When Michael Bloomberg first ran for mayor in 2001, he pledged to remove politics from City Hall, making decisions totally on their merits with no regard to campaign donors – because he had none – or favors owed fellow elected officials.
And with some notable exceptions – like some rather large donations given to the city’s Independence Party and State Senate Republicans – Bloomberg lived up to that promise. No one’s son or brother was given a questionable appointment in his administration and no one ever had to connect the dots to figure out why the mayor was pressing a particular cause. If Bloomberg was fighting large sodas or illegal guns, it was because he genuinely didn’t like those things – not because donors were pressing him to take up their fight.
Some of Bloomberg’s strongest moments came when he relentlessly pushed social policy initiatives that seemed questionable at first that have now largely been embraced by the city’s residents. The smoking ban or fighting trans fats or setting up a bike share program all seemed like tilting at windmills at the time but have now become part of the city’s fabric. But these successes largely occurred in arenas where Bloomberg was in control – much like the corporate world where he’s tagged his name like a financial graffiti artist.
Because Bloomberg didn’t play politics, politics sometimes played him – particularly in Albany. His one great success in the State Capitol was gaining control of the school system in 2002. But that victory was essentially a farewell thumbing-of-the-nose to Rudy Giuliani by Democratic state lawmakers who had all but promised Bloomberg or Mark Green that they’d dissolve the Board of Education once the rambunctious Giuliani left office.
When Bloomberg needed state lawmakers to build a West Side Stadium – and help him win the 2012 Olympics – or mitigate Midtown traffic by creating congestion pricing, they let him down. And many of his national political initiatives – particularly his fight for gun control – made little impact.
Simultaneously disdaining politics while being at the top of the political heap was an odd position for Bloomberg who embraced governing from the top down. It can sometimes be refreshing to have a leader who ignores the clamor of the crowd – but it can also be foolish. Even as crime plunged to record-low levels, both Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly insisted that without stopping and frisking as many as 600,000 innocent people in 2011, the city would become a more dangerous place. (Current statistics seem to belie their arguments) And Bloomberg’s technocratic style was perfect for implementing ideas like the city’s 311 system – but it left him cold in times when public leadership was desperately needed. Despite the city’s overall strong response to Hurricane Sandy, Bloomberg’s tone-deaf push for the New York City marathon to continue and his heckling by residents of the Rockaways will also be legacies of that storm.
While Bloomberg was never bought, he could easily buy others. By heavily giving – often anonymously – to cultural institutions and non-profit groups, it all but guaranteed their silence when the mayor sometimes pursued controversial policies, manufacturing consent in the rarefied world run by powerful organizations like the Ford Foundation.
The down side – and this would be true for any mayor besides Bloomberg -- is that there are donors who have funneled tens of thousands of dollars to the mayor-elect’s campaign coffers. While some lobbyists will get their phone calls quickly returned, will they get what they want from City Hall? As NY1’s Bobby Cuza noted in his series about the taxi industry, an early test for de Blasio will be whether he scuttles some popular initiatives launched by Bloomberg that are largely opposed the medallion owners.
While their goals are remarkably similar, Bill de Blasio’s management style and his political identity could not be more different from Bloomberg’s. A creature of the political world, de Blasio enters rooms hoping to broker compromise and make a deal that will leave everyone happy. A Democrat turned Republican turned independent, Bloomberg disdains ideology while de Blasio embraces it.
Polls show that most New Yorkers approve of Bloomberg’s job performance after twelve years -- and that’s a substantial achievement for a mayor who has done so much over the last 12 years. But those polls – and the results on Election Day – also showed that New Yorkers are very hungry for a change. Politics will be returning to City Hall tomorrow – and that’s not always such a bad thing.