Chris Smith: Between the Lines of Tomorrow’s State of the City Speech

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Tomorrow afternoon Mayor Bloomberg will deliver his 2009 State of the City speech. He’ll devote plenty of time to policy, emphasizing happy statistics on crime and public-school test scores, and — in contrast to Governor David Paterson’s State of the State speech last week — Bloomberg is likely to be specific and blunt when it comes to the unhappy financial numbers engulfing the city. The mayor may even do the responsible thing and talk about the possibility of additional tax increases and municipal layoffs. But however much Bloomberg delves into the wonky and important specifics of his plans for running city government during the worsening downturn, there’s a greater political significance to Thursday’s event: It will be the first rally of the Bloomberg ’09 campaign.

“The mayor will say that the city, like the state and the country, is going through a difficult economic period,” a Bloomberg adviser says, “but that he’s already taken measures that have positioned us well for the downturn. He’ll say that New York has been through difficult times before but we’ve always come out stronger — and that he’s bullish on the city’s future.”

His reelection campaign doesn’t have an office yet, but it does have a message, and a tone: Bloomberg is a proven leader who can do it again, and he’s going to project optimism. In recent days, Comptroller Bill Thompson and Congressman Anthony Weiner have used the city’s subsidy of the new Yankee Stadium to take whacks at Bloomberg’s image as a smart financial manager, and they’ve scored some points (with Weiner once again showing his gift for getting under the mayor’s skin). Still, Bloomberg’s crew is confident it can win a campaign centered on economic issues; even if the mayor hasn’t been perfect, he has a more substantial management record than his rivals, and voters aren’t blaming the financial meltdown or its effects on him.

Yet. How the state of the city changes in the next nine months will be the biggest factor when it’s time to choose the next mayor. Already, though, Bloomberg’s approach has changed. “Everything we do in governing now will be calculated politically,” a mayoral aide told me not long after the term-limits battle ended. He said it regretfully; even though Bloomberg has long played politics far more than the mayor admits, the balance was shifting. And Thursday’s speech will be evidence of that, if only for its location: Instead of an overdue return to Manhattan, the Bronx, or Staten Island, for the second time in three years Bloomberg will deliver the State of the City in Brooklyn — the city’s most populous borough and home to the city’s highest concentration of middle-class black voters. That Bill Thompson is black and grew up in Brooklyn is, no doubt, merely a coincidence.