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Citizen Mike

Does running a $5 billion financial-media company prepare you for being the mayor of New York? Michael Bloomberg thinks so. And he's about to put his money where his mouth is.

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Michael Bloomberg, in worn jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers, is perched on a ladder at a Brooklyn school auditorium, painting a wall yellow. A frequent volunteer, he's stretching to get his roller into a corner, but his mind is on his chances in this year's mayoral race. Bloomberg thinks the fact that he's rich ought to be a huge asset: It means he can't be bought by special-interest groups. "Does the press seriously think that anybody who gives money to a candidate wants nothing?" he says. "No! Why don't they say so? If some Democrat beats me by five votes, every single bloc in the whole city will say, 'I got you elected.' It'll be impossible to govern." On a roll, he starts in on the Democrats running for mayor, his voice dripping with contempt: "Let's get serious here. What skills does the public advocate or the comptroller or the Speaker of the City Council have to run the city? There's absolutely nothing I can think of that they have done. Maybe they have a better knowledge of details of programs than I do, which is useful, but that's what you have your staff for!"

This divorced billionaire with an Upper East Side townhouse, an art-filled London home, a house in Bermuda, a weekend place in Westchester, a private plane, and a company helicopter he flies himself thinks he should be the next mayor of New York. And though it's hard to imagine a man who has a box at Ascot and is driven around town in a chauffeured gray Cadillac Fleetwood working the kielbasa circuit, he insists he's looking forward to visiting senior-citizen centers in the Bronx and shaking hands on the Staten Island ferry. Ask him if he ever rides the subway, and he reaches for his wallet and triumphantly pulls out a MetroCard. Michael Bloomberg, regular guy? "I like meeting people," he says. "I love people. Although I'm sure if I run, by the end of the summer, I'll say I miss the old days, when I could play golf on the weekend."

Bloomberg's quest to be the first billionaire ever to run an American city is a civics lesson in how the rich do things differently. Nearly twenty years ago, he created the Bloomberg financial-data terminal, which now sits on the desk of nearly every serious financial player on Wall Street and around the world. After expanding his numbers-crunching business into a multi-billion-dollar TV, radio, and print empire thought to be worth more than $5 billion (it's privately held, and Bloomberg owns approximately three quarters of it), he began thinking about his legacy and putting even more of his money to public use, giving over $300 million to charity in the past five years -- $100 million alone to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University. He serves on prestigious boards, like those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center, but now that's not enough. "Do you want to relax and have a great life or devote yourself to helping others?" he says. "Either you believe you can change the world, or you don't."

He has his heart set on public office, and if he runs -- and it is almost certain that he will -- he will finance his campaign himself. Bloomberg refuses to say how much he'll spend, but the numbers that have been floating around go as high as $30 million. That's too high, he says. "At some point, you start to look obscene. There's a limited amount of ad time you can buy. It becomes dysfunctional; you annoy people with ads." Pressed further, he brings up the Kennedy family: "When Joe Kennedy was asked how much he spent to get JFK elected, he said, 'I hope not a dime more than I had to.' " Bloomberg insists the public should be happy he's spending his own bucks. "As for the other candidates, I can't help it if your problem is that you can't afford to do it yourself."

And New Yorkers should rejoice in his entry into the mayoral race, if only for the sheer entertainment value of his cheerfully outrageous comments. Ask him if he's ever smoked a joint in the past, and he replies, "You bet I did, and I enjoyed it." He's also more than happy to joke about his single-rich-guy dating status: "Annette de la Renta and Jayne Wrightsman see me as their boy toy; they love to fix me up with their friends." This is not a man used to editing himself for public consumption.

He's charming and open one day, arrogant and thin-skinned the next. He prefers to be interviewed on the move, in the car, walking down a school hallway, dashing up a flight of hotel steps, as if journalism were an aerobic sport. He has a low tolerance for questions he deems unworthy. When I asked him why -- in addition to splashing his name on his TV network, his radio stations, and the computer-data terminals that made him rich -- he monograms his shirts, he stared at me for a moment and then deadpanned, "I've never thought about that particular piece of egotism before. I'm so embarrassed and ashamed, I think I'll go shoot myself."

Bloomberg is not used to having his motives questioned. Sitting in his fifteenth-floor Park Avenue offices one morning, he brings up a three-month-old newspaper article that seemed to challenge his reasons for delivering holiday meals to the poor. "The nerve," he says. "It still bothers me. Some reporter said, 'Oh, you're giving out free meals because you're running.' Where the hell have they been all the years we've been giving out free meals and trying to get press so that other people will kick in and help? Not everything is done for nefarious reasons, and the press can't understand that."

What seems a little weird is that he talks about the press as if reporters were an alien breed, an odd position for someone whose desk is in the corner of his own 24-hour TV newsroom. But Bloomberg's background isn't journalism; he launched his news-gathering arm only to add value to the Bloomberg financial-data terminal.

In the business community, Bloomberg's prominent friends insist that his candor, can-do charitable activism, and CEO experience will serve him well in government. "Mike is smart, he's driven, and I've told him he can count on me," says John Rosenwald, vice-chairman of Bear Stearns, who speaks with awe of Bloomberg's business acumen. Investment banker Steven Rattner, a major Democratic fund-raiser, says he's not troubled that Bloomberg has recently switched his party affiliation to the GOP, saying, "Mike's a friend, and if he runs, I couldn't give my support to anyone else." James Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank, has known Bloomberg for more than 25 years, dating back to the days when both worked at Salomon Brothers. "What's endearing about Michael is that he's so straightforward," says Wolfensohn. "I think he'd make a damn good mayor."

Still, some of Bloomberg's friends, especially his media pals, are baffled by his decision to jump into the mayoral race. "I like his cocky style," says Tom Brokaw, "but I'm not sure why he wants to do this. It's not just all hubris; it's a sense of public service. But I think it's going to be so much harder than he believes it is." Barbara Walters, an occasional dinner date of the billionaire, gushes about his philanthropic largesse and adds, "I have always teased that if I could meet Michael ten years older" -- he's 59, she's 69 -- "this would be the man I'd run off with." ("When Barbara needs a walker," Bloomberg jokes, "she calls me.") Yet as much as she admires Bloomberg, Walters wonders how he'll react to the brutal public scrutiny of a political campaign. "He's never had anyone pushing and probing into his life," she says. "That's not easy."

For now, though, he is enjoying all the attention, especially the strangers who recognize him on the street and call out, "Mr. Mayor! Mr. Mayor!"


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