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The Mayor and His Money

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Bloomberg rests his silver-cuff-linked shirtsleeves on a scuffed conference table inside City Hall and talks about how eager he is to take on next year’s $3 billion deficit. “Look, the more complex the job, the more satisfying it is if you do it correctly,” he says. “And I had a $6 billion deficit coming in.” Will he erase this one the same way, largely through higher property taxes? “No,” Bloomberg responds immediately. “There are ways to do more with less. Keep in mind, we’ve reduced the size of the city workforce by 15, 16,000 people. We’ve cut $3 or $4 billion out of the city budget, some of it by more efficiencies, some of it by finding alternative funding sources, some of it by finding alternative ways to satisfy people’s needs, rather than just doing what we did before. There’s always a habit of just continuing to do it. Because change—you can get criticized for change. You don’t get criticized for continuing. You remember Pete Seeger, ‘The Big Muddy’? You don’t get criticized for that. You do get criticized for trying something new.”

Bloomberg seems to make up for budget cuts out of his own pocket, a practice born of both guilt and political calculation.

If there remain any doubts that Bloomberg is a liberal, his referencing of the ex-commie folksinger should erase them forever. But Bloomberg’s real religion has always been pragmatism. One warm November night last fall, Bloomberg went out to Cambria Heights, Queens, for a community meeting. After brief and unsurprising remarks touting his administration’s record on crime and education, the mayor opened the floor to questions. A woman named Anne Miller wanted to know when the weeds along Linden Boulevard would be cleared. “How does ‘by Monday’ sound?” Bloomberg replied crisply, drawing applause. Sure enough, the weeds were gone within days.

Attend any of these forums with Bloomberg—he’s held more than 80 in the past three years—and it’s hard to take seriously the charge that he’s “out of touch” with regular folks. Stiff and awkward? Sometimes. But whether he’s poring over 311 statistics, or answering dozens of e-mails from strangers each day, or touring booming neighborhoods on Staten Island and then instigating legislation to tighten zoning regulations, or insisting on personal responsibility for improving the school system, Bloomberg registers and responds to the concerns of common folks as if he were a one-man complaint department.

Yet the charge that he’s out of touch isn’t wrong on the macro level—and in some ways Bloomberg is determined to stay out of touch. On the big choices—particularly the direction of economic development in the city—when Bloomberg believes he’s right, nothing’s going to change his mind. “You can’t lead from the back,” he says. “You can’t go and try to please everybody. We have a democracy, not a republic. The Norman Rockwell picture I’ve always loved is the guy in his overalls standing up at a town meeting. But that’s not what we have. If on November 8 I’m lucky enough to win, I want to thank the voters and thank the campaign workers. But I also want to say to all elected officials, ‘By doing the right thing, you can win. You should stand up and do what’s in your heart and not worry about what’s politically correct.’ ”

As personality traits, Bloomberg’s granite self-confidence and moralism are attractive. But second terms are notoriously plagued by arrogance and overreaching. A massive physical transformation of the city is under way and would only pick up speed if Bloomberg were reelected. He has set in motion a torrent of huge construction projects that will bring sweeping changes to dozens of neighborhoods. Prospect Heights in Brooklyn will be dwarfed by Bruce Ratner’s arena-and-apartment-tower complex. The Brooklyn Heights waterfront will get hotels and parks. A new Bronx Terminal Market has begun, and Willets Point in Queens will get a new Mets stadium and 48 acres of development to replace the current chop shops. It’s hard to argue with thousands of units of new housing in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. And New York is never going to be a quaint village. But many of Bloomberg’s projects threaten to erase the pockets of human-size living that remain. It’s here that Bloomberg’s billionaire perspective, his attraction to bigger as better, can be disquieting. One of the enormous challenges for a second term would be for Bloomberg to impose thousands of acres of new residential and commercial space on the city without it looking as if downtown Atlanta had been dropped in the middle of Brooklyn.

When he was elected, Bloomberg did many of the standard things to distance himself from his previous life. He resigned from the boards of cultural institutions, including the Met, Lincoln Center, and the Jewish Museum, and from most of the country clubs to which he belonged. He did not, however, put his 72 percent ownership interest of Bloomberg L.P. in a blind trust. The city’s Conflict of Interest Board ruled that Bloomberg had to recuse himself from daily decision-making at the company but that he could continue to participate in any talks about selling it. Though rumors continue to surface that a sale would follow on the heels of Bloomberg’s reelection, he says there are no active negotiations.


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