On August 6, I meet Mayor Bloomberg in the wide-open City Hall bullpen he installed as soon as he took office to re-create the collaborative corporate environment of his business empire. It’s the middle of summer, with the mayoral race heating up, and he’s conferring with Deputy Mayor Patti Harris and glancing at the Bloomberg terminal at his desk. I ask him what he’s monitoring—local companies, he says, which he follows as economic barometers. Many of which also happen to be run by his friends. “Some media companies, you know.” He mentions News Corp.—“or whatever the new name is”—and the Times. “American Express would be on there. Ken Chenault’s a friend, but also it’s a big employer in New York City. If you want to know what’s happening, Chenault can tell you. Another one which would be a good indicator is Macy’s. The guy that runs it happens to be a golfing buddy, Terry Lundgren, but he can tell you—they have stores in all five boroughs, and out in the suburbs, and around the country. You can get a good feel if you talk to him.”
Having climbed up the short stairway to a conference table, we begin the first of several conversations about his twelve unusual years in office, sitting beneath a countdown clock showing the time left in his mayoralty ticking away.
A common theme in the campaign to succeed you has been that you’ve governed primarily for the rich.
I’m fascinated by these comments—and it is just campaign rhetoric—suggesting that we haven’t done enough for the poor. The truth of the matter is we’ve done a lot more than anybody else has ever done. The average compensation—income—for the bottom 20 percent is higher than in almost every other city. Of course, the average compensation for the top 20 percent is 25 percent higher than the next four cities. But that’s our tax base. If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend, because that’s where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else.
Who’s paying our taxes? We pay the highest school costs in the country. It comes from the wealthy! We have an $8.5 billion budget for our Police Department. We’re the safest big city in the country—stop me when you get bored with this! Life expectancy is higher here than in the rest of the country—who’s paying for that? We want these people to come here, and it’s not our job to say that they’re over- or underpaid. I might not pay them the same thing if it was my company—maybe I’d pay them more, I don’t know. All I know is from the city’s point of view, we want these people, and why criticize them? Wouldn’t it be great if we could get all the Russian billionaires to move here?
But isn’t there a point where the compensation has outstripped whatever civic contribution bankers make?
They are private institutions—maybe public companies, but in the private sector—who want to maximize their profits. I assume they don’t deliberately overpay their employees, they pay what they think is necessary, and if one guy raises the ante, the other guy doesn’t have much choice.
So you don’t think the fact that the economic gap is increasing is a problem for the future of the city?
The question you’ve got to ask yourself is, are we spending money to help those that are struggling? We spend $22,000 per year per student. No other city in the country spends that. We have a commitment to having a park within a ten-minute walk of everybody. I don’t think any administration has done as much to help the whole spectrum of people who live here.
The truth of the matter is that there are more private-sector jobs in this city than ever before, and the people struggling at the bottom have more support than ever before. We’ve created something like 300,000 jobs at the bottom end, where they are really needed. We’re also working at the top, whether it’s the Cornell engineering campus or trying to help support big finance. We’ve created a government that’s not based on special interests or who you know; it uses numbers to decide whether or not, in fact, people are getting this kind of service, need that kind of service.
People don’t remember—when Giuliani was going out and I was coming in, it was supposed to be the end of the world. Nobody knew what a billionaire would do. They thought I would destroy the city. That did not happen. Take a look at all the things we’ve done—infrastructure, education, crime, helping the poor, cultural institutions. The elitist thing that cultural institutions are only for certain people—no! We built small cultural institutions all around the city—from cultures you’ve never heard of.
This conversation has been condensed and edited from interviews on August 6, August 26, and September 4.