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The New Power Generation

Bloomberg may have squeaked back in as king—but now he has two ambitious princes to contend with.

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Illustration by Roberto Parada  

The polls were closed and the bar was open. What remains of the city’s Democratic Party Establishment was ambling into a ballroom at the New York Hilton, on West 53rd Street, for an Election Night party in honor of mayoral candidate Bill Thompson. Which made for a weird mood early on: Everyone arrived expecting Thompson to lose big to Mike Bloomberg—so was this a celebration of fighting the good fight? Was it a funeral for a lost cause, the latest in a long string? “God, how many of these nights have we been to?” one operative asked.

Amid the initial gloom, though, roamed a guy with a bright political future—an actual Democratic winner! Bill de Blasio, a Brooklyn city councilman, had run the best campaign in a crowded September primary field, then two weeks later had decisively dispatched Mark Green in the runoff for public advocate. Today’s general election was a formality, but De Blasio nevertheless traveled the city, shaking hands and thanking voters. “The response was very gratifying,” he said. “People are eager for real checks and balances on the mayor’s power, and there’s still a lot of frustration over his spending, which his ads amplified, and people are still upset about term limits.”

De Blasio’s feel for the mood of the city was instinctual, but exit-polling data would later show that his analysis was right on target. And De Blasio is something of an expert on the power of the term-limits issue: Last fall, he was the City Council’s most visible and articulate opponent of Bloomberg’s extension. He didn’t stop the mayor, but the battle became a useful launching pad for De Blasio’s first citywide run. A year ago, he was bashing Bloomberg; now De Blasio was planning to call the mayor the next morning to graciously offer congratulations on his reelection.

The mayor, however, beat him to it. On Wednesday morning, De Blasio was with his wife, casually making his way to a doctor’s appointment, when Bloomberg’s number suddenly appeared on his cell phone. Not only did the mayor want to extend his good wishes; he wanted to offer to buy De Blasio a cup of coffee. In a couple of hours. In a lower-Manhattan diner window. With dozens of photographers shooting the scene.

Funny what happens when a blowout becomes a near-death experience.

The mayor’s surprisingly close five-point win over Thompson only compounds his daunting third-term problems. There’s the $5 billion city-budget deficit (even Bloomberg might balk at paying for that with his own money); coupled with Bloomberg’s election-season vow not to raise taxes, the gap is likely to force cuts in city services next year, unless the economy bounces back sooner than expected. Homelessness and unemployment rates are at painfully high levels. The mayor remains invested with far greater institutional power than the City Council, but council members are angry at having been used by both Bloomberg and Speaker Christine Quinn, and last week’s results will embolden them to put up more of a fight against the mayor’s agenda. The press is on alert for a Bloomberg decline. And there’s widespread public discontent with the mayor’s reign.

Bloomberg will also face, for the first time in eight years, a sustained challenge from the other two citywide officeholders, De Blasio and John Liu, the comptroller-elect. Liu made a late entrance to the Thompson party—not fashionably late, but strategically late. He began his Election Night with a victory party inside the West 43rd Street headquarters of SEIU 1199, the politically potent health-care-workers union. It was a fascinating choice. Liu wasn’t simply highlighting his ties to the classic city Democratic coalition, labor and emerging immigrant communities, that propelled him to victory in the comptroller’s race; he was staking out an independent identity. The distancing grew more apparent the next day, when the mayor offered Liu a public meeting. Liu claimed he was too busy.

De Blasio, 48, and Liu, 42, are dramatically different in temperament, skills, and ambition from the politicians they will replace, Betsy Gotbaum and Bill Thompson, respectively. Energetic and engaging, quick with the sound bites, they’re both traditional pols in the best sense of the word, having worked their way up through the ranks while staying in touch with their regular-guy, multicultural roots. All of which is in stark contrast to Bloomberg.

The two new players might become an effective tag team—De Blasio pushing Bloomberg to beef up the Civilian Complaint Review Board and to create an effective parent presence in public-school policy-making, Liu scrutinizing how the mayor awards tens of millions in no-bid city contracts. One might rise by proving more competent at his job. Or they could cancel each other out, becoming predictable naysayers and allowing Bloomberg to reclaim the high ground of being “above” common politics—a pose that should be forever laughable after Bloomberg’s all-out, $100 million reelection blitz, but one he’ll revive if given the opportunity. “It’s going to be a very interesting dynamic between Bill and John—they’re both positioning themselves to run for mayor,” a council colleague says. “Bill is the best tactician I’ve ever seen, he’s always thinking ahead, and he has a big labor and money base. John is much smarter than people think he is, he works enormously hard, and he has a solid but narrower money base in the Asian community.”

De Blasio managed Hillary Clinton’s first successful campaign for the U.S. Senate; he’s familiar with calculated symbolism. Bloomberg, besides trying to out-Yankee Rudy Giuliani, was suddenly in need of making a show of humility and cooperation. De Blasio opted to try collegiality first, using the staged sit-down to make a case for his issues. “I understand why the mayor reached out to me,” he said afterward. “If the mayor wants to work together and we can find common ground, that’s great for the city. Plus it demonstrated that he understands the importance of the office of public advocate.”

Bloomberg also demonstrated that he’s still playing moneyball: The next day he promised to restore $850,000 to the public advocate’s budget. Liu’s snubbing of the mayor was a bold countermove. And hardly the last in this three-way tango.

E-mail: Chris_Smith@nymag.com.


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