King Mike

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

It’s all about the tourism. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is merely the humble master of ceremonies, cutting a ribbon for the assembled TV cameras to help drum up publicity for the city’s newest old attraction, the observation deck at 30 Rockefeller Center. He keeps his remarks brief, then steps aside and lets the spectacular view from the 69th floor, unveiled by the dramatic dropping of a bright red curtain, take over as the star of the show.

Yet as Bloomberg stands in the sunshine, another image forms, one with the mayor as the focal point. A public-school class is one of the press-conference props, and a cute, beaming 8-year-old Asian girl hugs Bloomberg so tightly you grow concerned for his circulation. Nearby, David Rockefeller and Jerry Speyer, real-estate and philanthropic titans past and present, grin approvingly at the mayor. With Central Park, the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn behind and beneath him, a gleaming fall backdrop stretching out to the horizon, Michael Bloomberg looks like the ruler of all he can see. A monarch who, with a 28-point lead over Freddy Ferrer and one week until Election Day, appears to be on the verge of gaining vast new powers.

The photo op is staged looking north. Yet anyone who ever took an ear-popping elevator even higher into the New York sky, to a different observation deck, feels a pull to the other side of the building. You can’t help looking south, past the Empire State Building. Looking for what’s not there.

Maybe there will be a gigantic upset on November 8. Strange things happen in this city every minute. Otherwise, Bloomberg wins big. Very big.

He’s done what he can to inflate his margin of victory. “There’s no other rational reason for him to still be spending so much money,” says a Republican strategist who isn’t working for Bloomberg’s campaign. “He wants to be able to say, ‘I’m better than Giuliani.’ And if he can get 60 percent, it’s very difficult for anyone to say he doesn’t have an absolute mandate to do whatever he wants.”

The mayor’s aides say his campaign spending has nothing to do with ego, and that beating Mark Green by a mere three points in 2001 certainly didn’t restrain Bloomberg from pursuing exactly what he wanted: control of the schools, a smoking ban, and the Olympics. Defeating Ferrer by seventeen or more points, however—which would be the largest win since 1985, when Ed Koch steamrolled token opposition—will be branded a validation of historic proportions, and it can’t help but go to a man’s head. “Winning big certainly helps your ego,” says Koch, who knows how it feels to win small and large. “You feel smarter. You know you’re gonna be in a book of records. And it cows your opponents.”

Not that there will be much standing in Bloomberg’s way, regardless of the exact vote totals. George Pataki, nominally in the same party as Bloomberg, can be a nuisance to the mayor, but the governor is an increasingly lame duck. The weak City Council needs to pick a new speaker. Bloomberg, in his first term, cared deeply about the approval of the editorial page of the New York Times, but the paper gushingly endorsed him for reelection, proclaiming Bloomberg could well become “one of the greatest mayors in New York history.”

If he does … well, what, exactly? Ray Kelly says that in a second term, his priorities include bringing the NYPD’s technology into the 21st century; Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott says he’s eager to focus on revamping special education; Dan Doctoroff wants to expand the ferry system. Good projects, all worth doing. Yet they’re incremental achievements. During the campaign, Bloomberg’s “vision” of the future boiled down to more of the same: more housing, more jobs, more safety. The greatest check on Bloomberg-as-emperor appears to be Bloomberg himself: He hasn’t articulated any bold agenda. And maybe that’s what the city wants out of this election, nothing more than continued competence. There is, however, a mandate-worthy issue within easy walking distance of City Hall.

Bloomberg was asked a simple question. A member of the Daily News editorial board wanted to know what the mayor thought should be done to energize the rebuilding of ground zero, where Larry Silverstein has one new empty office tower and the right to build four more. Bloomberg gave a simple answer. “It would be in the city’s interest to get Silverstein out, [but] nobody can figure out how to do it yet,” Bloomberg said.

Because of where Bloomberg was sitting when he said it—right next to Mort Zuckerman, who bid for the World Trade Center lease and lost to Silverstein in the spring of 2001, and who owns the Daily News, whose editorial page has advocated more residential buildings downtown—the mayor’s antagonists smelled rank, petty calculation. “I think the mayor said what he thought the Daily News would like to hear,” says Sheldon Silver, the leader of the State Assembly, whose district includes ground zero and who killed Bloomberg’s West Side stadium plan. “Some people question whether the social-engineering aspect of the mayor’s statement isn’t to move the downtown commercial district to the West Side.” Is that what Silver believes? “I don’t know,” he says coyly.

Because of when Bloomberg took his shot at Silverstein—with a landslide victory over Ferrer in plain sight—his words sounded like the first symptoms of incipient Titoism, of a second-term mayor who arrogantly believes he should be in charge of everything and accountable to no one. If Bloomberg unbridled means he’s going to try to ram through another West Side stadium, or break the teachers union, his popularity could prove ephemeral.

Bloomberg’s blast at Silverstein sounded a bit like incipient Titoism. But maybe ground zero needs a dictator.

When it comes to ground zero, though, dictatorship is good. Bloomberg is right about rethinking the mix of residential and commercial, and his comments are one more indication that four years in elective office haven’t shaken his private-sector mind-set: If market conditions have changed, the product should change. But he must follow through on his offhand comments about ground zero. The most important move of his first term was winning responsibility for the public schools. This time, he doesn’t need to seize operational control of the Trade Center site, and the Port Authority wouldn’t surrender it.

Bloomberg seems likely to acquire a cache of political capital nearly as sizable as his bank account. And that power, in concert with his Fifth Avenue allies, creates an unprecedented opportunity for a mayor to make his mark on the city. All he will need is vision.

After the mayor disappears into the Top of the Rock elevator for the trip back down to the midtown sidewalk, David Rockefeller and Jerry Speyer linger on the observation deck. “The way ground zero has gone, the mayor shares responsibility with the governor,” says Rockefeller, a man Bloomberg admires. “But the mayor is a great leader.” Speyer, who serves on the fund-raising board for the September 11 memorial but last year turned down Pataki’s offer to lead it, deftly demurs. “I’d rather talk about this after the election,” he says.

That day is upon us.


King Mike