The Mayor of Mayors

Photo: Christopher Anderson

One Sunday evening in April, twenty mayors from across the country gathered for a private dinner at the office of Michael Bloomberg’s foundation on East 78th Street. Bloomberg had paid to fly the mayors in to attend a conference he was hosting for them on innovation in city government. Cocktails and appetizers were served on the building’s ground floor, giving the mayors the opportunity to rub shoulders with members of the business, cultural, and media elite who populate Bloomberg’s rarefied world. The mayor’s political adviser, Kevin Sheekey, had carefully calibrated the guest list to maximally impress the out-of-town visitors, with media powers like Brian Williams and Charlie Rose and glittery Young Turks like Ivanka Trump.

After an hour, the party moved upstairs, where guests sat down for a dinner at ten round tables in a sleek gallery ringed with paintings by the Kenyan-born artist Allan deSouza. Waiters in angular black uniforms served fresh bread—no butter, no salt, of course—and, later, plates of black cod, mashed potatoes, and asparagus. Bloomberg, tieless in a blazer and blue shirt, circulated during the dinner hour, shaking hands and trading gossip. As coffee was poured, he took to the podium. For the next fifteen minutes, Bloomberg talked expansively about the role of mayors in society. “Mayors do things. Mayors make things happen,” he said. He presented himself as a man of action, working in an apparent jab at the president. “There’s one thing mayors can agree on, whether they’re Republican, Democrats, or Independents, and I’m the one person in the room who can speak with authority on all three”—the room burst into laughter—“we don’t have the luxury of giving speeches and making promises.”

If it sounded a lot like a stump speech, it’s because in many ways it was. Bloomberg has been casting about for his next job since about midway through his second term. In a sense, the third term was a stopgap, something to do while he made up his mind. And since the presidency seems frustratingly out of reach, he’s set his sights on a Plan B: He wants to be mayor of the world. “I don’t think there’s much difference in a meaningful sense, whether it’s a city here or a city there—wherever ‘there’ is,” he told the group. “I was in Hanoi and Singapore a few weeks ago, and they have exactly the same problems we do. It really is amazing.”

It’s always been Michael Bloomberg’s most fervent political conviction that he knows best how to address these problems. He has famously strong views on where people can smoke, what they should eat (and, last week, drink), how much companies can pollute, and how schools educate their students, and he plans to bring these ideas to the biggest possible audience. He’s also been working to shape legislation on issues from gun control and gay marriage to pension reform. And he doesn’t hesitate to personally fund his agenda. He has committed $600 million over ten years to anti-tobacco efforts globally. “China has one third of the world’s smokers,” a Bloomberg aide notes. In Brazil, the mayor is funding programs to improve traffic signage as part of a five-year, $125 million effort to improve road safety in countries from Vietnam to Egypt. And here in the U.S., he’s helping to raise $100 million for the Sierra Club’s campaign to shutter a third of the country’s coal power plants. “It was a game-changing gift,” says Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director.

Essentially, Bloomberg is scaling up a model he incubated here in New York. During his three terms, the mayor has used his capital strategically as glue to bind the city’s fractious interest groups together. He is funding programs in cities from Atlanta to São Paulo. “He’s not only an elected official with a lot of advice and counsel; he’s got a big pocketbook,” New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu says. “Mayor Bloomberg is the mayor’s mayor,” says Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter. “Every big, medium, and smaller-size city—all the mayors look to spend time with Mike Bloomberg.”

The next act has already started, albeit quietly. Last year, Bloomberg’s foundation approved a $6 million grant that is funding a staff of eleven employees to work inside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office in Chicago. The team is working on two initiatives: helping the city overhaul the systems for processing business licenses—a major campaign issue for small businesses—and increasing local energy efficiency. “If you’re opening a store for pets and you want to sell dog food, that’s one license. You want to sell a dog collar? That’s another license,” Emanuel told me. “If you have a service that washes dogs, that’s a separate license. All in one sector. We were not allowing companies to grow.” Bloomberg’s foundation provided the funds to reform the system. It’s wonky work, but wonkery is his passion. Given the brutal fiscal pressures facing cities, Bloomberg can seem like a one-man stimulus.

