Black Out: Bloomberg’s Third-Term Reboot

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Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When Mike Bloomberg summarily dismissed Schools Chancellor Cathie Black from the job she had held for less than 100 days, he said, “The story had really become about her and away from the kids, and that’s not good.” Yet the real story of the Black debacle has always been about the mayor, and his abrupt announcement was more than an admirable admission of error. It was the start of Bloomberg’s attempt to reshape a third-term narrative that has become dominated by mistakes and defeats.

Bloomberg trusts his instincts about people and loves to play the contrarian; the combination made for plain bad executive judgment in his hiring of Black, whose talents as a magazine advertising executive were a blatant mismatch for the demands of running the nation’s largest school system at a time of deep fiscal challenges and serious constituent mistrust. The specifics of her missteps—dumb jokes, fits of temper—may have been somewhat surprising, but that she failed in a job that she was thrown into completely unprepared is not.

The particulars of Black’s short tenure, however, mattered less than the fact that she’d become the glaring symbol of Bloomberg’s third-term malaise. A lot of New Yorkers still feel like they are clinging to their jobs, but Bloomberg seemed bored with his and was again flirting with a presidential run. As the blizzard hit in late December, the mayor’s whereabouts were a mystery; when he did show up, his glib dismissal of the storm’s hardships made things worse. Then he waged a ham-handed attack on teacher-layoff rules—and lost, just as he lost the larger budget battle in Albany. This wasn’t just a run of lousy luck. Bloomberg’s vaunted managerial proficiency had gone missing.

By the time NY1 and Marist came out with their poll showing Black with a 17 percent approval rating, the internal verdict on her had already been reached. The mayor’s aides and Department of Education staffers were conceding that choosing Black was a serious blunder, and didn’t think time would improve either the substance or the perception of her chancellorship. “You can only go so long looking to staff for answers,” an administration insider says of Black. “It wasn’t going well, it wasn’t getting better, and it wasn’t going to change.”

If Black couldn’t be salvaged, though, Bloomberg could. In late March, with his own poll numbers some of his lowest ever, the mayor launched new campaign-style TV ads and mailers trumpeting his independence. Restoring his claim to ultimate competence, however, required more dramatic measures. The core of Bloomberg’s message has always been that private-sector leaders—like him—are better at running government than public-sector lifers and political hacks. He chose Cathie Black in part to reinforce that theme; instead, she wound up undermining it. (When I was reporting an earlier profile on Black, I asked a senior administration official if Bloomberg had considered Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who’s replacing her now, for chancellor then. The answer was no, because Bloomberg thought he would get credit for innovative thinking by hiring an outsider.) Firing Black allows Bloomberg both to acknowledge his critics and to buttress his tough-minded-CEO image. “Today is a turning point for him,” a Bloomberg official says. “It feels like he’s recommitted.”

He’d better be: In addition to his assorted political problems, Bloomberg is for the first time dealing with sniping from ex-staffers who complain that the current City Hall team is letting the boss down. The mayor has two and a half years left in office, a fact dramatized by countdown clocks hanging above his cubicle. Apparently he finally hears the ticking.

This post has been edited since its initial publication.