True. But Mike Bloomberg is on his way to being a three-term mayor. And the way he accomplished that raises questions that will taint his legacy, no matter what history’s verdict is on his stewardship of the city. After all, no one ever said that one-man rule is a necessarily ineffective form of government. Pondering his anti-democratic methods, even voters who admire his competence may think twice before pulling the lever.
On September 12, 2008, Bloomberg sat on a small sofa in an ornate private office inside City Hall; next to him was a small pillow inscribed DO NOT START WITH ME. YOU WILL NOT WIN. In a nearby wing chair sat Ed Koch. The two men spent an hour comparing their years in office, covering all the serious challenges: race relations, union-contract negotiations, the awfulness of breaking bad news to a police widow. Near the end of the conversation, the talk turned to who’d occupy City Hall next. Back then, the speculation as to whether Bloomberg was going to go back on his word and try to overturn term limits had gone from incredulous to fevered. In press conferences, the mayor had grown increasingly testy and dodgy on the subject. Today, however, he played off a question about whether he was planning to run again in 2009, turning it into a joke. “My candidate is sitting right here,” Bloomberg said, smiling at his predecessor. “I’m going to work hard to convince Ed Koch to run. And if he is not willing to run, I don’t know the answer.”
Maybe, somehow, Bloomberg really hadn’t made up his mind. The business elite had begun lobbying for Bloomberg to stay on as far back as 2006, long before any financial crisis loomed on the horizon. Jerry Speyer and Henry Kravis chatted up Ron Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire and sponsor of the city’s term-limits legislation in 1996, about agreeing to a onetime extension of term limits. Lauder said no, but at that time his intransigence was less important than Bloomberg’s lack of interest: He didn’t want to stay mayor, he wanted a promotion to the White House. The demise of Bloomberg’s presidential dream in February 2008 left him more open to third-term suggestion, and in June, he commissioned a poll to test public opinion.
Then the events of that mid-September weekend gave Bloomberg the cover he needed, emotionally as well as politically. Down in Washington, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and other government officials decided to let Lehman Brothers collapse. When Bloomberg found out, on Sunday, he was strangely upbeat, canceling a scheduled trip to California and preparing to jump into the action on Monday morning, when he knew the stock markets would convulse. “There was a spring in his step, because he recognized it was a crisis,” a senior aide says. “These guys—Paulson, Geithner—were reaching out to him: ‘What do you think?’ It totally energized him.” After months of brooding about his upcoming forced retirement, Bloomberg believed he wasn’t simply needed again; he was indispensable to the city’s survival.
It took several more weeks to make Bloomberg’s grab for a third term official, but the campaign had been under way for months. Much of the mogul class had been encouraging Bloomberg, appealing to his sense of himself as above politics, telling him that the city couldn’t afford a return to old-style Democratic rule. At first Bloomberg was in favor of a different strategy: Handing off City Hall to a like-minded plutocrat, former Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons. But Parsons rebuffed Bloomberg, and soon the mayor was methodically aligning support to help make the case for a third term. Zuckerman and Murdoch required little persuasion. In fact, Bloomberg needed to restrain Murdoch’s enthusiasm when the Post’s owner wanted to print a “Run, Mike, Run” editorial in mid-September 2008. Over dinner at an Upper East Side Italian restaurant with Murdoch and Rubenstein, Bloomberg urged patience. For one thing, he needed to get the Times on his side. The paper had editorialized its vehement opposition to Giuliani’s bid for a post-9/11 term extension. But Bloomberg’s close friend Steve Rattner, the investment banker and former federal car czar, is also a longtime friend of Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, and eventually the Times editorial page threw in with the mayor.
Ron Lauder seemed to back down from a threat to bankroll TV ads supporting term limits. Then, days later, Lauder equivocated. Bloomberg, on a trip to London, publicly claimed to not be paying attention to the controversy back home. Privately, he was furious, and when he returned to New York, Rubenstein brokered a Gracie Mansion sit-down between the mayor and Lauder. “If Ron Lauder wanted to put $10 million into a campaign to keep term limits, that might have had a significant intellectual and emotional impact,” says Rubenstein, whose public-relations firm has represented both Ron and his brother Leonard, the chairman emeritus of the family’s Estée Lauder company. “The mayor wanted to avoid a knockdown, drag-out, wild fight. Ron Lauder saw the economy in what he thought was a pretty big free fall, and he’s a businessperson. We discussed that—who would our best bet be at this most important decision to be mayor?” A deal was hammered out: Lauder would drop his opposition in exchange for the promise that this would be a onetime extension, exclusively for Bloomberg, and that Lauder would be included in a future review of the term-limits law. “It wasn’t about principle,” a Lauder acquaintance says. “It was a matter of attention being paid to Ron.”