Photographs by Pari Dukovic

In New Orleans, Bloomberg has funded a $4.2 million crime-reduction program staffed by seven systems experts who work in Landrieu’s office. In 2010, he committed $4 million to assist several states that were applying for Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative. And when Colorado failed to qualify for federal funds, he spent another $400,000 in local elections to make sure that reform-minded Democratic state senators who backed the Race to the Top application made it through a punishing reelection season for their party. “There’s strong economic pressures and political pressures against setting aside money for innovative new ideas and projects,” says Denver public-schools superintendent Tom Boasberg. “That’s a critical role philanthropy can play at all times, but especially now, at a time of brutal budget cuts.”

Mike Bloomberg’s politics are non-politics—it’s all about the numbers. “He’s a scientist,” Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler told me. “He’s a physicist. How does he understand things? Reason, logic, and data.”

As an ambitious Harvard Business School graduate, Bloomberg couldn’t understand why traders at Salomon Brothers were combing through stacks of backdated Wall Street Journals, marking up bond prices with No. 2 pencils, so he persuaded a reluctant Billy Salomon and John Gutfreund to computerize the information. “He literally bribed a bunch of R&D people—a bunch of kids who knew something about computers,” says Winkler.

Business and politics are not, for Bloomberg, fundamentally different activities. And in his new role, money and expertise will add up to truly massive influence—at least that’s the idea. “He may well have wanted to be president, but I am convinced that he could well end up more influential and important than the next president, whoever he may be,” his political adviser Doug Schoen told me recently, with a certain amount of hyperbole.

Bloomberg sees an opening for a problem solver on the global stage. “Mike has a unique perspective,” Emanuel says. “He has passions on gun control, immigration, and climate change.”

Where Bill Gates’s foundation has devoted the lion’s share of its resources to relatively nonpolitical causes like vaccines and the global aids epidemic, much of Bloomberg’s mission will be more explicitly political. But rather than choosing sides, it will be an assault on the shibboleths of both parties, and on partisanship itself.

The urgency that Bloomberg now feels to transform himself into a global figure is ­fueled by a sense that time is running out. Shortly after he began his second term, in January 2006, the mayor instructed his staff to install a digital clock on the wall above the kitchen in the bull pen at City Hall. The clock was visible from everywhere in the room, ticking off the days, hours, minutes, and seconds left until his term was up. The purpose of the countdown, as the mayor explained to aides, was motivational, part of the M.B.A. ethos that has defined the Bloomberg era. He wanted to make sure his team resisted the lame-duck malaise that can settle over second-term administrations. When he started the third term, he added stopwatches that timed meetings. Some advisers saw the clocks as revealing something deeper: They provided a constant reminder that the mayor would soon be exiting the public stage—a prospect that was deeply unsettling to a man with the ambitions of Michael Bloomberg.

Having built Bloomberg LP, his financial-information company, into a global powerhouse and presided over the city’s successful post-9/11 comeback as a popular two-term mayor, Bloomberg still possessed a fierce drive. Publicly, the mayor indicated he would devote his time to philanthropy. At 66, he was fit, energetic, determined to stay relevant. With a net worth estimated at some $20 billion, and the resolve to spend virtually all of it, he had the means to do so. But there is little question that he wanted to be president. At one point, he spoke with Chuck Hagel and Sam Nunn about a third-party bid. “He was looking at the centrist-Republican crowd,” a member of the mayor’s team explained.

But the Bloomberg boomlet quickly faded as the mayor and his advisers recognized that the Electoral College math didn’t work, “absent some unbelievably transformational event,” as an adviser told me recently. “His limitation is that he’s a centrist, and there’s no place in these parties for centrists,” the adviser added. Vice-president remained a possibility. In the summer of 2008, Bloomberg was vetted by the McCain campaign. But it’s hardly a job that would have suited him.

