New York had little to celebrate on the first day of 2002, its wounds still fresh from the attacks on the World Trade Center not four months earlier. To see the fluorescence of one of the world’s greatest urban centers disappear in a burst of horrific fire had stolen the soul of Downtown Manhattan and thrown the city into an emotional standstill. Yet on the steps of City Hall that New Year’s morning, just a two-minute walk from the chasm where the Twin Towers had stood, New York entrusted Michael R. Bloomberg with its deeply uncertain future.
“There will be a better tomorrow,” the new Mayor declared.
To the television cameras and heavy-coated observers on that brisk day, the newcomer projected confidence in his leadership and accepted the enormous responsibility in front of him. Bloomberg promised a new chapter for the downed metropolis. “In the next four years, I will devote myself to building a better New York,” he said. “We will rebuild, renew and remain the capital of the free world.”
What an unusual choice voters had made. September 11, 2001, struck in the middle of a political shift. The Giuliani administration was coming to an end, finalizing the Republican’s eight-year stint as mayor during the boom years of the Clinton presidency. The requisite transition to a new guard came at the most inopportune time; despite that September’s tragedy, the November city elections had been long set. Not since 1979, when New York was the length of an eyelash away from bankruptcy, did its citizens so keenly feel the need for bold new leadership; a mayor who knew City Hall better than anyone else, one who could revitalize the five boroughs with swift, political efficiency.
Instead, they elected an amateur from the business world, where the word government most closely translates as regulatory red tape. In the 1980s, Bloomberg had grown his fortune with a niche industry perfect for the time: selling easy-to-access financial information about stocks and equities to the Gordon Gekkos of new Wall Street. The self-branded Bloomberg L.P. gave Downtown Manhattan its media wing and, within a decade, his namesake company was taking in millions, if not billions, of dollars from the titans of the financial sector. Before Bloomberg launched his self-bankrolled campaign for City Hall, totaling $75.5 million by the end of the 2001 election cycle, Forbes was more likely to feature the Democrat-turned-Republican than The New York Times.
Mitt Romney’s pitch to the American people in the presidential campaign of 2012 was so much like Bloomberg’s in 2001, it could have been the Republican presidential challenger’s model. The difference was, Bloomberg won.
From Day One, the Boston-born Mayor of New York City made no effort to cloak the distance between his own elite life experiences and those of the average New Yorker. He opted to stay in his five-story, 7,500 square foot Upper East Side townhouse near Central Park rather than make the customary move to Gracie Mansion. He took a salary of only a dollar a year.
He managed to use his differences of privilege as a selling point with voters, highlighting his private sector background -- a career without the taint of public office. Constituents numbed by electoral partisanship found Bloomberg’s antipathy to politics refreshing; his was a renegade success story that promised New York much needed economic hope.
With the backing of former mayors Rudy Giuliani, David Dinkins and Ed Koch, the newcomer’s aspirations soared. “I have said it before and I want to say it again,” he declared in that first inaugural address. “New York is safe, strong, open for business and ready to lead the world in the 21st century.”
There would be any number of great successes over the course of the coming 12 years during Bloomberg’s three consecutive administrations. But those same successes have given way to infuriation with several key constituencies. There is mounting backlash from the lower and middle classes to the growing disparity in income, so evident in the spectre of Williamsburg’s gleaming new condos facing the aging Jacob A. Riis public housing project of Avenue D on the other side of the East River.
The backlash seems personal, aimed at Bloomberg himself more than at his administration. No wonder headline writers so often refer to him as “King.” He’s been ribbed for taking off on helicopter-borne weekend getaways and gotten socked by the media for declaring that no homeless people sleep on New York’s streets at night.
A close look at the mayor’s inaugural addresses in 2002, 2006 and 2010 provide a track for following the Bloomberg story through his three consecutive terms in office, not only as a politician, but as an individual. Offered both at moments of popularity or pillory, the speeches reveal a man who never stopped growing into the job, who used his managerial expertise to forge a perception of government as a co-partner, not a deterrent, to what its citizens achieve. This has placed Bloomberg’s City Hall at the intersection of politics and business. Only, today, not everyone is pleased with where his government positions itself, most notably the municipal workers, teachers, and the unions that represent them.
Putting aside the label of Independent that he embraced after breaking ranks with the Republicans in 2008, he has slowly become a politician in a category of his own. Now, 12 years and 12 executive budgets later, the reign of the great New York enigma that is Michael Bloomberg is finally coming to an end with only its legacy left to determine.
Giuliani bequeathed to Bloomberg a City Hall in desperate need of an upgrade.
For the most part, the previous mayor had ignored the advent of the Internet and its heightening demand for government transparency. “We were so technologically behind,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. “There was no 311 to call or web access in most City buildings.” Bloomberg not only understood the promise of the Information Age; he made his own fortune harnessing its data potential.
Harvey Robins was an operations officer under Dinkins and is a long-time expert in city affairs. “Bloomberg entered office with two main features,” he said. “He had an enormous business background and huge IT experience.” It didn’t take very long for the city’s finances to adapt to the ways of Bloomberg L.P.
The financial archives on the website for the Office of Management and Budget are non-existent before 2002. Almost immediately after Bloomberg stepped into office, New York City’s government went online. The Office of Management and Budget began to digitize all spending information. Every city agency then embraced the drive for data that the public could easily access.
In the explanation of Maria Doulis, who directs city studies at the Citizen Budget Commission, “His emphasis was to bring a more data-driven technocratic approach to it. Certainly that was what he campaigned on and won the election with earlier on. To a large extent, he has presided over a government with city agencies that had this ethos towards more data.” And what did the data reveal at first? A budgetary abyss dug throughout the Giuliani years that was $1.1 billion -- deep.
