When the history of the Bloomberg administration is written, the question to be answered won’t be whether he was out of touch with the little guy. It’ll be whether Bloomberg was hampered by the grandiosity of his thinking. There is a numbing gigantism to the mayor’s vision of the city, to all those gargantuan development plans he’s pursuing across all five boroughs. And in order to further those plans, he is conducting a 100-ton steamroller of a reelection campaign. Big has been very, very good to Bloomberg. The question is whether it’s good for the city.
The mayor is in a good mood. One of the surest signs is that numbers and sales pitches, the language he’s most fluent in, start flying. “New York is different,” he says. “Remember all of the professors being quoted about the stadiums being too much? There may be too many stadiums in Akron. But there’s not too many stadiums here. There is a demand. People want to come here. Record tourism, 40 million—39.5 million last year. This year, we’re on course to shatter that record. There’s a fascinating statistic: One out of every four people in America has visited New York since 9/11. It is astounding. Now, I don’t know how you count it; it’s some people coming multiple times.” It’s a small example of an endearing habit of Bloomberg as mayor: He rolls out his spin, then undercuts it by pointing out the spin, like Penn & Teller’s explaining the magic trick they’ve just performed.
Then he’s describing how he lobbied Henry Paulson Jr., the Goldman Sachs CEO, to build the company’s new headquarters across from ground zero. “If my company hadn’t been started here, I don’t think there’s a chance we would have been anywhere near as successful,” Bloomberg says. “This is where the best want to live and work. So I told him, ‘We can help with minimizing taxes. We can help with minimizing your rent. We can help with improving security. All of those kinds of things. But in the end, Hank, look, this is about people.’ ” The city’s workforce has plenty of admirable qualities, but even Bloomberg can’t spin the fact that Goldman got more than $1.65 billion in city and state “help” in the deal. So he digresses into a rumination about his generation of financial executives. “Hank is a business friend,” Bloomberg says. “Most of the guys that run these big firms, they’re my age. And because of my company, there’s a credibility. They respect somebody who’s not a politician, who’s trying to get things done. And I think it’s fair to say they like the progress in the city.”
Bloomberg is so chipper that he dissolves into laughter when I tell him about a recent conversation with his oldest daughter, Emma, about the benefits and drawbacks of growing up rich. She’d written a check to a charity from her own account. The charity saw her last name and asked why the amount wasn’t bigger. “That’s not very smart,” Bloomberg says, cackling. “Emma is going to run a very large foundation of her own some day.”
Bloomberg’s path to City Hall was paved with philanthropic checks. Not, of course, in the sense that he bought enough goodwill to be elected mayor in 2001, although the money helped. The connection is more complex, and more interesting.
Much of Bloomberg’s long record of philanthropy is purely charitable, given out of the kindness of his heart. And out of habit. Money was always tight when Bloomberg was growing up in Medford, Massachusetts, a blue-collar suburb. The Bloombergs owned their own home, but Michael’s father, William, worked seven days a week as an accountant at a local dairy to feed his family of four. Michael’s view of money was formed early: It was a tool, to be imbued with no emotional attachment whatsoever. And the acquisition of money was inextricably tied to hard work, nothing else. Throughout the fifties, though, William regularly wrote small checks to the NAACP. “He said it was because discrimination is against everybody,” Bloomberg recalls.
After graduating from Johns Hopkins and Harvard Business School, Bloomberg came to the city in 1966 to work at Salomon Brothers. The firm set aside money that each employee was required to donate to charity. “Michael grew up at Salomon knowing something about the Catholic societies, the policemen’s fund, the firemen’s fund,” says Morris Offitt, a fellow Salomon partner and Hopkins graduate who became one of Bloomberg’s good friends. “Guys on the trading desk were always helping to support the city through their different involvements. Michael learned more about the city from the trading desk of Salomon than he could have learned anywhere else.”