After his presidential ambitions fizzled, Bloomberg realized that he didn’t have a parachute—amazingly, a run for commander-in-chief was his most serious option. So, with less than 500 days left on the clock, Bloomberg advisers went up to Harlem to explore his post–City Hall options privately with Doug Band, the politically wired lawyer who helped establish Bill Clinton’s post-presidential foundation. While Band advised the mayor on getting the foundation up to speed, Bloomberg simply wasn’t ready to focus full-time on philanthropy. Up to that point, it had been an occasional hobby for him—something like flying a helicopter. He needed more time to think, more time to plan. And it was at that moment that he came up with the idea of a third term.

Many in the mayor’s inner circle—longtime advisers Patti Harris, Sheekey, and Ed Skyler—were said to be wary about his decision to run again. In private, some aides wondered whether the mayor was seeking a third term in part because he simply didn’t have anything else to do. This time around, another term was not an option, and his presidential flirtation was no more than perfunctory. Last winter, Bill Daley, then Obama’s chief of staff, discreetly called the mayor and asked him if he wanted to be head of the World Bank—Robert Zoellick was stepping down. But Bloomberg did not want to have a boss, and he’d already begun to retool his life for his post-mayoralty. He turned the job down.

The foundation isn’t the only way, however, that Bloomberg plans to keep mattering. One morning in March, he was in Melville, Long Island, pitching his pension-reform agenda to the Newsday editorial board. In Albany, the Legislature was about to rule on Governor Cuomo’s bid to curb entitlement spending, and Bloomberg was pressing hard to get the bill through. He had gone live on local television with a $1 million ad buy to advocate on behalf of the issue. As Bloomberg stood up to grab a cookie from the spread, an editor made a request. “How likely is it that you’d buy the New York Times?”

“It’s not for sale,” Bloomberg shot back. “And why would I want to buy the Times?”

“You’re a philanthropist,” the editor said. Bloomberg smiled.

“You’re the first person who’s given me an honest answer to that.”

Purchasing the New York Times is perhaps the most often discussed next act for Michael Bloomberg. He may not see the Times as a business, but on a certain level, the paper is an irresistible trophy. Bloomberg so far has made no moves to obtain it.

Are there any real prospects of his buying the Times? It’s hard to say. For one thing, it would be unseemly for him to make a move now, while he’s still mayor. And his continued denial of any interest in the Times might be just a good long-view posture. While the immediate financial pressures on the Sulzbergers have subsided, Bloomberg surely knows a time may come when they wouldn’t be able to resist a generous offer. (Bloomberg has demonstrated a patience that has paid off in the past: In the depths of the financial crisis, he bought back Merrill Lynch’s 20 percent stake in Bloomberg LP at a steep discount.)

And his ego certainly relishes the chatter. Years ago, while on a trip to Paris, he asked a friend over breakfast, “Do you think I could buy the New York Times?” When the friend said it wasn’t sold in the hotel, he said, “No, do you think I could buy the Times?”

There’s a part of him that sees the Sulz­bergers as just bad businesspeople. In this regard, Bloomberg surely shares a kinship with Murdoch. “Mike hates heirs,” says a friend. “When Arthur did that thing with the moose [brandishing a stuffed moose at a staff town-hall about former editor Howell Raines], Mike said, ‘He has always been such a lightweight.’ That whole incident revealed he’s not up to the job.”

And Bloomberg already has a media business. And though he is adamant that he will not return to run it, it remains a means for him to wield influence. Owning the Times would amplify that considerably.

For now, however, he seems content to compete with the Times. And Bloomberg sources say he may just buy the Financial Times instead, which would be cheaper and a tighter editorial fit with his existing businesses. With its strong international brand, owning the paper would open up access in foreign capitals, something that is appealing to the mayor as he eyes the future. When I ask Winker if owning the FT could help the company, he hints that it could. “Is it a very fine newspaper? Absolutely,” he says. “If there were somehow a possibility on the margin, of course it could only help. I think really that’s how we thought about Businessweek. Did we need to have it? No … is it essential to Bloomberg LP? No. Could these help us? Yeah, it’s possible, sure.” The businesspeople at Bloomberg are more bearish. “There’s no need for us to buy a newspaper,” Bloomberg president and CEO Dan Doctoroff tells me. “And I think if you look at how we’re succeeding and the measure that we care about more than anything else—which is gaining influence—we’re on our way to get where we want.”