The collapse of the World Trade Center collapsed New York trade, too; the city fell into a short-term recession and its government was broke. The obvious solution was new taxes, but they were the last thing the new mayor wanted to impose. So at first he didn’t.
Bloomberg’s anti-tax stance was an evocation of the “read my lips, no new taxes” Bush Sr. conservatism, long in the Republican vernacular. The Bush White House had already passed a popular round of tax cuts by this point, much to the praise of a citizenry hit by 9/11 and a resulting financial downturn. Falling in rank with his party, Bloomberg strongly opposed levying any increase. “We cannot drive people and business out of New York,” were his exact words on January 1, 2002. “We cannot raise taxes. We will find another way.”
By year’s end, that promise was broken. "It is a very difficult thing to face the public and say we have a problem and we have the courage to stand up and solve that problem,” the Mayor admitted at a press conference in December of 2002 as he announced the unpopular decision.
Economist James Parrott reflected on Bloomberg’s thinking at the time. “It would be devastating for New York City to slash services, even in a recession, because it would worsen the business climate and have an adverse effect on quality of life in New York City,” Parrott said. “So his approach to tax policy overall was to preserve and maintain City services rather than cut them.” Parrott, who is the Fiscal Policy Institute’s chief economist, considers this the major difference between Bloomberg and Giuliani.
Along with an extraordinary injection of loans from Albany and Washington D.C., the new administration proposed and passed the largest property tax increase in New York City’s history. The 18.5 percent approved by the City Council was considerably less than the 25 percent Bloomberg originally proposed. Still, the hike went into effect in a matter days: in line with the administration’s first financial plan, the collected tax revenue would rise from $864 million to $1.1 billion in four years time.
Aside from a severe deficit, the economic strain posed by 9/11 brought with it another threat to the city’s financial stability: the potential flight of Wall Street interests from Downtown. The New York Stock Exchange was shaken by the attacks; banks like Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers had made it clear to officials that remaining anywhere near Ground Zero would be an issue. Their departure would drain the most profitable industry in all of New York.
Luckily, Bloomberg spoke Wall Street’s language. “To our corporate leaders,” the new Mayor said in first inaugural address. “I urge you to strengthen your commitment to New York. This is no time to leave the Big Apple. Your future is New York. And New York's is better than ever.”
Through massive real estate settlements, the Bloomberg administration and the Economic Development Corporation -- which acts as a broker for the City -- made serious investments to retain the corporate way of life Downtown. This prioritization of the wealthy private sector would set fiscal precedent for years to come. Bloomberg has treated the quasi-public group with the utmost attention and respect, sources at the EDC told me, helping to ensure future development of Downtown business interests through such devices as tax breaks and rezoning.
One initial inaugural promise the Mayor did keep was his vow to rebuild the city’s schools. With 1.1 million students, it is the largest system of its kind in the country. “Together we will create a school system that works for all our children,” Bloomberg declared on that first Inauguration Day. “The need is real. The time is now.” As Doug Turetsky of the citizen watchdog group the Independent Budget Office put it, “The Mayor has always said that education is a test of his mayoralty.”
The controversial, unprecedented action Bloomberg took to realize this achievement was to take control of the Department of Education. He would push out a decades-old elected board and impose a new top-down structure based on the Mayor’s personal choices. By doing so, Bloomberg would have the privilege of picking the board himself along with his already established right to choose the chancellor. The Mayor’s own words best describe this initial power grab. In 2002’s inaugural address, he explained “Without authority, there is no accountability. The public through the mayor must control the school system.”
Key phrase: The public through the mayor. This was the first true flexing of Bloombergian governing muscle, one that emanated from his business background: entrust power in a central figure, execute decisions without forestallment and ask questions later. With his own appointees in place, Bloomberg’s judgment would reverberate through every level of the educational hierarchy. This tidal shift in power effectively put the mayor into every classroom in every school across the five boroughs.
And, given the time and place, he was able to get away with it. In the early days of the Bloomberg administration, New York City public school system was in total disarray. Graduation rates hovered around 50 percent. Test scores fell far behind New York State averages and a teaching position in the city paid considerably less than in the suburbs. The opening for the mayor was wide and as Sol Stern of the City Journal wrote at the time, “Bloomberg made an offer that [the State] couldn’t refuse: Give me the authority to improve the schools, and then hold me accountable for the results.”
So Albany consented. In June 2002, Gov. George Pataki signed the Mayoral Control Act into law, effectively validating the promise of mayoral control Bloomberg had made to his constituents six months before. The Act was renewed in 2009, extending this executive privilege past Bloomberg’s upcoming exit from office. That means until 2015, the head of city government will retain control over the school system, giving the next mayor a year with the kind of sweeping authority that has allowed the school system to improve markedly in only twelve years, while also severely compromising his relationship with the teachers' union.
Even against the financial limitations of a strained budget, the Department of Education under Bloomberg began receiving a steady inflow of cash. It was this money that funded the incredibly pricy reforms. Budgetary data shows that the total expenditures for education rose from $12.5 billion in 2002 to $15 billion in 2006, a rate of increase of 6.25 percent. In four years, Bloomberg had already matched just as much money as the entire eight-year term of Rudy Giuliani, only he’d done it on half the time. By spending big, Bloomberg was fulfilling his new role as educator-in-chief.
