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Mike Bloomberg Owns This Town

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Court of King Mike: At a gala in New York in 2006.  

A generational shift has also enhanced Bloomberg’s power. As some of New York’s biggest players have passed the baton—from Jerry to Rob Speyer, from George to Hal Steinbrenner—the pattern has been that the son is a paler version of the father, confronting a rougher business climate.

Bloomberg talks to a wide range of other leaders, and has genuine respect for many—among them Dick Beattie, the Simpson Thacher senior partner who launched the New Visions charter-school program; Nat Leventhal, the old Ed Koch hand and recently retired president of Lincoln Center; and Chuck Schumer, the U.S. Senate dynamo. But who can tell the mayor that he’s wrong, that he has a bad idea or is making a big mistake, and be taken seriously? “No one,” a Bloomberg intimate says. “He doesn’t really listen to anyone.”

While Bloomberg’s wealthy peers have willingly acquiesced, other actors have needed to be finessed, which the mayor has done with a political shrewdness that few would have predicted he possessed when he was first elected. Two days after he’d squeaked past Mark Green in 2001, Bloomberg gripped and grinned with the Reverend Al Sharpton at a dinner for 100 Black Men. It seemed to be a chance encounter, two prominent New Yorkers at the same event, but in fact it was a highly staged handshake, choreographed by Bloomberg himself to send a message: He was no Rudy Giuliani, who fought first and talked later, if at all. The city was once again being run by a mature adult. Bloomberg made sure a photographer was present, and the next morning the shot was on the front page of the Post.

Sharpton appreciated Bloomberg’s early gesture of respect, as well as the ongoing efforts by the mayor and his staff to keep the lines of communication open. Recently, Sharpton has become partners with Joel Klein in an initiative to close the performance gap between white and black and Latino schoolkids, further drawing him into Bloomberg’s orbit. So even when Sharpton has expressed differences with the mayor over the years, he’s kept his complaints civil, one payoff from Bloomberg’s charm offensive. And he sounds stunned when describing how other elements of the traditional opposition have fallen away.

“It’s an interesting time,” Sharpton says. “It’s the first time you have a mayoral election and you can’t identify by name two labor leaders who are known citywide. It’s the same in other civic groups.”

Two of the biggest union names and personalities—Weingarten of the teachers union and Dennis Rivera of SEIU 1199—departed for Washington jobs, and their replacements have so far shown little inclination to clash with the mayor. Even before the turnover, Bloomberg’s squabbles with the unions seemed almost ritualistic. The real-estate and stock-market booms, and the property-tax hikes instituted in 2002, allowed the mayor to forge a new bargain with organized labor; it’s fairly easy for a mayor to keep the labor peace when he’s handing out meaty wage increases to city workers. The average salary paid to teachers, for instance, is up 43 percent during the mayor’s two terms, without significant progress in work rules.

A remarkable number of dominoes have fallen Bloomberg’s way. The city’s ethnic politics are at a transition point: Black activists trained in the civil-rights model are fading, and though the city’s Latino and Asian communities have rising population numbers, they have yet to coalesce around any leaders, though the primary victory of John Liu is perhaps a sign of things to come. The speaker of the City Council is usually a mayoral antagonist. But the current speaker, Christine Quinn, decided that the best way to be elected mayor herself was to ingratiate herself with Bloomberg. Then Quinn was further neutered by the council’s slush-fund scandal.

Bloomberg has also been fortunate to be mayor at a time when the local press has been reeling. Individual City Hall reporters and bloggers remain diligent and skeptical in their coverage. But there’s no Jimmy Breslin or Jack Newfield or Andy Logan on the scene—a columnist with the moral standing and the readership to make City Hall nervous. Bloomberg’s company is one of the very few media operations that are still expanding, which feeds conspiracy theories that the city’s media have pulled their punches when covering the mayor. The reality is less exciting but equally depressing: that local papers and TV stations, hemorrhaging money, are devoting ever fewer resources and follow-up to city politics.

On a gray October Saturday morning, candidate Bloomberg drops by the Fairway supermarket in Red Hook for some retail—in both senses of the word—campaigning. He looks elfin, barely five-foot-six and stoop-shouldered, wearing a tangerine-colored V-neck sweater so bright it practically vibrates. He’s charming and self-deprecating, much more the natural politician than when he’s on a podium. Bloomberg accepts hugs from customers and passes along anecdotes about the children of immigrants who have been accepted to Ivy League colleges, a reminder that at bottom Bloomberg is a world-class salesman. He smiles broadly when a local developer says that Fairway has hired 100 more workers than planned. Bloomberg chats with shopper Brian O’Connell, 41, a research executive at Dow Jones; the mayor says he’s discussed with “Rupert” the ways in which their competing companies face similar problems. “Bloomberg has been an excellent mayor,” O’Connell says later, while he and his wife bag their groceries. “He cares about the things we do: education, the environment. And he’s a great fit for New York because he’s a success, but not in something like a chain of dry cleaners. He’s a success in finance and the media, which fits the city’s self-image. I wouldn’t say this about another politician, but the risk isn’t that he has too much power. It’s that you have a mayor who doesn’t have enough power and can’t get things done.”


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