The Mayor in the Eye

Bloomberg filming a TV ad for his super-PAC in Carl Schurz Park before Sandy, as Howard Wolfson looks on.Photo: Pari Dukovic

The sun was shining, the breeze was mild. It was a beautiful Friday afternoon three weeks ago inside Carl Schurz Park, where two of ­Michael Bloomberg’s top political lieutenants waited for the mayor to arrive. They were killing time chatting about the glories of the New York City Marathon. Howard Wolfson, a deputy mayor and political strategist, had run the race twice, but injuries forced him to quit short of the finish line both times; Wolfson was mulling whether to take another shot at the full 26.2 miles in nine days. Bill Knapp, one of the country’s elite campaign consultants, grew up in the city but has long lived in Washington and hadn’t attended the marathon in years. Wolfson described what a grand, unifying, multicultural event the run had become—the best day, he believed, in the city every year.

Up walked the mayor, a smile on his face. Nine days before, Bloomberg had announced the creation of his very own ­super-PAC, with plans to spend up to $15 million to influence elections all across the country. Stricter gun laws and the legalization of gay marriage would be key issues, with Wolfson, on leave from City Hall, in charge and using all the tools of a modern campaign, including direct mail, Internet ads, and robo-calls. Those plugs would carry the opaque label of the super-PAC, Independence USA.

Bloomberg was in the park, three blocks south of Gracie Mansion, that day to shoot the only TV ad in which he’d appear on-camera, in support of Chris Murphy, a Democrat running for Senate in Connecticut against Linda McMahon. Knapp’s film crew was ready, but talk had turned to the weather forecast. After Bloomberg finished shooting the ad, he’d be heading downtown for a meeting to plan for Hurricane Sandy. The storm was churning toward the East Coast; it certainly looked big and bad, though the timing and the danger to New York were unclear. “But the world,” Bloomberg said, “won’t be coming to an end.”

He was right about that, anyway. Yet city life changed drastically, and in too many cases permanently, when Sandy arrived. Half of Breezy Point burned to the ground. Staten Island, South Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan were severely flooded, shutting down New York’s entire subway system and enormous swaths of the electrical grid. Thousands can’t go home; 41 people, at least, died of storm-related causes in New York City alone.

Bloomberg’s life changed quickly, too. Pre-storm, the mayor was attending to his day job, but he was also trying to graduate from being a mayor of one big city to being something larger: a postpartisan national political force, a megabucks shaper of issues and elections. Bloomberg’s super-PAC mini-campaign this fall was a test-drive for his future. Then, approaching his final year in office, Bloomberg was suddenly in the midst of a week that could define his entire mayoralty. Every bit of him was on display: his strengths as a dispassionate manager and his remarkable blind spots, particularly when he insisted that the marathon would go on as scheduled. Sandy was his crisis, just as 9/11 belonged to Rudy. Meanwhile, in the background, Bloomberg’s quest for relevance and influence beyond New York churned forward.

The second-floor room in City Hall is called “the Cow,” a nickname for “Committee of the Whole” and left over from ancient governmental history. Now the Cow was full of top Bloomberg staff wielding iPads on the Friday afternoon before the storm. The mayor sat at the head of a U-shaped table. FDNY commissioner Sal Cassano, NYPD boss Ray Kelly, and deputy mayor for operations Cas Holloway were within arm’s reach. Bloomberg went around the room, quizzing aides on meteorological data, housing-project geography, and how much time it would take to move vulnerable populations. “He kept focusing on finalizing time lines, what we had to decide by when,” one staffer says. “The mayor poses very tough questions, and you have to be able to back up your answers.” Bloomberg realized that the weakest hospital patients in the facilities nearest the waterfront needed to get out, soon, and he ordered the process to start. If the weather forecast held, the next big step, a life-saving mandatory evacuation of low-lying Zone A, would need to be taken by noon on Sunday.