“I think administrations are characterized by the problems they face,” Doulis of the Citizens Budget Commission told me. “So you may think of Koch and be like, ‘Okay, it was really about the big housing plan and trying to make the City streets look livable again to battle the flight from the City.’ And, then with Giuliani, he really took on crime. And Bloomberg really saw himself as the guy who was going to fix education.”
But, to limit himself to just education reform wasn’t in Bloomberg’s managerial nature. He also set out to pursue public health, an area of interest that would put him at odds with another vast swath of his constituents.
Although the Mayor would later make clear his disdain for tobacco, what was to come nine months after his inauguration on the public health front did not make the first inaugural address, unless you count his reference to a “free, healthy, democratic society.”
Moss observed how Bloomberg’s predecessors had always avoided addressing matters of public health -- hesitant to risk angering voters and hurt their reelection prospects. “Mayors were afraid of public health,” Moss told me. Not Bloomberg. As one unnamed administration official told the New York Times in August 2002, “He makes changes to things that he thinks are important.”
Halfway through his first year in office, after winning an increase in taxes on cigarettes of up to $1.50 a pack, the Mayor proposed an initiative that blindsided the City Council. He wanted the largest city in the country to ban smoking in every public indoor space, from restaurants and bars, to stores and offices. And he wanted it done immediately. It seemed like a political impossibility at first; any civil service textbook would have deemed the legislation virtually impassable. To dare ask the members of the legislature to sign off on a bill that would ask their constituents to take their butts outside was flat-out insane -- even Giuliani called the unprecedented proposal outrageous and unfair.
The life cycle of the smoking ban precisely demonstrates Bloomberg’s rigid unilateralism. “He’d be very happy if all he had to do was rule,” Councilman Jumaane Williams told me. “If he didn’t have to listen to unions and City Council, he’d be much happier.” But he got the City Council to agree to a bill wildly outside the interests of the its members by cornering them in the negotiating process.
In the month leading up to the bill’s passage, a Times reporter wrote that “the mayor [had] quietly lined up support in the Council, where several members are likely to sponsor a bill at his request forcing all smoking New Yorkers to do their puffing outdoors.” A month later, unnamed sources confirmed to the New York Observer that the mayor told Council members if they decided to vote against the ban, he “would support people’s opponents” and publicly shame the members by saying they had voted to kill people. Just a few months into his reign, the mayor had used his wealth as a weapon behind closed doors. One by one, the staunch opposition to the ban in the legislature fell apart. “Bloomberg,” Greg Sargent of the Observer wrote, “is about as flexible as an iron lung.”
Exactly one year after he was sworn in on that somber January morning, the mayor got his deal. In a 42-7 vote, the New York City Smoke-Free Air Act of 2002 passed. The act included thousands of new establishments, expanding an earlier 1995 law that banned smoking outside bars with an occupancy higher than 35 people. While the Council was able to push back against their new commander enough to secure an exemption for bars where the owner was the only employee and bars with proper ventilation, the indemnity had little effect. Few establishments met the requirements. In the end, Bloomberg won.
The smoker showdown was a glimpse at the drastic shift taking place at City Hall. In his first inaugural address, the mayor promised fiscal and political conservatism. There was no hint of the social liberalism for which he, surprisingly, would champion. Instead of restraint, City Hall pushed activism through taxes, education doctrine, and public health.
It was a movement away from the past. “Under Giuliani, there was a sense that he didn’t believe in an expansive City government,” said Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute. “This broader view of government [was] that government should do less rather than more.”
The shift was also the beginning of a new spending spree on behalf of public health. As with the Department of Education, the Bloomberg administration began to pour millions of dollars into the Department of Health and Mental Hygeine. Between 2002 and 2006, its budget rose from $1 billion to $1.6 billion -- an unprecedented pace ahead of previous City Halls. In fact, all budgets for key agencies important to the Bloomberg agenda would rise.
These budget increases for key departments symbolized New York’s post-9/11 renewal. Driven by the hefty property tax increase, the city’s recovery from the World Trade Center’s collapse and the economic downturn was heartening. Newly stabilized, New York began to lift out of financial crisis. The smoke was slowly dissipating.
In 2005, Bloomberg defeated Democrat Fernando Ferrer with 60 percent of the popular vote -- the largest victory margin ever for a Republican mayor in New York. The $85 million that Bloomberg spent on his campaign was more money, personal or otherwise, than had ever before been spent in a mayoral race. But a man with his capital could afford to break this record.
Between 2007 and 2009, he leaped up a hundred spots up on Forbes Billionaires List, the single largest increase by any individual in the world. Bloomberg’s predecessors, Giuliani and Koch, Republican and Democrat, would continue to support him and his pledge to avoid “partisanship and prejudice.” But that didn’t mean Bloomberg would be following their examples.
Maria Doulis of the Citizens Budget Commission recalled, “You had someone like Mayor Giuliani, who really did not have great relations with the unions and ended his term leaving all the union contracts unsettled. The unions really felt like they didn’t want to deal with [the Giuliani administration] anymore because they had to deal with three years of wage freezes.”
Bloomberg sought to fix that in the early days of his tenure. He offered the city municipal workers a deal straight out of the private sector playbook: wage increases tied to higher productivity. The catch? The unions would be forced to make concessions with their sacred pensions and benefits. Remarkably, after eight years of stalemate with the Giuliani administration, few complained. The unions gave in to City Hall, and their paychecks at last increased. Through back-and-forth mediation, the businessman had settled a lengthy bargaining war between city government and its workers. For the time being, at least.