By many measures, Bloomberg News boasts far more journalistic horsepower than the Gray Lady. The news service has nearly 2,400 editorial staffers spread across the globe, with 146 bureaus in 72 countries. In Washington, Bloomberg’s bureau has over 300 employees. And as the Times and the Journal have been buffeted by the brutal economics of the web, Bloomberg has gone on a hiring spree, populating its newsroom with veteran journalists, including Pulitzer Prize winners Daniel Hertzberg and Daniel Golden from the Journal, and former Philadelphia Inquirer editor Amanda Bennett. The talent has brought in a procession of scoops, like last year’s stunning account of the Fed’s trillion-dollar bailout of financial institutions—after a multiyear battle to pry open the central bank’s books. But for all the acquiring, Bloomberg News almost entirely lacks the kind of political and cultural identity that comes with a paper like the Times. That was part of the raison d’être of Bloomberg View, an online op-ed page and think tank launched in May 2011 headed at first by longtime Times op-ed stalwart David Ship­ley and former State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin. It was quickly staffed with a full roster of newspaper and magazine talent, people like Jeff Goldberg, Michael Kinsley, Ezra Klein, and Jon Alter.

Bloomberg is still obsessed with the presidency. One evening this winter, he sat down to dinner at the Crosby Street Hotel with several of his View contributors. Over a glass of red wine and a hamburger, he rehearsed his well-known criticism of Obama. At one point, a person who was there told me, Bloomberg said that the president “needs to be more like LBJ, and reach out.”

Bloomberg’s relations with the White House have been strained ever since that fateful golf game on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 2010, after which Rupert Murdoch said in the press that Bloomberg told him, “I never met in my life such an arrogant man.” Last month, it was reported that Bloomberg went to the White House for a private lunch with the president, which both sides described, in classic Washingtonese, as “productive.”

In private, friends note that the mayor’s girlfriend, Diana Taylor, expresses the mayor’s unvarnished view of the president. “She parrots everything Mike says,” notes someone who often socializes with them. Before the 2008 election, Taylor got into an argument with Sheekey’s wife, Robin, who was an Obama supporter. “Diana was repeating what Mike would say about Obama, except it was louder,” the person recalled. “How can you be so stupid to be for someone like Obama?” Taylor asked her.

As this fall’s presidential campaign ­ratchets up, Bloomberg’s still bothered by the quality of the debate, recoiling at Obama’s attacks on Wall Street and Mitt Romney’s near-religious conviction not to countenance any tax increases. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bloomberg castigated both sides for failing to reach a sensible fiscal deal. “Mike Bloomberg has every right to look at what he’s accomplished and say to himself, ‘I’m more qualified to be president than any of these guys,’ ” a Bloomberg intimate told me. “Because he is: He’s run a bigger business than Mitt Romney. And he’s been a public official longer than Barack Obama.”

Both candidates are seeking his endorsement. On May 1, Romney had breakfast with Bloomberg at his foundation. A few days before, the mayor was invited to play golf with Joe Biden and Leon Panetta. Clearly, Bloomberg likes to be courted. An article in the Times described him as a “reluctant endorser,” which will only increase his sway over the competing campaigns.

This frustration with the state of presidential politics is partly the fuel that is powering the mayor’s ambitions as he looks to life beyond City Hall, even though he might not see it in these terms. In many ways, his decision to stay out of the race could be the right decision for a man who has long considered himself “not a politician.” He’s blunt, impatient, and lacking in the emotional dexterity that the job often requires, although he’s grown more comfortable in the role after more than a decade of dealing with the daily indignities of the office.

