Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bloomberg's Last Day

I come out of more-or-less blog retirement with some final thoughts on Mike Bloomberg's twelve-year tenure in office.

First a confession: I thought Bloomberg was going to be a terrible mayor. The only volunteering I've ever done in a non-presidential election was for Mark Green in autumn 2001, and it wasn't so much because I liked Green--who, in retrospect, might have been every bit as lousy a mayor as Bloomberg was excellent--but because I dreaded the idea of an arrogant billionaire running for ego gratification actually taking the office. I had no sense of, and frankly not much interest in, his policy views. I knew that his commitment to the Republican Party on whose line he ran wasn't very deep, but his wealth and business background along with that partisan affiliation--and above all the strong endorsement of the entirely odious Rudy Giuliani--was enough to mobilize me.

I was almost entirely wrong, and ultimately was very happy for that. Somewhat in my own defense, I don't think it took me very long to realize that the new mayor was a far cry from the Republicans we were suffering in the presidency and governorship at the time, as well as from his Nixonian predecessor. Bloomberg made a series of decisions during his first two years that were unpopular but wise: he raised taxes to close the post-9/11 budget hole, put the kibosh on sweetheart deals Giuliani had made, imposed the smoking ban and generally showed that he would do what he felt was right no matter who it upset. At the think tank where I worked, we quickly figured out that this was going to be a good time for rational policy argument--and that the days when we'd absorb cheap shots and personal attacks from City Hall were over.

By 2005 I was fully onboard, and even went on Daily Kos to make the argument for Bloomberg's re-election. (I didn't volunteer, largely because there was absolutely no doubt he was going to win big.) The second term might have been the highlight: the mayor launched PlaNYC and the Center for Economic Opportunity, school reform enjoyed probably its peak of public recognition, and crime continued to drop. When the financial crash hit, New York came through much better than we probably had any right to expect--in large part because housing didn't crash to the same degree as elsewhere, to a significant degree because of TARP and other federal interventions, but it didn't hurt to have Bloomberg at the helm of city government.

Of course, the crash also prompted him to overturn term limits and seek a third four-year stretch in office. For many people I knew, that was an unforgivable sin against good governance, and I found it obnoxious enough that I voted third-party in 2009. (That said, when for a couple hours that election night it looked like he might not win, I was really horrified.)

Bloomberg's third term--almost all of which I spent in city government, with two different agencies--probably was the least effective of the three. I still think it stands up well to, say, Koch's third term, or those of Mario Cuomo or Pataki at the state level. But between the departure of some top talent and, likely more to the point, the mayor's own excessive certitude and self-regard, the triumphs were fewer and the setbacks more apparent and significant.

His public approval has correspondingly declined. No political figure--perhaps no public figure, period--survives a stretch of high-profile years with his or her popularity fully intact. The public collectively grew tired of Bloomberg, and he of us. Even so, I think history will appreciate not only how outstanding was his overall performance in office, but how unique--not just in New York City, but probably in American history.

Like all NYC mayors, Bloomberg is structurally empowered by the City Charter. Unlike any of his predecessors, he was totally free of partisan commitments: a Democrat for most of his adult life, then a Republican of convenience in 2001 and 2005, and finally the independent he in actuality always was. He was wealthy beyond any need to trade favor for financial support (and his wealth increased something like fourfold while he was earning a dollar a year for something rather more than a full-time job). He was unconstrained by any realistic aspirations to higher office--he certainly wanted the presidency, but unlike almost all career politicians, he never seemed to succumb to the delusional belief that he might have it. Finally, he was possessed of an ego that rendered him impervious to contemporary criticism. Where no criticism or critic was too small for Giuliani to disregard, Bloomberg simply took comfort in his absolute certitude that he was right, and kept on keeping on. 

This confluence of factors left him almost entirely free to ask the vital question: What course of action best serves the public good?  He took on challenges that most "rational" officeholders, including virtually all his predecessors, would have skirted: control of the schools, infrastructure and sustainability. These were issues that would offer no political reward in his lifetime. But if New York City is a better place to live, learn and work in fifty or a hundred years--and I believe it will be--Mayor Bloomberg should earn much of the credit for that.  

This is not to say that he was always right, or always effective. His failings as a political communicator are well known and had real cost, in at least two respects: he was almost never able to work his will in Albany, with the real and righteous exception of the fight for marriage equality. In part this was because he couldn't put himself in the mindset of more conventional, transactional politicians. 

While Bloomberg didn't subscribe to a partisan political ideology, he did have beliefs that were absolutely unshakable, and deeply informed his governance. Foremost among these was a near absolute unwillingness to countenance any limit to profit-seeking. As someone who's made his career in large part about expanding opportunity and improving socioeconomic mobility, I found this incredibly disappointing. On the public stage, his bias played out in the battles over living wage, sick leave, and countless other issues. His intransigence here lent validity to Bill de Blasio's "Tale of Two Cities" argument, and did a great deal to set the stage for a successor who sees the world very differently, and no doubt will undo some of his work.

But this is not uncommon for the democratic process: we choose leaders who address the deficits of their predecessors. Bloomberg seemed unconcerned with equity. My belief is that all the criticisms leveled at him having to do with the growing gap between rich and poor in the City miss the point of just how little power even the Mayor of New York City has to stand athwart macroeconomic trends. (I haven't looked at how the same dynamic has played out in cities like Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, all of which have had Democratic mayors for decades; my guess is that they've seen similar divergence, and if you equalized for financial sector employment, there would be little difference.) I also think that the work of CEO is itself sufficient to counter charges that Bloomberg was totally unconcerned about the poor, and that the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who graduated high school as the overall rate rose represent a signal antipoverty triumph that will pay off down the generations to come.

I think a secondary legacy of Mayor Bloomberg is that he's permanently raised the expectations of city government. Twelve years is a long time for a nonpartisan administration that generally delivered high quality city services with relatively little corruption and disruption. The bar has been set higher for his successors, and for that alone all New Yorkers should send him off with gratitude and good wishes.