The peace didn’t last. The mayor’s second term would become a succession of labor breakdowns. Between 2006 and 2010, the contracts for the major unions of New York City -- agreements that upheld the worker's pay during Bloomberg's first term -- would come to an end. Today, many of these settlements have still not been renewed. In response, the unions would distance themselves from the mayor, stretching the already apparent gap between the city's workers and the city's boss. Perhaps Bloomberg, a leader originally presumed to be more labor-tolerant than Giuliani, was not so different from his predecessor after all.
To understand this gridlock, we can highlight the plight of the city’s two largest unions -- the municipal workers of District Council 37 and the United Federation of Teachers -- as a microcosm of a larger disconnection at hand, one that strikes at the core of the ruling principle the mayor has fostered over the years. As in any great political crossfire, each side of the negotiation table will tell you a different tale of just what exactly did or did not happen.
From construction workers to technicians, DC37 is a collection of occupational variety. With 121,000 members of 54 local chapters in their ranks, the labor organization is New York City’s largest public employee union. In terms of electoral sway, it’s definitely a force to be reckoned with -- a power that Bloomberg gained with their endorsement in 2006 after becoming known as the mayor who would sit down with the unions. “In the beginning, DC37 wanted Bloomberg after Giuliani,” DC37 Vice President Michelle Keller told me.
But let history explain the next part: the explosion of the Great Recession. In late 2007, the major banks on Wall Street tripped over a self-created bubble of mortgage debt in the housing crisis, igniting a worldwide economic meltdown that was years in the making. And, as with 9/11 and the economic havoc wreaked soon after, it happened in New York’s backyard. Once again, the City Council and the mayor faced a deficit worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Somehow, this blackhole had to be filled.
From the Bloomberg administration’s perspective, the solution was sacrifice. Unions were given yearly wage increases; only these came at the same time as the “pension problem” began to haunt City Hall. The system in the agencies continuously ate away at larger chunks of the city’s overall budget, capping off at $75 billion in unfunded liabilities by 2008. As these numbers skyrocketed, the wage increases offered to union members dwindled and the concessions asked from them became more and more unappealing. Further concessions, the union argued, were just not feasible. Bloomberg disagreed.
Bloomberg had backed the municipal workers into a corner like the one he squeezed the councilmembers into with the smoking ban. “They have the money,” Keller told me. “But we have the workers.” Because the city had hold of the purse, in the mayor’s mind, the shots were his to call.
In a closed meeting between the heads of DC37 and the mayor in August of 2009, The New York Times reported on notes taken from the heated exchanges -- all of which ended in a stalemate. But the message from the mayor, which the reporter, Michael Barbaro, described as “blunt, tough-love, take-it-or-leave-it language,” was more than clear.
“The real world is we have to find ways to do more with less. There is no money,” the mayor told the workers, using lines reminiscent of his 2002 inaugural address. When asked about halting layoffs, the mayor demurred. “I can’t promise something I can’t deliver,” he said. “I just won’t do it.”
His mute act further infuriated the workers because, as they watched their wages suffer, the city was spending billions of taxpayer dollars on consultants and contractors. In 2002, the city doled out 1,109 contracts, spending upwards of $2.7 billion. Fast-forward to 2008: the largest single contract sold by the city was for $2.3 billion. The contract budget total in 2008? It was $16.4 billion. On top of that, a good part of the work these well-paid private entities undertook had been the union’s province.
From day one, even though he did not mention this in either of his first two inaugurals, crucial to Bloomberg’s thinking was his belief that privatization of the public sector would boost results and cut costs. It was a stance he confidently stood by, throwing aside the ‘We’ve got the workers’ populist viewpoint held by Keller. “The unions I will get are the unions who understand that the private sector pays for the work of municipal employees and relies on the good work of municipal employees,” Bloomberg said in that meeting.
This was a mayor who evinced no fear of electoral blowback. He had his beliefs -- of what was right for the city, of how to achieve efficient economic growth -- and he would stick to them, no matter what the unions said or wanted from him. It was no surprise that Bloomberg’s dismissal of the union’s importance to his future electoral prospects infuriated the workforce. “He bleeds the unions. You cannot believe he’s that mean-spirited,” Keller said in an interview. “There’s a serious threat of privatization. Corporations and consultants are milking us until he’s gone.”
Three months after that meeting in August of 2009, just before Bloomberg’s election to a third term, the city’s largest public employee union reacted in full force by rescinding their previous Bloomberg backing. Instead, they handled their endorsement to the Democratic challenger, Bill Thompson (who’s running once again in this year’s race). Only Thompson lost. But, at that point, it wasn’t worth fighting over: “We’re in different houses now but we still have to come work everyday, regardless if you voted for him or not,” Keller continued.
As Professor Moss argues, the union’s inability to sit down with City Hall and bang out a deal worked in Bloomberg’s favor. “Money doesn’t just appear,” Moss said. “Union leaders are overrating the powers of the mayor; they’ve chosen not to work with him -- and it affects them much more.” March 2009 was the last wage increase the DC37 obtained during Bloomberg’s tenure.
In Bloomberg’s relations with the United Federation of Teachers, a different kind of friction has developed. The demonstrable success of his efforts to make the Department of Education his magnum opus has come at the expense of relations with the teachers union. The DOE’s website tells the story from the administration’s standpoint. Since Bloomberg came to office, a total of 528 schools have been built; the graduation rate has increased 20 percent; classroom size from K-to-12 may have fluctuated a bit but, over the long term, has decreased; and test scores in math and English language arts have shown very substantial gains.
