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The Stadium's Silver Lining

In Bloomberg’s bitter defeat at the rail yards are the seeds of future triumphs—as long as he learns the right lessons.

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On Sunday afternoon, June 5, Mayor Michael Bloomberg cut short an appearance at the opening of his Staten Island campaign office and sped back to City Hall for one last meeting with Sheldon Silver about the West Side stadium. In retrospect, Bloomberg probably wishes he’d stuck around Hylan Boulevard for a cannoli. But somewhere between the Verrazano Bridge and Park Row, as he rode in the backseat of a black SUV, Bloomberg heard a business-news segment on the car radio. The report detailed the convention industry’s dire need for larger venues. Here he was, on his way to try to save the West Side proposal, and the radio was offering random support for one of Bloomberg’s arguments, that the stadium would enable the city to land major conventions by enlarging the Javits Center! Not that Bloomberg needed any more evidence. For three years, he’d been utterly certain that he was right about the stadium’s merits. Lot of good that did him.

The great ones learn from mistakes and defeats. Whether it’s the Clintons (choose your own Clinton, the particular disaster, and the wily recovery: Bill losing his Arkansas reelection run, Hillary taking the gas pipe on health care, Bill and gays in the military, Bill and . . .) or John McCain, who fought through seven years of rejection to pass campaign-finance reform, the best politicians and leaders grow after setbacks. Can Michael Bloomberg?

Bloomberg still believes the facts were on his side. Which doesn’t matter. Neither does the question that dominated political chatter last week: How would the stadium belly-flop affect Bloomberg’s chances for reelection? (That answer is fairly easy: not so much.) What’s important now—both to voters still making up their minds about the mayor and to the city if he’s in charge for four more years—is whether Bloomberg learns anything from the episode.

He’s come back stronger and smarter from past reversals. Demoted after a Salomon Brothers power struggle, Bloomberg turned the Wall Street firm’s backwater technology department into a weapon. Fired from Salomon Brothers, Bloomberg took his $10 million severance and invented a new financial-information tool that revolutionized an industry. Down to record lows in polls during his first years as mayor, Bloomberg learned how to be a baby-kissing, ribbon-cutting machine while sticking to his cold-blooded-manager principles.

Yet the stadium defeat is of a different magnitude. And the early reactions at City Hall were discouraging. Bloomberg thinks he lost primarily because Silver was obdurate (and Cablevision selfish), and because New York’s political culture is designed to say no to anything big. So the prevailing mood around Bloomberg last week was bitterness.

Yet Bloomberg generally hasn’t shown much taste for vindictiveness, and he has shown adaptability in other parts of town. If Bloomberg is really committed to his vision of New York’s economic future as more diversified, developing the West Side rail yards should become more of a mayoral fixation. Instead of standing back and saying, Let the private sector decide what to build, Bloomberg should realize he’s now ineluctably tied to that patch of ground, and he should push whoever buys the site to create a world-class piece of design. Part of the problem with the Jets (in addition to the gaudy public subsidy, and the fact that the stadium itself was downright ugly) was that for a non–football fan, the stadium was a nonstarter. The convention-center angle was an attempt at broader use, but it fell woefully short of exciting the necessary broad appeal. If Bloomberg pushed for a development that’s part park, part residential neighborhood, part museum, and part novelty, even Silver couldn’t stand in the way. (The Dolans—and Trump!—should never be allowed to develop the site.)

Ed Koch, who has been through a few pitched political battles, says there’s nothing for Bloomberg to learn from the stadium debacle, that the circumstances were unique, and that the mayor “was sold a bill of goods by Dan Doctoroff.” Perhaps. Yet the narrowness of the stadium’s appeal is related to one clear, larger lesson (besides the fact that he can’t rely on Governor Pataki to hold up his end of a development bargain). Even stadium proponents were dismayed by how Bloomberg and Doctoroff tried to stiff-arm public input, and it ended up being a fatal flaw. At the moment, Bloomberg is understandably angry at Silver. Strangely enough, though, Silver has given Bloomberg the opportunity to create a West Side legacy that the mayor can be proud of. To do it, and become a great mayor, Bloomberg will need to learn how to at least appear to be more of a democrat.


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