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Autocrat for the People

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“Mike’s personal money has had a major impact on just about everything he’s done in city government,” Kathy Wylde says. “Education? Huge influence. Health? Huge influence. Cultural affairs, social services, and the whole anti-poverty thing. He has leveraged expertise, called in philanthropic chits, created pilot projects, much of it anonymously, put together teams, put together public-relations efforts around them—enormous investments in everything that’s happened.”

Probably the most spectacular political manifestation of those investments was Bloomberg’s campaign to rewrite the city’s term-limits law in 2008 to give himself a chance to run again. It was also a powerful demonstration of how the mayor’s money had sifted into almost every corner of New York’s public life, intimidating some opponents and co-opting others. In his first term, when Bloomberg cut the budgets of cultural institutions to help close a budget gap, he quietly reached into his own pocket to make up some of the difference. He saw it as a smart investment on behalf of the city: Museums and theaters and ballet troupes drew tourists, who spent money in New York’s hotels and restaurants. But over time, as the flow of Bloomberg money to arts and education groups turned into a flood—he channeled nearly $200 million through the Carnegie foundation—it became politically useful, helping smooth the path to four more years.

On a chilly March night, a crowd gathered at Mike Bloomberg’s place. Not Gracie Mansion, which he’s had meticulously renovated but which he has refused to live in, and not his actual home either; that’s a mansion around the corner. The party was on the gleaming second floor of Bloomberg’s foundation offices, inside an elegant Stanford White–designed limestone-and-yellow-brick townhouse that the mayor bought for $45 million. The interior shines with glass walls and original artwork and, this night, about 100 members of the ruling class.

There was Caroline Kennedy, whom he tried to make a U.S. senator. And Tim Geithner. Barry Diller. Next to Martha Stewart. Next to Nate Silver, who was spilling his beer. Here’s the party’s co-host, Arianna Huffington. Gayle King. Sean Hughes, the Facebook multimillionaire turned New Republic owner. Charlie Rose. George Packer and Dexter Filkins, chatting about war zones. Andrew Ross Sorkin of the Times and Tim Armstrong of AOL. Christine Quinn, of course. Chuck Schumer. And George Lucas. George Lucas?!

They had assembled for a book party, celebrating Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Even though the Facebook COO was the star of the show, that evening, as with every big event in his final year as mayor, felt as much like a valedictory for Bloomberg as anything else. Bloomberg, never wistful, was enjoying himself but using every remaining minute of his mayoral time to argue his case. “Arthur!” he shouted mischievously, spotting New York Times owner Arthur Sulzberger Jr. “Your facts are not straight!” Something in that morning’s paper irritated the mayor—maybe the story about a setback in the fight to shrink the size of sugary drinks—and Bloomberg leaned in to give Sulzberger a piece of his mind.

The night’s guest list needed a few more plutocrats to qualify as a crowd of Bloomberg’s peers. But in many other ways this was his crowd, the best connected, the ­cleverest, the most tough-minded. And in this heady company the applause for Bloomberg was loud, the mood admiring, even affectionate.

Being mayor certainly has not hurt Bloomberg’s net worth: It has soared from $4.5 billion when Bloomberg was first elected to $27 billion today. And his wealth is an uneasy metaphor for the city he’s helped to create. As New York has become safer, its schools better, its air cleaner, the city has attracted more ­people. The mayor sees it as bottom-line vindication: People voting with their feet, 250,000 more city residents than there were when he took over.

Yet success drives up rents and strains the finances of longtime middle-class residents. The mayor has tried to ameliorate some of the pressure with an affordable-housing program, but the free market keeps outstripping the subsidies. Nearly one third of New York’s renters now spend more than half their monthly income on shelter, according to NYU’s Furman Center. As the proportion of millionaires climbs, so does the share of New Yorkers living at or near the poverty line. “Low-income ­people are being squeezed into fewer and fewer spots around the city,” says John Mollenkopf, a professor of political science at cuny, who gives Bloomberg’s tenure generally high marks. “Do we have a right as a city to ask that the bounties from our economic success be shared widely and broadly and fairly? I think the mayor would tend to say no, whoever gets, gets, and the market picks out the most talented.”

To Bloomberg, the carping about inequality is just an election-year pose by the candidates trying to succeed him, and economic fairness is best expressed in results: Safer streets, better schools, and more diverse job opportunities make for longer, upwardly mobile lives. Just look at the numbers. He has been a great mayor in many ways. He has also been a thoroughly unique civic creature, one that has never existed before and will not be seen again. Michael Bloomberg leaves behind plenty of bike lanes, skyscrapers, parks, stadiums, and smokeless bars. What won’t last is a New York governed outside the realm of New York politics.


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