In 2002, the mayor’s first year in office, the DOE budget was $12.71 billion. In the current fiscal year of 2013, it has more than doubled to $24.4 billion, a combination of city, state, and federal funds. Overall, the city’s education budget under Bloomberg is up 91.9 percent in spending over the twelve years he has been in office. The DOE remains the most expensive city office to date, eating up a little more than a third of the mayor’s entire budget for 2013.
“The budgets for agencies are important interims of guide posts, but they don’t tell the whole story,” Harvey Robins, the budget officer under former Mayor Dinkins, advised. Drawing the ire of the city’s largest teachers union has left a blight on that otherwise impressive education legacy. The relationship went bad over budgetary threats from the mayor’s office, and a shared inability to negotiate has left the union without a contract for almost seven years.
With so little time left in office, the chance for reconciliation between the mayor and the teachers union is slim to none. But to understand how relations could get to such a low point, one must focus first on Bloomberg, this time in his dedication to educating the city’s children, “our most important obligation,” as he called them in his 2006 inaugural address. “We’ve brought a sense of excitement and possibility to teachers, to parents, and to children,” he declared to the crowd on the steps of City Hall. “We’ve given the schools an arts curriculum that is worthy of the nation’s cultural capital. We’ve begun to ensure all our students the first-rate education that is their fundamental civil right.”
The recession that would take hold a year after his second inaugural address threatened all that “excitement and possibility.” Facing deficits, Bloomberg demanded reductions through teacher layoffs and attrition. However, because of federal stimulus funds that injected $1 billion into the city’s budget to avoid education cutbacks, the City Council prevented most of the mayor’s threats. Restorations were made for the teachers and reductions in the budget were slipped in somewhere else.
By doing so, Doulis told me, the mayor flaunts his executive direction in budgetary talks. It was a back-and-forth process that would characterize budget talks across all the departments for the remainder of Bloomberg’s time in office. “Every year, we get this one thing that is like the symbol of why not to cut services,” Maria Doulis of the Citizens’ Budget Commission said. “One year, it was teachers’ layoffs; next year, it was the firehouses; last year, it was child day care slots.”
Cutbacks in the education budget are a more visceral issue for teachers than they are for members of other city unions because only for them are pension and fringe benefits like health insurance partially included in the figures.
Despite the firings and attrition of the past six years, 2013 will see new hiring, Doulis told me. In addition, an Albany-issued report entitled “New York City Public School Improvement Before and After Mayoral Control” pointed out that the mayor has delivered on wages: between 2002 and 2007, “from a spending perspective, Mayor Bloomberg’s main contribution [has] substantially increased teacher compensation.”
But, in 2007, the negotiations stopped. And three years later, the mayor moved to save some 44,000 teacher positions by enacting a pay freeze. Again, a familiar tactic: the mayor sought fresh avenues in the private sector. “Charter schools and special education both have been fast growing parts of the education budget in recent years,” said Courtney Wolf, a policy associate at the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York.
How fast? Excluding special education programs, data from the Independent Budget Office shows an increase in funding of 205.4 percent from the Bloomberg administration to New York City charter schools. As of last year, $1.5 billion of the total education budget was headed towards the private sector classrooms while the funds for the central administration of public schooling dropped 25.9 percent.
Without contracts, Bloomberg’s conflict with DC37 and the UFT stands as an absolute zero in intrametropolitan diplomacy, widening the reality gap between the internal and external views of New York City’s success in the post 9/11 period. “The workforce in the City is becoming more lower-wage because they have fewer benefits and fewer resources,” Robins said. “But Bloomberg’s legacy is going to be out there in the lights on Broadway.”
Add in the negative impact of functioning without contracts for a prolonged period. Said economist James Parrott: “It’s not good for the morale of city workers and, at some point, that’s gonna have an effect on the quality of delivery. I think it’s a very risky strategy to have.” The mayor has adapted and continues to maintain a government machine cobbled together with dysfunctional cogs.
As he headed into his third term -- an election won through legislative wrangling -- the unilateral mindset he showed in the first term and fostered in the second was ever more present. You can see it in the succession of inaugural addresses. Detachment is his governing principle, emboldened by re-labeling himself an Independent in 2008.
After the Koch administration, a mayor was limited to two terms with eight years in office. Even if Bloomberg’s last days came at the dismay of many, he would be forced to give up his position. But that’s not what he had planned for himself.
As in 2001, the most important thought on New Yorkers’ minds in 2009 was the economy. The Great Recession was in its second year, and it seemed as if a recovery would not come as quickly as it did after 9/11. Once again, the city had to choose another mayor during a financial meltdown -- perfect timing for Bloomberg to revisit his businessman-knows-best argument to get what he wanted. “Handling this financial crisis while strengthening essential services . . . is a challenge I want to take on,” the mayor told reporters at a news conference months before the election.
The statement was a redux of his 2002 inaugural address in which he positioned himself as the sole savior of New York, a man who understood how economics worked. If banks like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns were failing, leave it to the Wall Street maven to fix it.
Bloomberg wanted the Council to trust him and, by doing so, extend the term limits so he could get another four years to solidify his legacy. With the recession as a backdrop, the Council begrudgingly heeded his orders: that November of 2008, Bloomberg signed into law an extension of term limits. It passed in a split vote of 29-to-22.
It was a move that naturally drew harsh skepticism from the press. Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker compared the mayor to an overreaching despot and New Yorkers to head-down plebeians: “We are a little too much like Romans of Crassus' day, when the institutions of the old republic were giving way to a despotic (and competent) imperium,” Hertzberg wrote. “[...] If Bloomberg had been satisfied with two terms, he would be leaving office a beloved legend, a municipal god. He'll get his third, but we'll give it to him sullenly.”
