I, Bloomberg

Illustration by Jack Unruh

He meant it as a joke. During the City Hall press conference officially making Michael Bloomberg a term-limits flip-flopper, a reporter began a question by referring to the mayor’s extended flirtation with a third-party bid for the White House. Bloomberg interrupted. “I didn’t run for president,” he said with a smirk. “Kevin ran for president.”

About twenty feet away, leaning against a wall, Kevin Sheekey stared straight ahead, stone-faced. Sheekey is Bloomberg’s loyal political strategist, the man who ran Bloomberg’s upset 2001 mayoral campaign and Bloomberg’s landslide 2005 reelection campaign. He also laid the groundwork for a possible 2008 Bloomberg presidential campaign—though Sheekey’s efforts were hardly some rogue operation. Sheekey—along with two other top aides, Patti Harris and Ed Skyler—had argued against the push for a third term. But with an assist from the economic meltdown, the mayor rejected their advice.

So probably Bloomberg meant his gratuitous swipe at Sheekey to be a joke. His tone, however, was anything but humorous. The tone said, Never forget who’s the boss.

The notion that Michael Bloomberg was above politics was always fairly silly. True, Bloomberg’s path to City Hall, papered with millions of his own money, left him happily unencumbered by the kind of favor-bank baggage that compromises almost every other elected official. And he’s been willing to do the right thing on some big issues—like the smoking ban and the 2003 property-tax increase—short-term criticism be damned.

But he’s always played the game as hard and as tough as any old-school machine pol, just by other, more-sophisticated means. And Bloomberg’s low-key style also fed the myth that his motives transcended those of mortal ego-driven pols. By this point in Ed Koch’s second term, he’d already written the first of two oversharing autobiographies. Rudy Giuliani didn’t even bother with books; his needs were plain to anyone within earshot. But Bloomberg has always loved the adulation that comes with success as mayor, even if he didn’t roam the streets asking, “How’m I doing?”

Now, however, his ego is being viewed in a very different light. Part of the uproar surrounding Bloomberg’s forcing a term-limits extension through the City Council comes from the liberal propensity for being shocked, shocked when the casino doors are flung open. Some of the outrage reminds me of the reaction to Giuliani’s tactics in taking control of the streets: Yes, get rid of the bad guys, but please don’t let us see how you’re doing it. But there is also genuine, widespread anger at Bloomberg’s vanity in disregarding the two public referenda that enacted term limits in the first place. Bloomberg’s detractors believe that his true, despotic nature has finally been revealed for all to see. But even many of his allies are dismayed: The mayor has pulled back the curtain precisely when he’s going to most need real public approval behind him—and not simply the blandishments of his mogul friends, or the kind of praise that rings in his ears and warms his heart.

The theater was dark, the play in progress when Bloomberg quietly took his seat. He was late because he’d been at a hospital in Queens, checking on two police officers who’d been shot. The play, La Guardia, was a one-man show in which Tony Lo Bianco impersonates Fiorello La Guardia. It was opening night, and after the lights came up at the end, Lo Bianco returned to the stage and thanked the dignitaries in the crowd; when he mentioned Bloomberg, the audience rose for a standing ovation.

Bloomberg basked in that applause two days before the term-limits vote in the City Council—and he took it as confirmation that he was doing the right thing, whatever the messy means. “Those are the kind of reactions he values,” a Bloomberg friend says. “More than the praise of his business-world friends—he knows they’ll be calling him for a donation to a museum next. But people who come up to him in public, they can say anything they want.” To Bloomberg, man-in-the-street adoration is a reward all his money could never buy: He’s given himself to the city, and we need him.

The mayor has a civic-minded Boy Scout side, but lately the balance has shifted, and his attitude has tended more toward condescending noblesse oblige. Appearing on his weekly radio show during the second day of the City Council term-limits hearings, Bloomberg dismissed his opponents as “people who just emote.” Small wonder that a poll showed that if term limits were to be changed, an astounding 89 percent of the public wanted it done through a ballot referendum.

It’s difficult to tell whether Bloomberg thinks he has any repair work to do—or whether he cares. In the wake of his bruising term-limits win, he’s been calling each of the 51 City Council members individually to mend fences. Yet that strategy repeats his original mistake: Bloomberg still hasn’t acknowledged the public disgust at his choice of methods. Maybe he is saving all that for the $100 million 2009 reelection campaign. He’ll need to spend it wisely if the next twelve months are a sad parade of slashed budgets, higher taxes, resurgent crime, and disappearing jobs. Bloomberg’s Democratic opponents, especially Congressman Anthony Weiner, would try to tie together the billion-dollar Jets-stadium proposal, congestion pricing, and term limits to make the case that Bloomberg always takes the side of the elites against that of the struggling middle class. And if the city is in a grim mood next November, that line of attack could find a receptive audience.

That’s because the term-limits battle wasn’t merely about a change in electoral law and respect for the democratic process. It was about all the people who have felt shut out during Bloomberg’s reign. Maybe it’s inevitable that New York’s mayors come to see themselves as indispensable; combine the warping effects of mayoral power with Bloomberg’s bank account and he could have grown insufferable a long time ago. But if the mayor truly wants to be a leader instead of an emperor, he needs to get back to his salesman roots. Bloomberg doesn’t have to engage in phony public empathy. He would, however, be smart to open up and tell us not just what he thinks is right but why he feels it’s right. Then it would be easier to believe once again that Mike Bloomberg may be an egomaniac, but at least he’s an egomaniac whose heart is in the right place.

E-mail: chris_smith@nymag.com.

I, Bloomberg