As the weekend wore on, the meetings moved to the Office of Emergency Management’s headquarters in Brooklyn, and they became a blur. On Monday, Bloomberg was in OEM’s third-floor command center well past midnight, watching the giant flat-screens as Sandy hit the city. Tuesday morning, he took a helicopter tour and saw the widespread devastation. Speaking afterward at a press briefing in OEM’s auditorium in his standard phlegmatic monotone, Bloomberg was reassuring. He detailed available shelters, search-and-recovery efforts, power outages. “Unfortunately, we just cannot spare the manpower from the NYPD to host the annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, so we are postponing it to a later date,” Bloomberg said near the end of his second press conference that day, sounding matter-of-fact. “We’ll work tomorrow and figure out which date makes sense given the resources the city has. We are adding additional police coverage to areas that are without power. Our understanding is the New York City Marathon will go on as scheduled this Sunday. We’ll reconfirm that tomorrow morning and give you any more news.”

Bloomberg and Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway view damage in Breezy Point on October 30. Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

There had been internal discussion about the Halloween parade, but almost none regarding the marathon. The mayor didn’t think holding the race six days after the storm was any big deal, nor should it be. And he was right about the race being a low priority at the moment. But Bloomberg’s managerial confidence in making the police coverage work without detracting from storm efforts, and his abiding faith in tourism as a city-revenue source, combined dreadfully with his empathy deficit: If he doesn’t think an issue is important, he doesn’t think it should be important to anyone else, either—especially if it’s something Bloomberg considers a matter of symbolism. As the week went on and Bloomberg dug in his heels, his aides saw a fury growing on Facebook and Twitter, even before Friday morning’s Post front page blasted the use of generators for a marathon media tent. Wolfson, Kelly, and Deputy Mayor Patti Harris made the case for cancellation. On Friday, with sponsors bailing, Bloomberg finally changed his mind, but he sent Wolfson out to deliver the news.

More substantive flaws were showing up, too, exposing the rot from third-term complacency. The Health and Hospitals Corporation badly misjudged the readiness of some of its facilities, especially Bellevue. The Housing Authority, living down to its history of ineptitude, had 13,000 residents still in the dark ten days after the hurricane. The city’s emergency response in the Rockaways, apart from the heroism of cops and firefighters, was practically nonexistent. OEM is charged with playing out horrific “what if?” disaster scenarios, but now that the city was struggling through a real catastrophe, the agency was fumbling. Bloomberg tacitly acknowledged one of its failings eight days into the crisis when he hired an outside consultant as a director to figure out how to create temporary housing for thousands.

Bloomberg is lousy at exuding warmth, though he does care about people and has quietly visited city workers, volunteers, and victims daily before, during, and after Sandy. At heart, though, he’s an engineer and most effective when he’s dealing with systems—from banning smoking to using data to drive the public schools. The storm has renewed attention to another of the mayor’s signature achievements, the rezonings that have accelerated waterfront development—and turned some neighborhoods into bull’s-eyes for storm surges. A debate is stirring already: Governor Andrew Cuomo has talked about building levees, or retreating from the coastline. Bloomberg prefers tinkering with the existing infrastructure. But the mayor knows the real solution is beyond the city’s borders.

In the days immediately after the storm, Bloomberg placed what turned out to be a shrewd political bet—one based on the storm that had just swept the city. On Tuesday, he told Wolfson he was leaning toward endorsing Barack Obama; by Wednesday, the mayor’s speechwriter, Frank Barry, had drafted a statement centered on the president’s fledgling attempts to tackle global warming. On Thursday morning, coincidentally, the mayor got a call from Joe Biden urging Bloomberg to back Obama. That afternoon, the mayor announced his belated endorsement.

Bloomberg had one eye on his future for months before Sandy rearranged his focus. In July, the mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater provoked a series of outraged mayoral quotes and op-eds. But Bloomberg wasn’t sure how to follow up in a way that would make a serious impact on gun violence. In September, the mayor’s longtime pollster, Doug Schoen, surveyed congressional races to figure out where Bloomberg’s money might defeat NRA-backed candidates and elect pols in line with the mayor’s views on bipartisanship, gay marriage, gun control, and immigration. Wolfson used the polling to identify eighteen possibilities. In early October, Bloomberg finally gave the go-ahead.