Sullenly, perhaps reluctantly, but in the end, willingly. What do you say to a King, a “municipal god” if you will, when, in the eyes of a majority of New Yorkers, he’s doing a fine job of ruling the kingdom? Yes, he might be asking too much to seek a third term, but can we really say no in the face of foreclosures, deficits, and bubble explosions?
A year later, Bloomberg would defeat Democratic competitor Bill Thompson in the mayoral election with 50.4 percent of the popular vote -- the narrowest margin of victory seen since women were given the right to vote in New York and across the country with the 17th Amendment in 1917. Remember, back in 2005, Bloomberg won the office with the largest victory margin of any Republican mayor. Back then, he had the support of the unions. But on November 7, 2009, people like DC37 VP Michelle Keller didn't vote for Bloomberg's re-election.
His campaign might have lost the labor vote from DC37 just months before but, as promised, he managed to attract enough supporters to eke out a victory all the same. Oh, and the $102 million he personally contributed to the campaign chest definitely helped. No individual has spent more on himself or the throne of City Hall in one single City election cycle than Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg did in the 2009 mayoral campaign. But did New Yorkers understand that this was not the same mayor they elected eight years earlier?
The man positioned behind the podium to give Bloomberg's 2010 Inaugural Address was not the same person who greeted New York from the steps of City Hall on January 1, 2002. Bloomberg had changed. While his dedication to education and economic recovery remained, Bloomberg’s overarching view of the role of government in the lives of New Yorkers had evolved. He tapped once again into the activist tendencies that his City Hall demonstrated with his dramatic public health initiatives and his direct intervention in the future of the public schools.
"Conventional wisdom holds that by a third term, mayors run out of energy and ideas,” he said. “But we have proved the conventional wisdom wrong time and again, and I promise you, we will do it once more.” Bloomberg wasn’t running out of ideas here; he was changing them entirely.
Harken back to the “government should do more with less” mindset of 2002. Then, the mayor argued that City Hall must step back from the daily lives of New Yorkers. Now, fast forward eight years. “In business and in government, I've seen how innovation occurs when people look with fresh eyes at old problems, and then work together to solve them. As we begin this new decade, we will take a fresh look at everything,” Bloomberg declared. “I also know government can do more -- and we will.”
But, this time, the mayor’s hopes for a “city all New Yorkers could be proud of” were immediately threatened by the realities that his administration had created over the last eight years.
Towards the end of Bloomberg’s second term, the Comptroller’s office began to notice a few financial discrepancies with the extensive payroll program for city workers known as CityTime. A major project was in the works to overhaul the CityTime from the Giuliani years. It was a technocratic endeavor pushed by Bloomberg’s office, a system where the workers on the city’s payrolls would be brought more fully into the Digital Era -- data would be gathered and analyzed to ensure maximum productivity from timecards.
That enormous responsibility was delegated to tech conglomerates like TechnoDyne and Science Applications International Corporation. A $700 million program was now entrusted to the private sector, which, in turn, was entrusted to City Hall. The imposition of CityTime was of the Bloomberg L.P. agenda, but for all of New York City government. “Consultancy is an extension of his mindset –- they’re for specifics,” Harvey Robins told me. “But there are no consequences for all these consultants.”
The next chapter of the story basically wrote itself: CityTime would soon become one of the largest (and most expensive) scandals to rock City Hall on Bloomberg’s watch.
After a full investigation, the discrepancies were discovered to be more than just computer or human error. The contractors in control of this monstrous information technologies overhaul were rewarding themselves with kickbacks worth $40 million in taxpayers’ dollars. That resulted in what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara described in the indictment as fraud up to $600 million at “virtually every level.” And it had all of your classic scandal ingredients: money laundering schemes, offshore tax havens, and shady accountants.
But that proliferation of corruption is easy to gloss over when City Council is passing contract expense budgets in the billions. $600 million of straight fraud may seem like a jaw-dropping amount to anyone but, in the grand scheme of things, it’s only a decimal point at the end of a much larger total. “It’s not like you open it up and CityTime is blaring out at you as the big bad contract that’s chewing up the city resources,” Maria Doulis said. “But that’s not to say it wasn’t a big boondoggle.”
The investigation into CityTime gave legitimacy to the unions’ criticisms of an out of control consultant-contractor class. Not only did CityTime waste a significant portion of City funds, it faulted the Bloomberg administration in the eyes of the voters who had just placed him back in office. These legal troubles left City Hall scrambling for a reasonable explanation. “The fraud on this thing, oh my god,” Michelle Keller of DC37 said. “And you know what their response was? ‘Working at this level, you can expect corruption.’”
“That tarnished the mayor’s managerial reputation, particularly in an area that was the basis of his fortune with Bloomberg L.P.,” economist James Parrott said. “That makes you wonder what was going on to get that outcome. Here’s a very successful IT person, and he can’t manage these contracts that keeps costs under control and gets things done on time and keep it under the budget.” The mayor was played by his own game, and he had little to show for it.
Fueled by this public embarrassment to the mayor, DC37 released reports that detailed just how unions could have done the exact same job but for a much lower price. In their ‘White Papers,’ the alternative of using municipal workers targets $9 billion invested in 18,000 different contracts spread across the five boroughs. For the unions, the CityTime scandal was the most expensive “we told you so” from the labor force yet. It sparked even louder calls for a major shift in the means by which the city spent its funds on future projects.
