Bye, Mr. Nice Mike

Photo: Globe Photos

Michael Bloomberg was livid. Gifford Miller, in a direct shot at the mayor, had just proposed reopening six firehouses that Bloomberg had shuttered last year, one of many initiatives that had caused the mayor’s popularity to plunge. Here was Miller, who wants the mayor’s job, looking to reopen the political wound that Bloomberg had carefully stitched up by enduring who knows how many photo ops in the outer boroughs—eating at diners in Astoria, marching in parades in Bay Ridge, playing boccie in Carroll Gardens.

The old Bloomberg, speaking in that nasal Boston twang, might have said, “Look, that’s politics. You’re gonna have conflict … Some will open firehouses, others will close them … Oh, I can’t believe Gifford would say that. He’s a friend.”

Not the new Mike. Standing before a crowd of reporters, Bloomberg lashed out. “It is really not appropriate to try to pander to union leaders and seek their endorsement,” he said. The next day, their exchange filled the papers, but Bloomberg didn’t stop there. He leveled a virtually identical blast at Miller on his WABC-AM radio show: “This pandering to try to get votes of the firefighters and their union endorsement is a bit outrageous.” The second-day assault got the political effect the mayor’s advisers wanted: another round of stories with Bloomberg on offense.

Anyone who’s hung around City Hall for more than two years might have recognized the pattern. Hammer away one day, and escalate the assault the next on the radio—it’s City Politics 101, a mainstay of none other than the Hannibal Lecter of City Hall, Rudy Giuliani. Okay, Bloomberg didn’t seem nearly as predatory; in fact, at times his bluster seemed forced. Still, the verbal patterns and techniques were unmistakable.

Bloomberg, the mayor who was supposed to banish Giuliani-style hardball politics from City Hall, who once seemed profoundly ill at ease when caught up in unsightly political conflicts, has undergone a transformation of late. He’s experimenting with something new: the display of raw mayoral power.

Bloomberg, it seems, has discovered his inner Rudy. He’s exploiting the City Hall bully pulpit’s built-in power to command the news cycle. He’s publicly flaying private-sector figures who dare to oppose his proposals. He’s imposing his will through brute force, such as when he axed hand-picked education-panel members to win a vote banning social promotion. And he’s staking out controversial positions—keeping firehouses closed, building a West Side stadium—and digging in as he sprays ammo at critics on all sides. As one mayoral aide joked: “Maybe he took a hormone pill.” “Bloomberg’s clearly looking for a new political personality,” says West Side City Council member Christine Quinn. “There’s been a strong shift in his behavior and tone. They’re playing hardball on a lot more issues.”

“Bloomberg has undergone a transformation: He’s discovered his inner Rudy.”

Bloomberg seems to be capitulating to an idea he long scorned: that mayoral strength is synonymous with a willingness to engage in public combat. New Yorkers, by this reckoning, want their mayor to be a prick—even if it’s not exactly clear what good it’s doing them. “We often think the best way to govern this large and unwieldy city is with a strong hand,” says political consultant Howard Wolfson. “Bloomberg’s handlers couldn’t convince people he was empathetic, and it wasn’t enough to convince them that he was competent. So they needed to add toughness to his persona.”

Mayoral aides don’t deny Bloomberg’s new hard edge, but they insist it’s born more of frustration with fellow pols than from political calculation. “It comes more from him than from anybody else,” says one senior adviser. “It reflects his lack of patience with the games everyone plays. In the beginning, he was willing to give [other politicians] the benefit of the doubt, but he’s fed up with their hypocrisy.”

Bloomberg, of course, is a far cry from the Rudy who tormented adversaries with pathological glee, and his transformation is more about style and tone than substance. But it’s remarkable nonetheless. For instance, Bloomberg—who long sought to resolve political disputes in private—has begun publicly assailing private-sector critics. Speaking to Newsday recently, Bloomberg slammed Madison Square Garden owners Charles and James Dolan for opposing the West Side stadium because it might siphon business: “The biggest guys that are making a fuss here are, plain and simple, the Dolans. It is an outrage that you let your … economic interests stop a major project in this city.” Bloomberg also revealed a humiliating private conversation: James, he said, had called City Hall to express unease. “ ‘You’re killing me’ was, I think, the way he started out the conversation,” the mayor said.

Bloomberg’s new persona has also been evident in relations with the media—specifically, in a behind-the-scenes war his camp been waging against New York 1 News. In January, a New York 1 camera recorded now-notorious comments Bloomberg made about the late Dr. Robert Atkins: “I don’t believe that bullshit—that he dropped dead slipping on a sidewalk.” Bloomberg and his advisers—furious with New York 1 for running remarks they considered off the record—promptly retaliated. According to sources familiar with the situation, senior communications aides, in consultation with the mayor, banned all administration officials from appearing on any of New York 1’s chat shows, forums for political and governmental officials at all levels since the mid-nineties. No Bloomberg official has appeared since.

New York 1 political director Robert Hardt Jr. says the episode was clearly on the record, and adds, “Any member of the administration would be welcome as a guest on any of our programs pretty much anytime.” But it looks as if the Bloomberg camp isn’t in a forgiving mood. “When a news organization ditches the universally accepted ground rules to create a cheap story,” says mayoral spokesman Ed Skyler, “it doesn’t exactly foster a good working relationship.”

From the outset, the Bloomberg mayoralty was about challenging a core assumption in New York politics: that you couldn’t be an effective or popular mayor without the self-indulgent histrionics of a Giuliani or a Koch. New Yorkers would reward good management for its own sake. They didn’t, of course. Bloomberg got the city through the fiscal crisis, but, having done it with all the showmanship of an accountant on Klonopin, he watched his popularity plummet.

Now Bloomberg’s new tack may be paying off. His numbers appear to be rising with his testosterone level (and perhaps with the economy). A Quinnipiac University poll out on March 31 said that 47 percent of voters approve of the job he’s doing, with 41 percent disapproving—his first positive rating in a year. That may not bode well for Bloomberg’s initial vision of a management-oriented mayoralty. But it may be just the kind of management by the numbers he needs as he heads toward election season.

Bye, Mr. Nice Mike