Tonight’s dinner party is in honor of London mayor Boris Johnson. Nominally, anyway. Like every gathering on the fifth floor of an ever-expanding townhouse on East 79th Street, this event is really in honor of its host. Mayor Michael Bloomberg doesn’t just live here—he presides here. Beginning in the days when he ran Bloomberg L.P., the multinational financial-information juggernaut he founded, Bloomberg has used dinner at his home to surround himself with the city’s elite, soliciting ideas and amusing anecdotes and ingratiating himself with the old-line power brokers who would eventually help him gain—and keep—City Hall. Since Bloomberg was first elected mayor in 2001, his guest list has stretched to include less-glamorous types—public-school teachers, union leaders, novelists. This is the inner sanctum of the meritocracy, and the mayor is an equal-opportunity inviter. But always the affairs are arranged to maximize the benefit to the host.
Johnson is in New York to promote U.K.-U.S. tourism. Bloomberg is a longtime Anglophile, and his company’s second-largest office is in London. The clearest sign that this Sunday evening holds special resonance for Bloomberg is the presence of Rupert Murdoch, Mort Zuckerman, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publishers of New York’s three daily newspapers. They’re here because Bloomberg asked them to be. “Those three are at anything that really matters to Mike,” a dinner-party veteran says.
After cocktails on the second floor, the guests walk up to the fifth floor and find their chairs at one of the small tables. Bloomberg circulates throughout the evening, working his way from one table to the next. Katie Couric is here, and Emma Thompson, and Ken Chenault, the CEO of American Express. There’s Dan Doctoroff, the Bloomberg deputy mayor for economic development turned president of Bloomberg L.P. Each guest is a significant player in his or her own realm—wielding the power of celebrity or the power to swing elections or to move markets. Yet wherever he mingles, the 67-year-old Bloomberg eclipses his guests. Not because he is worth far more money than any two of the corporate tycoons put together; that’s been true for years. It’s because in the past seven years Michael Bloomberg has become the only powerful figure in New York who really matters.
This magazine pioneered the power list way back in 1968. In stories with headlines like “The Power Game” and “The 36 Who Run New York,” the writers Ed Costikyan, Nick Pileggi, Richard Reeves, and Dick Schaap constructed not just a numerical ranking of the city’s movers and shakers but a vivid tapestry of how those players—many of them unelected and obscure—interacted to shape public life in New York. The specific names that made up the Establishment changed over time, thanks to deaths, indictments, newly made fortunes, and the election cycle. But one thing about the New York Establishment stayed true for a solid decade: the multiplicity of actors with real sway over civic life.
No more. Forty-one years later, there is a one-man Establishment: Michael Bloomberg. Certainly there are other figures with real power. But in a way that wasn’t true two decades ago, their influence is circumscribed, confined to their narrow categories: real estate, culture, health care, banking. And, in terms of civic life, little of their power exists independent of their relationships with Bloomberg. The mogul-class push for the mayor’s term-limits extension felt like the last gasp of what’s left of the city’s old-line ruling class.
The mayor is not a dictator. He can’t unilaterally decree major changes, and he still has to strike bargains with two legislative bodies—the City Council (generally a formality) and the State Legislature (more difficult, particularly when dealing with the inscrutable Sheldon Silver). But Bloomberg gets what he wants more than any mayor in modern memory.
The foundation of Bloomberg’s imperial mayoralty is, obviously, money. He’s used his vast personal fortune—$17.5 billion at last Forbes estimate—relentlessly and creatively to reverse the standard political dynamic: Instead of the special interests’ buying off the politicians, the city’s top politician has bought off the special interests. Money has allowed him to create the Bloomberg Party, whose clubhouse is the business elite and whose field troops are enlisted issue by issue. Bloomberg employs large segments of the city’s political class, directly and indirectly, and his philanthropy, often done in secret, gives him a very large circle of friends. Opposing him can be an exceedingly lonely occupation.
The mayor has also been lucky, benefiting from historical trends that have sidelined or crippled many of the city’s traditional power centers. “There’s been a major shift in the power structure in a short period of time,” says real-estate baron and Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman. “It’s hard to name many major players. Some of it is because of what’s happening in the financial world. But much of the shift is because the mayor is so predominant.”