Michael R. Bloomberg, wearing his corporate-executive uniform of navy chalk-stripe suit, monogrammed shirt, and understated blue silk tie, strides briskly ahead of his aides through a security checkpoint into City Hall. He’s returning from a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Randalls Island, where the Fire Department has built a new mock subway station to practice for underground fires and evacuations. I’m early for our interview, so I’ve been waiting on a battered wooden bench at the foot of the stairs to Bloomberg’s second-floor office. He shakes my hand, says he’ll be ready in a few minutes, and begins to skip up the stairs.
“Where’d you get the tan?” he asks suddenly.
“I don’t discuss what I do on my own time,” I tell the mayor. “My private life is private.”
He laughs loudly, getting the joke immediately. “Fair enough,” he says.
“Actually, I was on vacation with my family last week,” I tell him. “In the great state of Massachusetts. Cape Cod.”
Bloomberg freezes on the third step and turns to face me. “Ahhhh,” says the mayor wistfully (he grew up near Boston). “I’d like to be able to say that we went to the Cape as kids. But”—he scrunches his face, frowns dramatically, and lowers his voice to whisper—“we just didn’t have the money.” The volume comes back up to normal. “There was one family in our neighborhood, the Connollys, who were the only people we knew who had a vacation home. Lake Winnipesaukee, in New Hampshire. But we didn’t go there either. My father worked all the time.” He shakes his head and trots up the staircase to his office. The mayor’s tan, however, is far deeper than mine.
It has been a very long time since the 63-year-old Michael Bloomberg needed to whisper in embarrassment about his family finances. He could buy every beach from Bourne to Provincetown if he so desired. There’s no need, of course, because Bloomberg owns four palatial getaways, including a $10 million Victorian townhouse in London and a $1.5 million condo in Vail. He’s hardly used them since becoming mayor, but two days after we talked in City Hall’s second-floor “bull pen,” Bloomberg flew, in his own plane, to Bermuda and a mansion he built for $10.5 million. The trip didn’t appear on Bloomberg’s public schedule. As New Orleans deteriorated after Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration’s bungling became a racial issue, Bloomberg jetted back to stage a Sunday-morning press conference trumpeting the dispatch of 450 New York cops and firefighters to New Orleans.
New York has always been a city of economic extremes. But four years after being elected, Bloomberg presides over a place where money has replaced race as the starkest dividing line. The forces leading to that polarization were in motion long before Bloomberg’s inauguration. Yet city voters, with their uncanny knack for the moment—choosing David Dinkins in a time of racial hostility and Rudy Giuliani when crime was rampant—are now poised to reinstall as mayor the perfect symbol of the city’s monetary divide, a man who rejected Gracie Mansion to stay in his $17 million Upper East Side townhouse.
“I went to Miami with the mayor for a meeting once,” says Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “And when we were ready to fly back, there was some problem with the mayor’s plane. So we got on his other plane. That was pretty good.”
Bloomberg repeats endlessly that he’s “not a politician,” and that’s true in a couple of key respects: Until 2000, he’d never run for office or worked in government, and when he became mayor, his money freed him to make decisions unencumbered by traditional political debts. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some quid pro quo. The mayor has replaced the clubhouse tactic of trading jobs and favors with a monetary system of reward and punishment that’s plenty “political.” The mayor’s wealth informs or shadows every decision he makes, from the business plan he uses to govern, to the push for the 2012 Olympics, to his expanding list of ostensibly private charitable donations. Democrats attack Bloomberg for giving millions to the Republican Party; Joe Bruno, the powerful GOP leader, is angry at Bloomberg for not giving state Republicans more money.
Taken out of political context, Bloomberg is among the more benevolent billionaires of his time. Instead of using his money to withdraw from the messiness of the everyday world, Bloomberg has thrust himself ever more into it. He’s given away hundreds of millions of dollars, no strings attached, to worthy causes, and scores of smaller gifts, anonymously, to friends and strangers in need. Even his multiple homes, though lavish, are essentially pragmatic: He bought a North Salem estate as a base for his daughter Georgina’s equestrian training. His company has a large London office, so Bloomberg has a large London home.