The super-PAC’s war room was actually one desk inside the sumptuous Upper East Side mansion that houses the Bloomberg Foundation. Wolfson whittled the targets down—some Republicans, some Democrats, one Independent—and planned a conventional menu of direct mail and robo-calls. Thousands of those were launched, including a glossy mailer saying California congressman Joe Baca, a Democrat with an A rating from the NRA, had made it easier for sex offenders and suspected terrorists to carry concealed guns. But Wolfson had an epiphany. “Doing the things that other people can do is a mistake,” he said. “We should do the things that only somebody with Mike Bloomberg’s resources can do, which basically means going up on television in, say, the Los Angeles media market. When we go up on TV there, we will be the only actor, the only entity, on TV in this race.”

As the storm hit the city, the super-PAC’s work went forward, mostly—the spot for Chris Murphy was shelved, because having Bloomberg on TV in Connecticut talking about politics would have been in bad taste after Sandy. The mayor, though, paid no attention to his own mini-campaign after that Friday in the park. Wolfson had put the PAC in motion but shifted nearly all his attention to the storm even before Sandy hit. “When it’s 3 a.m. and I can’t sleep, I’ll go online and look at what’s happening in these races,” he said as the hurricane’s aftermath dominated his days. “But not with any degree of focus. The politics piece of this—who cares right now?” Well, Joe Baca does. The five-term California congressman blames his upset loss last week on the $3.3 million Bloomberg spent to boost his opponent, Gloria Negrete-Macleod. In Syracuse, $440,000 worth of Bloomberg ads helped Democrat Dan Maffei oust incumbent Republican congresswoman Ann-Marie Buerkle. Angus King, the Independent running for U.S. senator in Maine, saw his lead shrink by twenty points under an assault by Karl Rove’s super-PAC; Bloomberg’s half-million dollars stopped the bleeding and King won easily. The mayor also poured cash into education-reform ballot initiatives, succeeding in helping to raise taxes for arts and school-renovation programs in Denver but failing to establish mayoral control of the school board in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and losing a bid to link teacher merit pay to standardized-testing scores in Idaho.

Four of Bloomberg’s super-PAC candidates won, three lost. Yet totaling up wins and losses obscures the greater significance. Bloomberg, by spending just over $9 million, demonstrated that a super-PAC can make a difference in local races by highlighting issues ignored in the national campaign. And on immigration, gay marriage, and the desire for problem-solvers, Bloomberg’s electoral investments showed he’s in sync with where the country seems to be going. The most striking outcome was on gay marriage. He split $750,000 among state groups pushing legalization and went four-for-four, with his influence probably greatest in Minnesota, where Bloomberg’s side won by just three points.

“Even if these candidates don’t win, people are going to start to say, ‘Oh, there’s another force,’ ” the mayor said, climbing the back-porch steps at Gracie Mansion. “If you want to change politicians’ views, one of the things you can do is convince them that if they side with what’s in society’s interest, that it’s in their personal interest too. I don’t know that you should be so cynical about it—­except I do believe that’s the case. And I’ll be freer to do it when I’m no longer mayor.” Still, Bloomberg was making no promises about extending the super-PAC’s reach.

Sandy presented a stiff test for a politician of Michael Bloomberg’s unique makeup. There’s no surer destroyer of political legacies than the perception of a lack of sympathy during a natural catastrophe. When I asked the mayor, a week after Sandy, how he interpreted the anger directed at him by storm victims, the response was classic Bloomberg: “I’d love to tell you I had something to do with creating storms,” he said cuttingly. “There’s always somebody who screams, ‘I didn’t have coffee for 24 hours!’ What an outrage! But for most people, they understand we’re in this together … As a society, we tend to forget pretty quickly and go on to the next thing. And I’m determined we’re not going to do that.” He was asking to be judged on substance, not style. The results so far are decidedly mixed, but unambiguously crucial: Not just to Bloomberg’s political viability, but to New York’s survival.

The Mayor in the Eye