And the unfortunate coincidence of time and place didn’t help either. As stories of waste like the CityTime debacle hit headlines all over the country, the Obama administration’s federal economic stimulus funds began to dry up. These monies had temporarily (and partially) shielded New York from the Great Recession’s blowback on municipal services.
Once that lifeline ended, the mayor demanded that the unions help pay rent by cutting back. In June of 2010, the Council and City Hall had passed a budget that immediately erased 2,000 jobs from the City’s payroll. “We simply cannot afford the size of our current workforce,” Bloomberg told reporters in November of 2010.
At a time when unemployment in New York was hovering around 10 percent, Bloomberg proposed budgetary decreases upwards of 5 percent -- cutbacks worth $1.6 billion that would hit almost every department. Firefighters, librarians, teachers, social workers, construction workers -- you name it, they faced layoffs. Again, the timing made things worse. The cuts came at a time when tensions between the mayor and his workers were already the worst in memory.
Thus spawned Bloombergville.
In the early summer months of 2011, a few hundred municipal workers took to the streets outside of City Hall to protest the impending reductions. The name originated from ‘Hooverville’ -- the vacant Grapes of Wrath wastelands during the Great Depression, where the unemployed lived in debt and despair from the Hoover administration’s laissez-faire policies.
It was the Occupy Wall Street before Occupy Wall Street. “Bailout the people, not the banks” rang as its mantra. As Dee Knight, a founder of the movement and former high-school teacher in the South Bronx, told me, it was “a small pilot attempt at a Public Assembly.” But the vilified One Percent was not Goldman Sachs, AIG, or the White House -- it was one “extremely arrogant” man with “tremendous power,” as Knight described the mayor, “benign to hostility towards victims of unemployment.”
And this “hostility” was best seen in Bloomberg’s negotiations. “The budget is a statement of priority,” Knight said. “It represents what’s most important -- in this case, the top two are debt service and the police. Bloomberg was taking phone calls from all of his interests -- ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be okay!’”
With the “tremendous power” he wielded, Knight argued that Bloomberg was the only one who could prevent what was happening to them. “Budgets can be prioritized, with money going instead into social services. Community-coordinated efforts at the level of budgeting would have huge net results,” Knight continued.
In terms of the mayor’s achievements, Knight’s argument reiterated former city official Harvey Robins’ in saying that the successes are stretched far and thin. “In communities, statistics do not pick up on the actual numbers,” Knight said. His case in point: the South Bronx school system. As mentioned before, the Department of Education has recorded lower class sizes and higher graduation rates under the Bloomberg administration. Except those averages are on a citywide scale. A closer magnification of boroughs, in Knight’s opinion, shows a huge imbalance of resource appropriation.
“His project has been to centralize power away from communities,” Knight told me. “His goal was to take away any influence from public sector unions. He has a tendency to ‘have it all.’”
The months-long protests were a class-conscious outburst against the billionaire-as-mayor. A combined force of recession cuts, prolonged contract disagreements, visual income disparity, and hyper-gentrification had finally spilled onto the streets. Bloomberg was a pin-up boy for New York capitalism; the King of a dog-eat-everything world, sitting on top of his throne far, far away from the outskirts of the South Bronx or Bed-Stuy. He was the first incarnation of the One Percent before the One Percent was even a buzzword.
Unfortunately for Knight and others, although this prelude to Occupy would have the same tents and fortitudes of Zuccotti, it did not have nearly the same life span. Unlike the later movement of the “99 Percent,”’ this protest was union-based. It was not a collection of liberals, conservatives, anarchists, hackers, and whatever other ideology found itself in the Occupy hodgepodge. The workers of Bloombergville had day jobs and were pressured even more to work by the threat of layoffs and benefit cuts. The dreams of a populist backlash against Bloomberg faced off against the demands of living in America’s most expensive city.
This scenario was met by an even harsher reality for the unions. In late June of 2011, just a few weeks after Bloombergville began, City Hall and the City Council reached a deal for the coming fiscal year. The legislature, in its common back-and-forth process, had managed to avert teacher layoffs and firehouse closings. But, still, the human cost of 1,000 jobs from other sectors remained in the budget.
Throughout Bloomberg’s third term, the remnants of the past came to define his final days in office. He had given himself another four years for his second term’s illnesses to relapse: the contractor bubble burst with CityTime; the union tensions erupted with Bloombergville; budget shortfalls threatened significant gains. But, out of all of this mess, the renegade mayor still latched onto his biggest project: the New York City educational system. In his last inaugural address, he once again promised to deliver “the first-rate education [all children] deserve” while at the same time threatening the UFT with layoffs and attrition. His greatest legacy still suffered from its worst discrepancy.
Last January, New York City’s public school system stood to gain or lose nearly $300 million of the $700 million allotted to New York State under President Obama’s Race to the Top program, where states battle it out in standards to gain cash from Washington. That was the deadline given by Governor Andrew Cuomo and, in accordance with a 2010 law passed to fulfill the federal demands, the governor had staked out a four percent increase in state funding for the classroom. Until then, he outsourced the responsibility of coming to a deal on teacher evaluations -- the mandatory pre-requisite for these funds -- to local authorities and unions.
At that point, 85 percent of the State’s school districts had submitted first drafts of their deals on the controversial topic. The largest constituency remaining was, of course, New York City. The quagmire of educational politics that had formed between Mr. Bloomberg and the UFT in his second term was holding back the $300 million and, as a result, the $700 million for the whole state. Without the money, disastrous consequences would erupt in classroom budgets across New York. Cuomo said that he would deny the scheduled increase if no deal was passed, forcing the schools to conduct spending as if that money was there. As the third and current Education Chancellor Dennis Walcott was quoted as saying, “This is an unfortunate reality; the cuts will be extremely painful.”
