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The Greatest Mayor: “How Would Dinkins Have Done, Had He Come After Giuliani?”

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John Lindsay on the Lexington Avenue line, 1970.  

Smith: That leaves two big names: La Guardia and Bloomberg. Right?

Hardt: Jimmy Walker [laughter].

Smith: Most fun, maybe. Best ever, I don’t know.

Sharpton: As far as being a flamboyant personality, La Guardia would win on everybody’s scorecard. In terms of how he dealt with a city that was plagued with segregation, particularly in housing, that’s what makes me question whether I could vote for him as the best ever. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. felt La Guardia gave Robert Moses a free hand to build, and that Moses didn’t develop in Harlem and Bed-Stuy, and that a lot of the housing that the city was underwriting didn’t allow people of color to rent.

Hardt: The city was in immense economic and moral crisis during La Guardia’s terms in City Hall. People were living in Central Park in tents. He held the city together; the city actually improved radically under his time. Capital projects that we don’t now recognize as being some of the great works in the city in the twentieth century occurred during his time. And he was that larger-than-life cheerleader character who a lot of New Yorkers could identify with. La Guardia was a great combination of being that cheerleader and also a person who got a lot done.

Mollenkopf: Historians looking at this list, I think, would continue to put La Guardia at the top. But the longer La Guardia was in the office, the more problematic things became, especially in the last part of his mayoralty. Perhaps that’s an argument for term limits. All around, who’s done the best job? I think it’s Bloomberg. Why? He faced very difficult economic circumstances right after 9/11, and he managed to bring the city through that fiscal difficulty without huge layoffs. Without exacerbating tensions. He’s kept the crime rate low without the kind of racial polarization that characterized the Giuliani years. And he’s come up with a whole lot of interesting things that—I mean, we’re starting to take 311 for granted. Giuliani and other mayors wanted to get their hands on the school system and failed to do that, and Bloomberg did. I’m sure everyone wishes they’d made more progress than they have, but there has been real progress in the system. That’s really a major step, it seems to me. And he’s come up with a range of anti-poverty programs. It’s not just symbolic. There’s no other mayor in the United States who’s said, “Let’s address poverty at the local level.” It’s not something that’s in the news a lot, but I think there’s something quite special about it. The city’s belated response to cleaning up the blizzard was not its finest hour and it gave the mayor’s critics a convenient screen on which to project their complaints. But in the end, the impact is likely to be transitory.

Hardt: The larger-than-life, colorful character—obviously Koch jumps to mind. The guy is greeting people on the Brooklyn Bridge during the transit strike, “How’m I doing?,” New York is back. Whether or not it was true, that was the message. Bloomberg buying that $700 bike, it played into the idea that he was an effete guy who didn’t know where Brooklyn and Queens were.

Mollenkopf: Bloomberg can stand in front of a room of highly informed people, critical reporters, people from fiscal rating agencies, and go through a budget, and he knows every footnote to every chart and why the numbers are driving what he does. In that environment, he can be extremely impressive.

Hardt: I think so, but it’s not La Guardia reading the funny pages during the newspaper strike.

Cunningham: But Bloomberg is kind of unabashedly himself. He doesn’t try to pretend he is not a billionaire. He is always telling us how great it is to have a jet. He owns his own personality in a way that … maybe he’s not charismatic, per se, or eloquent, but he’s definitely a personality.

Hardt: And that is New York: “I am what I am.”

Sharpton: Bloomberg ranks high. The problem is the city’s disparity in terms of income. The gap between the life of a wealthy New Yorker, particularly a Manhattanite, as opposed to working-class, outer-borough people has not gotten smaller. That would be the thing that would hurt him. And the blizzard became the metaphor for the perception that everyone isn’t treated equally under Bloomberg, just like in many ways Katrina was a metaphor for the perception that Bush was insensitive to certain people. That perception of Bloomberg is not totally accurate, but the cleanup drove home an image a lot of people had. And Bloomberg’s great-manager image has been snowed under, pun intended. If he’s not overrated as a manager, he at least needs to be reviewed.


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