The sun was shining, the breeze was mild. It was a beautiful Friday afternoon three weeks ago inside Carl Schurz Park, where two of Michael Bloomberg’s top political lieutenants waited for the mayor to arrive. They were killing time chatting about the glories of the New York City Marathon. Howard Wolfson, a deputy mayor and political strategist, had run the race twice, but injuries forced him to quit short of the finish line both times; Wolfson was mulling whether to take another shot at the full 26.2 miles in nine days. Bill Knapp, one of the country’s elite campaign consultants, grew up in the city but has long lived in Washington and hadn’t attended the marathon in years. Wolfson described what a grand, unifying, multicultural event the run had become—the best day, he believed, in the city every year.
Up walked the mayor, a smile on his face. Nine days before, Bloomberg had announced the creation of his very own super-PAC, with plans to spend up to $15 million to influence elections all across the country. Stricter gun laws and the legalization of gay marriage would be key issues, with Wolfson, on leave from City Hall, in charge and using all the tools of a modern campaign, including direct mail, Internet ads, and robo-calls. Those plugs would carry the opaque label of the super-PAC, Independence USA.
Bloomberg was in the park, three blocks south of Gracie Mansion, that day to shoot the only TV ad in which he’d appear on-camera, in support of Chris Murphy, a Democrat running for Senate in Connecticut against Linda McMahon. Knapp’s film crew was ready, but talk had turned to the weather forecast. After Bloomberg finished shooting the ad, he’d be heading downtown for a meeting to plan for Hurricane Sandy. The storm was churning toward the East Coast; it certainly looked big and bad, though the timing and the danger to New York were unclear. “But the world,” Bloomberg said, “won’t be coming to an end.”
He was right about that, anyway. Yet city life changed drastically, and in too many cases permanently, when Sandy arrived. Half of Breezy Point burned to the ground. Staten Island, South Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan were severely flooded, shutting down New York’s entire subway system and enormous swaths of the electrical grid. Thousands can’t go home; 41 people, at least, died of storm-related causes in New York City alone.
Bloomberg’s life changed quickly, too. Pre-storm, the mayor was attending to his day job, but he was also trying to graduate from being a mayor of one big city to being something larger: a postpartisan national political force, a megabucks shaper of issues and elections. Bloomberg’s super-PAC mini-campaign this fall was a test-drive for his future. Then, approaching his final year in office, Bloomberg was suddenly in the midst of a week that could define his entire mayoralty. Every bit of him was on display: his strengths as a dispassionate manager and his remarkable blind spots, particularly when he insisted that the marathon would go on as scheduled. Sandy was his crisis, just as 9/11 belonged to Rudy. Meanwhile, in the background, Bloomberg’s quest for relevance and influence beyond New York churned forward.
The second-floor room in City Hall is called “the Cow,” a nickname for “Committee of the Whole” and left over from ancient governmental history. Now the Cow was full of top Bloomberg staff wielding iPads on the Friday afternoon before the storm. The mayor sat at the head of a U-shaped table. FDNY commissioner Sal Cassano, NYPD boss Ray Kelly, and deputy mayor for operations Cas Holloway were within arm’s reach. Bloomberg went around the room, quizzing aides on meteorological data, housing-project geography, and how much time it would take to move vulnerable populations. “He kept focusing on finalizing time lines, what we had to decide by when,” one staffer says. “The mayor poses very tough questions, and you have to be able to back up your answers.” Bloomberg realized that the weakest hospital patients in the facilities nearest the waterfront needed to get out, soon, and he ordered the process to start. If the weather forecast held, the next big step, a life-saving mandatory evacuation of low-lying Zone A, would need to be taken by noon on Sunday.
As the weekend wore on, the meetings moved to the Office of Emergency Management’s headquarters in Brooklyn, and they became a blur. On Monday, Bloomberg was in OEM’s third-floor command center well past midnight, watching the giant flat-screens as Sandy hit the city. Tuesday morning, he took a helicopter tour and saw the widespread devastation. Speaking afterward at a press briefing in OEM’s auditorium in his standard phlegmatic monotone, Bloomberg was reassuring. He detailed available shelters, search-and-recovery efforts, power outages. “Unfortunately, we just cannot spare the manpower from the NYPD to host the annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, so we are postponing it to a later date,” Bloomberg said near the end of his second press conference that day, sounding matter-of-fact. “We’ll work tomorrow and figure out which date makes sense given the resources the city has. We are adding additional police coverage to areas that are without power. Our understanding is the New York City Marathon will go on as scheduled this Sunday. We’ll reconfirm that tomorrow morning and give you any more news.”