“He’s still fairly young, he’s worth a zillion-billion dollars, and he wants to stay relevant,” Steinhardt observes. “I think that his great quandary is, what is he going to do?”
It’s the Tuesday after Labor Day, and Bloomberg and I are having lunch (though his idea of lunch is coffee and a slice of incinerated toast) at a diner in Tribeca. Bloomberg is dressed in a charcoal suit, a pink pin-striped shirt, and a pale-blue tie patterned with tiny yellow snails. He’s telling me a story about what a fabulous time he had the day before at the West Indian–American Day parade in Brooklyn—but the real subject is the affection, nay the devotion, the city has come to feel for him.
“There was not one boo, not one catcall,” Bloomberg merrily proclaims. “Young people, old people: ‘Bloomberg! Bloomberg!’ ‘Mayor! Mayor!’ ‘Great! Thumbs up!’ ” Quite a change, that is, from three years ago, when his reception at outer-borough parades was uniformly brutal: jeers, extended middle fingers, cigarettes flung at him. For a bracing experience, he says, “close firehouses, raise property taxes, put in a smoking ban—then do a parade in Staten Island.” He smiles. “Today in Staten Island, I get 80 percent of the vote and everybody loves me.”
As a steady stream of well-wishers stop by to shake his hand, Bloomberg revels in the transformation of his standing in the city. In his 1997 autobiography, Bloomberg by Bloomberg, he announced his belief that he’d make a terrific mayor, governor, or president. And now that he’s demonstrated his capacity in the first of those offices, he says he’s even more certain that he could master the other two. “I know something about how to build constituencies in an independent way,” he says. “I know how to make decisions and stand up to the criticism every day.” So you think you’d make a good president? “The answer is yes,” he says.
That Bloomberg got elected in the first place seems a historical accident. He had entered the race a political neophyte, and one whose switch from Democrat to Republican made him seem a naked opportunist. His gifts on the stump were minimal: He was brusque, infelicitous, maladroit, utterly unvisionary. But then, goes the conventional wisdom, came 9/11—and the mood of the electorate darkened. What voters wanted now was an equable hand to keep the economy afloat and the city from unraveling.
Bloomberg, for his part, dismisses the conventional wisdom as “mythology.” He says, “Fundamentally, [the reason for] my first election was, I worked hard and I spent a lot of money. The Democrats hurt themselves, and that got us into the game, and at the last minute, Mark Green’s campaign fell apart.”
Money also played a substantial part in his landslide reelection: Having shattered city campaign records in 2001 by spending $74 million, in 2005 he indulged in wanton overkill, plowing through $85 million to thrash a hapless opponent. Yet no amount of money would have bought 59 percent of the vote for Bloomberg had his first-term achievements—from coping with a looming fiscal crisis and extending Giuliani’s progress on crime to the smoking ban, 311, and public-school reform—not been so impressive. “At some point in 2005, the cumulative effect of the mayoralty kicked in,” argues NYU professor Mitchell Moss, who worked on the mayor’s first campaign. “People looked up and realized that Bloomberg had made government work in New York.”
Bloomberg has done much to enhance that perception over the past year. Since January, he has secured funding for the largest school-construction program in the city’s history. He unveiled a plan to build and maintain 165,000 units of affordable housing by 2013 and made headway on vast development projects in all five boroughs. The on-time high-school graduation rate was higher than it’s been in twenty years. The crime and unemployment rates have hit historic lows.
Bestowing on Bloomberg all the credit for the city’s post-9/11 revival would be absurd—for much of it is being driven by broader economic and demographic forces over which he has no control. Nor is there unanimity that either Bloomberg or his record has been as stellar as his fans make out. The sense that New York has become a town where only the rich are comfortable is felt by more than a few of its residents. Many elements of his development agenda—Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn, the far West Side, Moynihan Station—have stirred opposition. His performance during this summer’s blackout in Queens, when he declared that the Con Ed CEO, Kevin Burke, “deserves a thanks from this city,” drew gales of derision. And now he is mired in what promises to be a protracted, emotional, racially charged debate over the behavior of the city’s police.