruce Ratner's massive Atlantic Yards project approved. At a time when Brooklyn is booming with new, unsubsidized housing construction, the wealthy Ratner, a friend of Bloomberg's, will receive half a billion dollars in subsidies guaranteed to sharply increase both congestion and pollution along already overburdened Flatbush Avenue, the borough's main artery. Recently, when Bloomberg went to a press conference on green initiatives, he ostentatiously arrived by subway, only to be met for the trip back to City Hall by a large gas-guzzling SUV.

There is a lengthy list of Bloomberg failures. Among them: In his first term he virtually ignored the rebuilding of Ground Zero to push for the building of a stadium on the West Side of Manhattan in order to draw the 2012 Olympics. The stadium won't be built, if it had it would have created massive congestion; the Olympics aren't coming and the limited progress at Ground Zero has come from the state. Homelessness is at or near record levels, subway service is declining, and debt is piling up at a rapid pace. Police Commissioner Kelly's achievements are threatened by a Bloomberg-administration negotiated contract that starts rookie cops at a paltry $25,000 a year, and thus has left the NYPD with only a quarter of the recruits it needs. Bloomberg has been too busy promoting himself to note, until recently, that New York is losing ground as a financial center to both London and Hong Kong. If that slide continues, it will, along with the massive debt he's accumulated, be part of his lasting legacy.

Bloomberg has recently unveiled a new anti-poverty plan to be initially financed by himself, George Soros, and the Rockefeller Fund among others. Modeled on programs in Brazil and Mexico, it will bribe children to come to school, take tests, get a library card, and pass exams. It will also help demoralize those kids who do the right thing but aren't getting "paid" for it. But there's no secret as to why Bloomberg, thinks this will work. He's done a brilliant job of buying political support--why wouldn't money be the key to buying educational success and support for his presidential run as well?

Leaving his generous charitable donations aside, Bloomberg spent $160 million to be twice elected mayor of New York. In his 2005 re-election bid he spent more on consultants than his opponent spent on his entire campaign. Bloomberg, who is estimated to be worth at least $6 billion, has talked about spending a billion dollars on a presidential run. The logic seems straight forward. He's done a great job politically by buying the backing of supposedly hard-bitten New Yorkers--imagine how well he probably assumes such a scheme could work on the rubes out there beyond the Hudson.

By Fred Siegel