One Sunday evening in April, twenty mayors from across the country gathered for a private dinner at the office of Michael Bloomberg’s foundation on East 78th Street. Bloomberg had paid to fly the mayors in to attend a conference he was hosting for them on innovation in city government. Cocktails and appetizers were served on the building’s ground floor, giving the mayors the opportunity to rub shoulders with members of the business, cultural, and media elite who populate Bloomberg’s rarefied world. The mayor’s political adviser, Kevin Sheekey, had carefully calibrated the guest list to maximally impress the out-of-town visitors, with media powers like Brian Williams and Charlie Rose and glittery Young Turks like Ivanka Trump.
After an hour, the party moved upstairs, where guests sat down for a dinner at ten round tables in a sleek gallery ringed with paintings by the Kenyan-born artist Allan deSouza. Waiters in angular black uniforms served fresh bread—no butter, no salt, of course—and, later, plates of black cod, mashed potatoes, and asparagus. Bloomberg, tieless in a blazer and blue shirt, circulated during the dinner hour, shaking hands and trading gossip. As coffee was poured, he took to the podium. For the next fifteen minutes, Bloomberg talked expansively about the role of mayors in society. “Mayors do things. Mayors make things happen,” he said. He presented himself as a man of action, working in an apparent jab at the president. “There’s one thing mayors can agree on, whether they’re Republican, Democrats, or Independents, and I’m the one person in the room who can speak with authority on all three”—the room burst into laughter—“we don’t have the luxury of giving speeches and making promises.”
If it sounded a lot like a stump speech, it’s because in many ways it was. Bloomberg has been casting about for his next job since about midway through his second term. In a sense, the third term was a stopgap, something to do while he made up his mind. And since the presidency seems frustratingly out of reach, he’s set his sights on a Plan B: He wants to be mayor of the world. “I don’t think there’s much difference in a meaningful sense, whether it’s a city here or a city there—wherever ‘there’ is,” he told the group. “I was in Hanoi and Singapore a few weeks ago, and they have exactly the same problems we do. It really is amazing.”
It’s always been Michael Bloomberg’s most fervent political conviction that he knows best how to address these problems. He has famously strong views on where people can smoke, what they should eat (and, last week, drink), how much companies can pollute, and how schools educate their students, and he plans to bring these ideas to the biggest possible audience. He’s also been working to shape legislation on issues from gun control and gay marriage to pension reform. And he doesn’t hesitate to personally fund his agenda. He has committed $600 million over ten years to anti-tobacco efforts globally. “China has one third of the world’s smokers,” a Bloomberg aide notes. In Brazil, the mayor is funding programs to improve traffic signage as part of a five-year, $125 million effort to improve road safety in countries from Vietnam to Egypt. And here in the U.S., he’s helping to raise $100 million for the Sierra Club’s campaign to shutter a third of the country’s coal power plants. “It was a game-changing gift,” says Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director.
Essentially, Bloomberg is scaling up a model he incubated here in New York. During his three terms, the mayor has used his capital strategically as glue to bind the city’s fractious interest groups together. He is funding programs in cities from Atlanta to São Paulo. “He’s not only an elected official with a lot of advice and counsel; he’s got a big pocketbook,” New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu says. “Mayor Bloomberg is the mayor’s mayor,” says Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter. “Every big, medium, and smaller-size city—all the mayors look to spend time with Mike Bloomberg.”
The next act has already started, albeit quietly. Last year, Bloomberg’s foundation approved a $6 million grant that is funding a staff of eleven employees to work inside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office in Chicago. The team is working on two initiatives: helping the city overhaul the systems for processing business licenses—a major campaign issue for small businesses—and increasing local energy efficiency. “If you’re opening a store for pets and you want to sell dog food, that’s one license. You want to sell a dog collar? That’s another license,” Emanuel told me. “If you have a service that washes dogs, that’s a separate license. All in one sector. We were not allowing companies to grow.” Bloomberg’s foundation provided the funds to reform the system. It’s wonky work, but wonkery is his passion. Given the brutal fiscal pressures facing cities, Bloomberg can seem like a one-man stimulus.