Which fits perfectly with the style of Sheekey’s patron. Four years ago, Bloomberg was blunt: He didn’t care about the abstract notion of campaign-finance equality—he cared about winning. “What’s the argument to run a risk?” he asks. “If you really believe that you’re making a difference and that you can leave a legacy of better schools and jobs and safer streets, why would you not spend the money? The objective is to improve the schools, bring down crime, build affordable housing, clean the streets—not to have a fair fight.” Whether you agreed with that philosophy or not, at least Bloomberg was willing to talk about it. This time around, the mayor will only sit down with the editorial boards of the papers.
Bloomberg’s partisans say the reason for the burgeoning of his power is simple: He’s done a good job. “Mayors aren’t powerful because they aren’t successful, because they couldn’t close the deal, because they couldn’t run the city,” Sheekey says. “It’s your ability to deliver public safety, trash collection, all the basic parts of the job.”
Bloomberg does indeed deserve credit for the good things that have occurred on his watch. Crime rates have remained at record lows, and there hasn’t been another terrorist attack; the reasons for both are multifaceted, but Ray Kelly and the NYPD have been energetic in the pursuit of bad guys, though sometimes at the expense of civil liberties. Bloomberg’s smoking ban will save thousands of lives and cut millions from medical bills, and not just in New York. The mayor has nurtured the city’s biotech sector, as part of his plan to diversify the city’s economy.
Bloomberg’s management of the city’s budget has generally been astute, particularly his unpopular push to raise property taxes in the months after 9/11 and his insistence on setting aside money during the good times and paying down some of the city’s debt. But his budget record overall is mixed. “For most of his two terms, the mayor has followed along with the business cycle: He did pattern bargaining with the unions when times were good, he gave wage increases above the rate of inflation, he kicked up city expenses and pensions,” says Carol Kellermann, president of the Citizen’s Budget Commission. “And he did a lot of ambitious capital spending.” As a result, the city’s budget has grown from $41 billion to $59.5 billion this fiscal year, according to the Independent Budget Office, and a reckoning looms. The mayor has also been unable, despite devoting lots of rhetoric to the subject, to wean the city from its dependence on Wall Street revenue—though to be fair, any mayor has only tangential influence on the city’s mix of private employment.
Where Bloomberg has been especially savvy is in defining the terms of success for his management of the schools. He points emphatically to higher state test scores and graduation rates—but whether those numbers measure real learning or merely a facility in taking tests is impossible to tell.
Bloomberg’s lieutenants dismiss the notion that he has any greater power than previous mayors, or that the altered landscape has given him an advantage.
“The same power structure is more or less here,” says Ed Skyler, who started as Bloomberg’s press secretary and has risen to deputy mayor for operations. “I don’t know that I have seen it shift. What you have seen is someone come on the scene who didn’t have a public-sector profile eight years ago that has now been mayor for two terms and who knows how to work with all the sectors. He knows how to get a rezoning done, by working with the labor unions and with developers. He knows how to support the tourism industry. He knows what the city needs to be a financial powerhouse. So you see a mayor who is equally comfortable in a diner in Jackson Heights as he is in a corporate boardroom, because he’s spent time understanding everybody’s issues, from small businesses to big business, teachers, cops.”
In this view, that agenda advances because of its indisputable virtue, the unassailable merits of his ideas, not because Bloomberg greases the system with money. “So many compromises are made in politics, so much access is involved, so many decisions are made, through money,” Sheekey says. “This mayor gets to make decisions in a much freer manner. People used to talk about the mayor’s money initially—‘Oh, he’s got all this money, he’s going to buy an election.’ But no one could ever really point to any system of success of politicians being able to buy elections. Look at Mike Bloomberg and Jon Corzine. Very similar backgrounds, very similar people. Both came into office spending a lot of money, okay? And one of them has been very successful, and one has generally been very unsuccessful, both in competitive environments. Why is that? I would argue it’s because one turned out to be really good at his job, and is surrounded by really good people, and he’s used persuasion to move things forward. If Mike Bloomberg were unsuccessful, he’d be a one-term mayor.”