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The Mayor in the Eye

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Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway view damage in Breezy Point on October 30.   

There had been internal discussion about the Halloween parade, but almost none regarding the marathon. The mayor didn’t think holding the race six days after the storm was any big deal, nor should it be. And he was right about the race being a low priority at the moment. But Bloomberg’s managerial confidence in making the police coverage work without detracting from storm efforts, and his abiding faith in tourism as a city-revenue source, combined dreadfully with his empathy deficit: If he doesn’t think an issue is important, he doesn’t think it should be important to anyone else, either—especially if it’s something Bloomberg considers a matter of symbolism. As the week went on and Bloomberg dug in his heels, his aides saw a fury growing on Facebook and Twitter, even before Friday morning’s Post front page blasted the use of generators for a marathon media tent. Wolfson, Kelly, and Deputy Mayor Patti Harris made the case for cancellation. On Friday, with sponsors bailing, Bloomberg finally changed his mind, but he sent Wolfson out to deliver the news.

More substantive flaws were showing up, too, exposing the rot from third-term complacency. The Health and Hospitals Corporation badly misjudged the readiness of some of its facilities, especially Bellevue. The Housing Authority, living down to its history of ineptitude, had 13,000 residents still in the dark ten days after the hurricane. The city’s emergency response in the Rockaways, apart from the heroism of cops and firefighters, was practically nonexistent. OEM is charged with playing out horrific “what if?” disaster scenarios, but now that the city was struggling through a real catastrophe, the agency was fumbling. Bloomberg tacitly acknowledged one of its failings eight days into the crisis when he hired an outside consultant as a director to figure out how to create temporary housing for thousands.

Bloomberg is lousy at exuding warmth, though he does care about people and has quietly visited city workers, volunteers, and victims daily before, during, and after Sandy. At heart, though, he’s an engineer and most effective when he’s dealing with systems—from banning smoking to using data to drive the public schools. The storm has renewed attention to another of the mayor’s signature achievements, the rezonings that have accelerated waterfront development—and turned some neighborhoods into bull’s-eyes for storm surges. A debate is stirring already: Governor Andrew Cuomo has talked about building levees, or retreating from the coastline. Bloomberg prefers tinkering with the existing infrastructure. But the mayor knows the real solution is beyond the city’s borders.

In the days immediately after the storm, Bloomberg placed what turned out to be a shrewd political bet—one based on the storm that had just swept the city. On Tuesday, he told Wolfson he was leaning toward endorsing Barack Obama; by Wednesday, the mayor’s speechwriter, Frank Barry, had drafted a statement centered on the president’s fledgling attempts to tackle global warming. On Thursday morning, coincidentally, the mayor got a call from Joe Biden urging Bloomberg to back Obama. That afternoon, the mayor announced his belated endorsement.

Bloomberg had one eye on his future for months before Sandy rearranged his focus. In July, the mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater provoked a series of outraged mayoral quotes and op-eds. But Bloomberg wasn’t sure how to follow up in a way that would make a serious impact on gun violence. In September, the mayor’s longtime pollster, Doug Schoen, surveyed congressional races to figure out where Bloomberg’s money might defeat NRA-backed candidates and elect pols in line with the mayor’s views on bipartisanship, gay marriage, gun control, and immigration. Wolfson used the polling to identify eighteen possibilities. In early October, Bloomberg finally gave the go-ahead.

The super-PAC’s war room was actually one desk inside the sumptuous Upper East Side mansion that houses the Bloomberg Foundation. Wolfson whittled the targets down—some Republicans, some Democrats, one Independent—and planned a conventional menu of direct mail and robo-calls. Thousands of those were launched, including a glossy mailer saying California congressman Joe Baca, a Democrat with an A rating from the NRA, had made it easier for sex offenders and suspected terrorists to carry concealed guns. But Wolfson had an epiphany. “Doing the things that other people can do is a mistake,” he said. “We should do the things that only somebody with Mike Bloomberg’s resources can do, which basically means going up on television in, say, the Los Angeles media market. When we go up on TV there, we will be the only actor, the only entity, on TV in this race.”

As the storm hit the city, the super-PAC’s work went forward, mostly—the spot for Chris Murphy was shelved, because having Bloomberg on TV in Connecticut talking about politics would have been in bad taste after Sandy. The mayor, though, paid no attention to his own mini-campaign after that Friday in the park. Wolfson had put the PAC in motion but shifted nearly all his attention to the storm even before Sandy hit. “When it’s 3 a.m. and I can’t sleep, I’ll go online and look at what’s happening in these races,” he said as the hurricane’s aftermath dominated his days. “But not with any degree of focus. The politics piece of this—who cares right now?” Well, Joe Baca does. The five-term California congressman blames his upset loss last week on the $3.3 million Bloomberg spent to boost his opponent, Gloria Negrete-Macleod. In Syracuse, $440,000 worth of Bloomberg ads helped Democrat Dan Maffei oust incumbent Republican congresswoman Ann-Marie Buerkle. Angus King, the Independent running for U.S. senator in Maine, saw his lead shrink by twenty points under an assault by Karl Rove’s super-PAC; Bloomberg’s half-million dollars stopped the bleeding and King won easily. The mayor also poured cash into education-reform ballot initiatives, succeeding in helping to raise taxes for arts and school-renovation programs in Denver but failing to establish mayoral control of the school board in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and losing a bid to link teacher merit pay to standardized-testing scores in Idaho.


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