The Legacy Crisis

Illustration by Darrow

Let’s say you’ve been reelected as mayor of New York City. Heck, not just reelected: practically anointed, by a landslide margin of nineteen points. The editorial pages of the dailies love you. You’re good-looking, brainy, and, thanks to a vast personal fortune, you have no literal campaign debts and only minor figurative political debts. You’ve styled yourself as the kind of leader who does the right thing, on the merits, regardless of whether it’s popular. You preside over a fairly prosperous economy. You swear you have no ambitions for higher office.

In the early days of your second term, you’d surely stay focused on the fundamentals of lowering crime and raising test scores. But you’d just as surely seize this unprecedented, ephemeral opportunity and power and swing for the fences, with one or two crusades that might cost you popularity points but will improve the lives of millions of citizens. There’s no shortage of bold possibilities.

But a gondola to Governors Island? With passenger compartments shaped like crystal apples? That wouldn’t be your big idea. Right?

Michael Bloomberg, in his State of the City speech, unfurled plenty of other proposals, many of them worthy. Fighting the flood of illegal guns is important—but probably futile, given the Bush administration’s coziness with the NRA. Tracking and treating diabetes and HIV more aggressively will save lives. Setting aside a portion of the city’s current budget surplus as a hedge against future civil-service health-care costs is prudent. Building more mid-priced apartments is overdue. None of these projects, however, match in imagination the power that Bloomberg currently holds. Where’s his big idea?

Four years ago, Bloomberg barely squeaked into office. Yet the political neophyte governed with urgency and a surfeit of splashy schemes. Like them or not, the smoking ban, the firehouse closings, the public-schools takeover, the Olympics, the West Side Stadium, nonpartisan elections—all broad strokes that battled conventional wisdom. Bloomberg’s partisans claim that his busy first term inevitably makes any second-term initiatives look puny and that the next four years are about implementing the good ideas of the first four. Their other major point is that Bloomberg has always aspired to be a manager, not a visionary.

“He’s increased the capacity of the city to do what it’s supposed to do,” says Ester Fuchs, a free-floating adviser in Bloomberg’s first term who helped craft his second-term agenda. “311 is part of it. He’s created a department of information technology that’s not a shell. And he’s giving OEM more coordinating power. And he’s making agencies better able to oversee outside contracts. These are big things. But they’re not sexy, and because he doesn’t create drama around them and turn everything into a crisis, people don’t get how significant these things are. Managerial infrastructure is huge. This is why New Orleans was such a freakin’ mess.”

“He is in the perfect spot to be a reform agent,” says Weiner. “Bloomberg hasn’t had, knock on wood, the megachallenge.”

Dan Doctoroff, who has stayed on as head of economic development, argues that there are plenty of major new initiatives. “It doesn’t tend to excite passions outside of Queens, but in Jamaica we’re undertaking the largest rezoning ever in the borough,” he says. “We’re starting construction all over the city, and we’re going to make sure it all gets done. That’s our first focus. You’ll see exciting things happen in Flushing, at the High Line, at Brooklyn Bridge Park. We’re moving ahead with the Javits expansion, the 7 line extension, but everyone thinks nothing is happening on the West Side because the stadium is dead. I don’t think there’s been an agenda this ambitious since the 1930s.”

Yet all that activity got started in Bloomberg I. Nothing comparably ambitious has been unveiled for the sequel. Suggestions, please? “The city’s budget is built as if Wall Street will keep bailing it out,” says Steven Malanga, an urban economic expert at the Manhattan Institute. “If we went three or four years with ordinary Wall Street performance, the city becomes a fiscal train wreck.” Malanga’s ideas include ending the commercial occupancy tax, to encourage small-business growth, and pursuing Medicaid fraud. “Several upstate counties have been given permission to investigate Medicaid fraud,” he says. “They were paying half the bills but couldn’t clean it up themselves. If the city tried something like that, it would be extremely powerful.”

Congressman Anthony Weiner was a fount of ideas during the Democratic mayoral primary, and he hasn’t stopped thinking about the city’s affairs. “Bloomberg’s administration has been profligate in the amount of debt they’ve piled up,” Weiner says. “He should set aside half of the surplus for debt retirement, and he should create a truly transparent government. This has been more of an insider administration on big land-use deals than any I’ve seen. He is in the perfect spot to be what he should have been all along, a reform agent. Bloomberg hasn’t had, knock on wood, the megachallenge. And you get the sense, with the ACS child-abuse deaths, that his luck is starting to run out. Now’s the time.”

Yet even such wonkish favorites as congestion pricing have been dismissed by Bloomberg as a waste of political capital. “He’s totally not interested in congestion pricing now,” Fuchs says. “He’s got so many things he’s gotta spend his political chips on, so many things that are tied up with Albany, why do that now?”

Ah, Albany. That’s where Bloomberg is wielding his mandate. That’s the big idea, to break the stranglehold of the big three—George Pataki, Shelly Silver, and Joe Bruno—on two issues. So far, however, threatening to bankroll friendly state senate candidates and dropping school-construction plans in unfriendly state legislators’ districts hasn’t scared anyone. Albany won’t cough up the billions in school aid it owes the city until Pataki leaves office. And Bloomberg has no influence on that.

The mayor’s prospects at ground zero are marginally better—he has the leverage of withholding some funding from Larry Silverstein, and a large pulpit from which to browbeat the developer. Yet the bigger hammer belongs to Pataki. The governor set a March 14 deadline for Silverstein to surrender portions of the World Trade Center site to the Port Authority or lose billions in state-controlled Liberty Bonds. Carrying out the threat, though, would mean delaying the Freedom Tower and damaging Pataki’s slim presidential hopes.

If Bloomberg wants to do something revolutionary, he should declare an end to the city’s personal-income tax, ban cars from Manhattan, or sell the city-owned hospitals. But the biggest idea of all would be permanently rewiring the relationship between Albany and New York instead of simply tinkering with it. Then Bloomberg wouldn’t be just king of New York. He’d make New York king.


The Legacy Crisis