So forget about the fiscal cliff in Washington from just weeks before; the kids of New York City were about to jump off one, too.
The non-responsiveness left dire implications for the $300 million that was at stake for New York City’s public schools. “Some people think that the union is holding off until next year because Bloomberg’s out of office then,” Sam Williams said in October of 2012. “As of now, the two are at a stalemate and no one’s budging.” Williams, an NYU student and president of the school’s Student for Education Reform, used this stalemate as a centerpiece for the group’s rally in downtown Manhattan in late November 2012. There, the message of the campaign was summarized in a simple chant: “Let’s be real, the kids need a deal.”
But that never happened. The deadline of January 17 came and went, with both parties leaving the negotiations empty-handed. Apparently, when the UFT and DOE. met that night, there was still hope on both sides that something would be done. Education Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott told reporters, "We were very, very close." President Michael Mulgrew of the UFT agreed: "It is particularly painful to make this announcement because last night our negotiators had reached a deal."
And the blame game began. "Mayor Bloomberg blew the deal up in the early hours today, and despite the involvement of state officials, we could not put it back together," Mulgrew said. In response, the mayor took a classic emotional route to accuse the teachers' union of causing the breakdown: "In failing to reach an agreement, the saddest part is that our students will pay the cost. I can't tell you how much it pains me to see this happening.”
“On teacher evaluations deal and negotiations, both sides have a responsibility,” Councilman Williams said. “I do think that the teachers deserve something and, for Bloomberg to reject the deal at the last second… I don’t know even know the word to use, that’s just ridiculous.”
It didn’t matter. In the end, it was the children of New York who were short $300 million. The City had no teacher evaluation deal and would lose 700 teachers in September. In an effort to prevent another 1,800 layoffs, Cuomo was forced to intervene with an Albany-enforced teacher evaluation plan that wouldn’t satisfy either side.
In terms of actual cost, this was the most expensive consequence of the educational legacy’s dark side. And strung-out politics is all to blame.
Now, in the 11th year of the Bloomberg Age, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers will vote on Nov. 7 for one in a new set of candidates, none of whom will bear the last name of the billionaire who now ranks in Forbes as the 13th highest paid individual in the world. And, for the first time in over a decade, the mayoral race will not see a penny from those pockets. There will be no more term limit extensions.
His successor will inherit a city with higher living standards than ever, as thousands of people flock to newly gentrified areas of Brooklyn; as condos pop up faster than you can say “rent stabilization;” with major redevelopment projects such as Hudson Yards in the works; with bike paths quickly transforming lanes of traffic. Everywhere you look, New York has rebuilt itself since 9/11 and is building still.
But the new mayor will also walk into a smog of fractured trust, class antagonism, and a communications deadlock with the unions that hasn’t been seen since the Giuliani administration. Once again, new leadership is the hope. “The next mayor will have to know and respect how important the unions are,” Councilman Williams told me. “Thinking everything you do will work out and to think you have all the answers is insane.”
As James Parrott forecasts, the next mayor will face major problems: income polarization, unsettled contracts, power-centric economic development, and the quality of jobs New York City provides to its people. “His successor,” Parrott said, “will have to deal with all of that, and that involves a realization of serious budget liabilities that Bloomberg has pushed off.”
So, whether the candidates like it or not, Bloomberg will very much be the face of the next election.
It explains why the Democratic frontrunner City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has repeatedly refuted claims that she is the “next Bloomberg,” and why the Republican frontrunner Joe Lhota, the former deputy mayor under Giuliani and MTA Chairman, casts himself as Rudy’s political apostle. Lhota yearns for a return to a pre-Bloombergian government, one that is much more Republican in character. Not so maverick, not so Bloomberg.
As Harvey Robins put it, “Bloomberg’s governing principle is that he came in as a businessman and is leaving as a businessman. All that matters is outcomes; however, in government, it’s how well you executed those outcomes.”
From that cold, winter morning in January of 2002 on, Bloomberg has remade City Hall into his other company -- his second Bloomberg L.P. It reflects the top-down approach of capitalism, in which the subsidiaries are prioritized by relevance to the director-in-chief and the CEO is omnipresent. In many ways, he has finagled this truly modern discipline to fashion a style of leadership out of the current age.
The legacy’s hallmarks are in its achievements, in public health, in education, in law enforcement, where Bloomberg’s constant reaffirmation of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and the NYPD have kept the streets safe and crime rates low. But there have been major controversies, such as stop-and-frisk and the post-9/11 surveillance targeted at Muslims.
His leadership is reflected on every New York street: In the letter grades plastered on restaurants; in the smokers forced onto sidewalks; in the improved public schools, and in the gleaming new construction. There is also development through condo-fication; the transformation of lower-class neighborhoods into “prime real estate;” the neo-Gilded-Age state of income disparity; the rate of homelessness at its highest levels since the Great Depression. From top to bottom, New York has been Bloomberg-ified.
Eleven years ago, the Mayor proclaimed on the steps of City Hall that “we would renew, rebuild and remain the capital of the world.” He was right. And he is the one most responsible. New York City has become his spitting image.
The question of what’s ahead can’t be said better than Hendrik Hertzberg in 2009, “The Pax Bloombergiana will endure a while longer. But then what? Will we have forgotten how to govern ourselves?”