Bloomberg has increasingly been inserting himself into national debates—from Planned Parenthood to Stand Your Ground—at the moment when there’s maximum political capital up for grabs. And he’s logging miles, taking the Bloomberg brand global. In March, he landed in Singapore to announce that the city-state had joined his international climate-change initiative. This summer, he’ll be in Rio for the next meeting of the C40 Climate Leadership Group. Every time he touches down in a new place, he’s building out an already gilded Rolodex with a loyal network of international politicians whom he can enlist at key moments. “Look at Obama as he goes around the nuclear summit. His posture is sort of that of a guy making entreaties rather than that of an established global leader,” says a senior Bloomberg adviser. “And you look at the way Mike has operated: He’s used mayors around the world and his network of philanthropy to produce what I would say are the beginnings of an international infrastructure that can promote a level of change that is hard to fathom.”

But there’s another, less optimistic view: Bloomberg’s brand of sober centrism is certainly a sensible, even enlightened governing philosophy. But data-driven pragmatism doesn’t engage partisan emotions. As he builds his empire, one cautionary data point can be found in the clout of his editorial page: Though it has received a Pulitzer Prize nomination, View has not had the impact Bloomberg might have hoped for it. “It turns out he doesn’t have a lot of opinions,” says a friend. “On things he cares about, he has really strong opinions: smoking, traffic, guns, immigration, housing. But other than that, he doesn’t have a lot of passion.”

So far, one of the few editorials that have broken through into the wider media conversation was View’s March 14 response to Greg Smith’s remarkable resignation letter published in the Times. “Apparently, when Greg Smith arrived at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. almost twelve years ago, the legendary investment firm was something like the Make-a-Wish Foundation—existing only to bring light and peace and happiness to the world,” the editors wrote.

For now, the mayor is pressing ahead on all fronts. On the morning of April 9, he sat in the Governor’s Room at City Hall, chairing a meeting for the Young Men’s Initiative, an effort largely funded by his foundation and George Soros. First Deputy Mayor Patti Harris was on his left, and around the table sat senior staff including Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, Chief Service Officer Diahann Billings-Burford, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Thomas Farley, and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs.

The mayor listened as staff presented data. The numbers looked good. Felony convictions for teenagers were down by 25 percent since 2002. Rates of male youth re­admitted to jail within one year declined by 23 percent. Chronic absenteeism among high-school students was down. The mayor probed. “Let’s assume you could force every chronically absent kid to show up every day; would the outcome be very different?”

It is meetings like this where the mayor is melding his national and local ambitions. When one presenter mentioned Chicago’s recent gang violence, the mayor spoke up. “The murder rate in Chicago is four times the murder rate here,” he said. “I looked the other day. After two and a half months, we had 75 murders; they had 95. Their population is less than a third of ours.” Emanuel was due to arrive in a few days for the dinner at his foundation. “We have gangs; they have real gangs. I have Rahm Emanuel coming in. I’ll talk to him about it.”

At the one-hour mark, the meeting broke up. The mayor walked across the hall to the bull pen. On the wall in the kitchen, the clock was ticking. He had 631 days, twelve hours, and 55 minutes left. But he’s already on to his new job.

This story appeared in the June, 11, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

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May 16, 7:35 a.m. Exiting the subway, morning commute. Photo: Pari Dukovic

9:05 a.m. Morning staff meeting. Photo: Pari Dukovic

9:50 a.m. On the way to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Photo: Pari Dukovic

10:25 a.m. Ribbon-cutting for new Botanic Gardens visitor center. Photo: Pari Dukovic

2:30 p.m. Bill-signing to amend the New York City Building Code in relation to sun-control devices. Photo: Pari Dukovic

2:49 p.m. Coffee break in office kitchen. Photo: Pari Dukovic

3:20 p.m. Leaving City Hall. Photo: Pari Dukovic

7:30 p.m. With NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly after award ceremony at Gracie Mansion. Photo: Pari Dukovic

The Mayor of Mayors