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The Mayor of Mayors

Photographs by Pari Dukovic

In New Orleans, Bloomberg has funded a $4.2 million crime-reduction program staffed by seven systems experts who work in Landrieu’s office. In 2010, he committed $4 million to assist several states that were applying for Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative. And when Colorado failed to qualify for federal funds, he spent another $400,000 in local elections to make sure that reform-minded Democratic state senators who backed the Race to the Top application made it through a punishing reelection season for their party. “There’s strong economic pressures and political pressures against setting aside money for innovative new ideas and projects,” says Denver public-schools superintendent Tom Boasberg. “That’s a critical role philanthropy can play at all times, but especially now, at a time of brutal budget cuts.”

Mike Bloomberg’s politics are non-politics—it’s all about the numbers. “He’s a scientist,” Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler told me. “He’s a physicist. How does he understand things? Reason, logic, and data.”

As an ambitious Harvard Business School graduate, Bloomberg couldn’t understand why traders at Salomon Brothers were combing through stacks of backdated Wall Street Journals, marking up bond prices with No. 2 pencils, so he persuaded a reluctant Billy Salomon and John Gutfreund to computerize the information. “He literally bribed a bunch of R&D people—a bunch of kids who knew something about computers,” says Winkler.

Business and politics are not, for Bloomberg, fundamentally different activities. And in his new role, money and expertise will add up to truly massive influence—at least that’s the idea. “He may well have wanted to be president, but I am convinced that he could well end up more influential and important than the next president, whoever he may be,” his political adviser Doug Schoen told me recently, with a certain amount of hyperbole.

Bloomberg sees an opening for a problem solver on the global stage. “Mike has a unique perspective,” Emanuel says. “He has passions on gun control, immigration, and climate change.”

Where Bill Gates’s foundation has devoted the lion’s share of its resources to relatively nonpolitical causes like vaccines and the global aids epidemic, much of Bloomberg’s mission will be more explicitly political. But rather than choosing sides, it will be an assault on the shibboleths of both parties, and on partisanship itself.

The urgency that Bloomberg now feels to transform himself into a global figure is ­fueled by a sense that time is running out. Shortly after he began his second term, in January 2006, the mayor instructed his staff to install a digital clock on the wall above the kitchen in the bull pen at City Hall. The clock was visible from everywhere in the room, ticking off the days, hours, minutes, and seconds left until his term was up. The purpose of the countdown, as the mayor explained to aides, was motivational, part of the M.B.A. ethos that has defined the Bloomberg era. He wanted to make sure his team resisted the lame-duck malaise that can settle over second-term administrations. When he started the third term, he added stopwatches that timed meetings. Some advisers saw the clocks as revealing something deeper: They provided a constant reminder that the mayor would soon be exiting the public stage—a prospect that was deeply unsettling to a man with the ambitions of Michael Bloomberg.

Having built Bloomberg LP, his financial-information company, into a global powerhouse and presided over the city’s successful post-9/11 comeback as a popular two-term mayor, Bloomberg still possessed a fierce drive. Publicly, the mayor indicated he would devote his time to philanthropy. At 66, he was fit, energetic, determined to stay relevant. With a net worth estimated at some $20 billion, and the resolve to spend virtually all of it, he had the means to do so. But there is little question that he wanted to be president. At one point, he spoke with Chuck Hagel and Sam Nunn about a third-party bid. “He was looking at the centrist-Republican crowd,” a member of the mayor’s team explained.

But the Bloomberg boomlet quickly faded as the mayor and his advisers recognized that the Electoral College math didn’t work, “absent some unbelievably transformational event,” as an adviser told me recently. “His limitation is that he’s a centrist, and there’s no place in these parties for centrists,” the adviser added. Vice-president remained a possibility. In the summer of 2008, Bloomberg was vetted by the McCain campaign. But it’s hardly a job that would have suited him.

After his presidential ambitions fizzled, Bloomberg realized that he didn’t have a parachute—amazingly, a run for commander-in-chief was his most serious option. So, with less than 500 days left on the clock, Bloomberg advisers went up to Harlem to explore his post–City Hall options privately with Doug Band, the politically wired lawyer who helped establish Bill Clinton’s post-presidential foundation. While Band advised the mayor on getting the foundation up to speed, Bloomberg simply wasn’t ready to focus full-time on philanthropy. Up to that point, it had been an occasional hobby for him—something like flying a helicopter. He needed more time to think, more time to plan. And it was at that moment that he came up with the idea of a third term.