Even if the cause was unseemly, the execution of the political strategy to rewrite the law was staggeringly impressive, enlisting Bloomberg’s moneyed friends and the friends he’s made with his money and displaying an impressive eye for detail. An ethnically diverse cast of average citizens appeared in the front row at the council hearings, clutching preprinted signs reading democrats for choices. Bloomberg campaign aides like Patrick Brennan were suddenly “volunteering” their time to round up supporters to pass the needed City Council bill extending term limits. When Linda Gibbs, the mayor’s head of Health and Human Services, lobbied an official at a social-services group to make calls to council members, there didn’t seem to be much choice. The mayor’s operatives coaxed a wide range of recipients of his charitable donations to testify, but most were smart enough that they didn’t need an invitation. The Public Art Fund has received at least $500,000 from Bloomberg; its head, Susan Freedman, spoke enthusiastically on the mayor’s behalf—and, she says, with a clear conscience because of Bloomberg’s belief in the importance of the arts. “Do you think you would need to twist my arm to have me want this kind of leadership continue?” she said afterward.
The parade of witnesses included Mario Cuomo, the former governor, who is now of counsel to Willkie Farr & Gallagher, the firm that is defending Bloomberg L.P. against sexual-discrimination lawsuits and that has as one of its top partners Richard DeScherer, Bloomberg’s lawyer. Geoffrey Canada, who runs the Harlem Children’s Zone, spoke of his worry for New York’s most vulnerable during the downturn. He didn’t mention that his organization has city contracts worth millions of dollars and has received more than $500,000 in private money from Bloomberg.
“It’s a legitimate question, to ask about people being compromised,” Canada says. “But everybody knows we get money from the city! We have since the seventies. I wouldn’t turn down money from anyone who wants to support our programs. But is my vote for sale? Absolutely not. I’m very comfortable with the real reasons I’m supporting Bloomberg—his attention to education, the reduction in crime without the rancor of the Giuliani years, and his fairness in spreading the budget pain.”
A year later, the change looks like a brilliant seizing of the moment by Bloomberg—and like weak-kneed overreaction by his enablers. True, the city’s economy has continued to slump badly, but it hasn’t shattered. The mayor claims credit for things not being worse, and he deserves some of it, particularly for cutting the budget in advance of last fall’s gyrations and then trimming some more this spring without inflicting excessive damage—with the crucial, though temporary, help of federal stimulus money.
But that’s only become clear lately. The reelection campaign, Bloomberg’s $100 million version of economic aid, was already in full swing.
Each year for more than a decade, beginning in the sixties and stretching through the early eighties, this magazine’s power list described the gradations in weight of a dozen or more major players, all of them with significant juice. With one enormous exception. Looking back at 1972, and previewing the year to come, Richard Reeves wrote, “The names on this list are formidable people, but none of them—not even all of them combined—means as much as Nelson A. Rockefeller.” Thirty-six years later, the parallels are uncanny—an exceedingly wealthy man in a top elective office, using his own money as well as the tools of his job to dominate a weakened civic hierarchy—even if the details are different and the valences are reversed: Rocky was a strong governor stepping in to clean up for a hollow mayor (the post-presidential-campaign John Lindsay); Bloomy is a strong mayor who wishes he could clean up for a hollow governor (indeed, David Paterson’s weakness only augments the mayor’s power). But perhaps the greatest difference is that Bloomberg’s power outstrips Rockefeller’s by a wide measure, wider even than the gap in their wealth: Bloomberg, New York’s richest man, is approximately twelve times richer than Rockefeller, in today’s dollars, and he’s spread his money around more craftily and more extensively than Rocky ever did.
Which is why the words of Reeves’s final paragraph, applied to a different man, hold true all these years later. “He says that we need him, that he will save the city. That may even be true. God knows we have him whether we like it or not.” This time, though, the story is likely to end differently: Rockefeller, deciding he had nowhere to go but down and determined to run for president again, resigned as governor in December 1973, leaving the state in the hands of the estimable Malcolm Wilson. Perhaps Bloomberg still pines for the presidency. But you don’t amass all this power, and spend $100 million to hang on to it, to prematurely surrender the job to Bill de Blasio. Instead, the mayor is agitating to eliminate the office of public advocate even before De Blasio has officially been elected. If Mike Bloomberg is going to stick around until 2014, he wants to have all possible power at his disposal. How he uses that power can’t completely efface the fact of how he gained it.