Learning Curve

Sure, he’s gotten a bit lucky. The opening rounds of Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to close a $6 billion budget gap played out while the media and the public were obsessed with the war in Iraq. Saddam Hussein may or may not have been buried under rubble last week, but Bloomberg’s first announcement of specific layoffs, dropped on the same afternoon as those four Baghdad bunker busters, certainly was.

Bloomberg’s timing has been equally fortuitous on the purely local landscape. He’s dealing with badly weakened labor unions—particularly District Council 37, which represents 125,000 workers and lost its longtime kingpin in a corruption scandal. “We will put up a fight with Bloomberg,” says one major labor leader, “but we’ll end up allowing him to lay off people instead of agreeing to cut benefits—because the union members that remain are the ones who elect us to office.”

Mostly, though, Bloomberg has been smart. He pushed through a property-tax raise early. His dogged, relentlessly logical pursuit of federal anti-terrorism money looked hopeless … until it won over Tom Ridge and Congress. Besides the millions of dollars, Bloomberg reaped a public-relations boon when George Pataki made a belated grab for a bigger share of the pie. Bloomberg has mostly ignored the barbs of union leaders, as when teachers-union president Randi Weingarten—who also heads the umbrella group that coordinates bargaining strategies for dozens of city unions—called him “ignorant and arrogant.” Bloomberg lets his surrogates jab back: “I don’t see her turning down invitations to dinners with the mayor,” says Bill Cunningham, Bloomberg’s director of communications. “It’s unfortunate that Randi felt she needed to take a cheap shot.” And Bloomberg’s cigarette-tax hike has brought in nearly double the expected revenue (thanks, smokers, for doing your part).

Yet the mayor’s political naïveté is still apparent: It wasn’t until two weeks ago that Bloomberg gave up on the belief that the city and state budget issues would be solved in a quiet, behind-closed-doors sit-down with his pal Pataki. Now, with the war winding down and the potential layoffs made flesh—the abstract numbers becoming the sympathetic faces of $15,000-a-year school-hall monitors—the mayor can no longer evade front-page attention. On April 15, Bloomberg unveils his revised budget plan. The game is about to get palpably rougher.

At least the mayor finally understands the governor’s implacable self-interest. But the same quality that enabled Bloomberg to beat Pataki to the federal anti-terrorism bucks could cost the mayor dearly when it comes to finding the remaining billions.

Bloomberg is by temperament and experience a lone wolf. “Mike is incredibly smart, and a decent human being,” says a business ally, “but he’s not what you’d call collaborative.” Rudy Giuliani didn’t need many friends in part because he was operating in a supportive political and economic climate. Bloomberg doesn’t have that luxury. And while Bloomberg has wisely shunned the unions’ offers to march “arm in arm” with him on behalf of the commuter tax, he’s missed chances to build more productive alliances.

For instance: Bloomberg has long pegged State Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno as the key to restoring a commuter tax, which could slide $1 billion into the city’s pocket. But Bruno, despite his recent stabs at independence, isn’t about to incur the wrath of suburban colleagues without cover from Pataki; Bruno needs at least the ability to tell them the governor forced him to do it. Last week, just that kind of cover suddenly appeared, in the form of an “open letter” in favor of the commuter tax signed by people Pataki can’t ignore: campaign donors like Jerry Speyer and Henry Kravis. Curiously, though Bloomberg welcomed the effort, he hadn’t gone to his fellow captains of industry looking for lobbying help.

And Bloomberg, who proudly labels himself a salesman, has largely skipped a rare opportunity to round up political support and improve the way the city works. Broad-brush cuts have the advantage of seeming dispassionate: Almost everyone shares the pain. Yet by targeting the layoffs more creatively, Bloomberg could have argued that he’s reshaping how the city does business, making it leaner and more efficient. Bloomberg’s electoral virginity is extremely valuable because it frees him to make unpleasant cuts based on the merits instead of on political debts. The downside is that he’s never engaged the wonkish questions about how the city ought to deliver services—or what services it should deliver at all—and he isn’t inclined to start in the middle of a fiscal crisis. Other than revamping the school system, Bloomberg shows zero interest in innovation.

New Yorkers expect aloofness in their billionaires, but Bloomberg has to be careful not to cross the line into callousness—not for his own political prospects but to help the city endure the sacrifices ahead. While the mayor doesn’t care for public displays of empathy, he does have symbolic options that can make the medicine go down easier without his donning Mary Poppins’s dress. He should hand the unions a token face-saving compromise, like accepting their suggestion to trim the hundreds of consultants with city contracts. And that new City Hall Academy program, in the Tweed Courthouse, the one that brings public-school students in for two-week civics-and-history courses? The mayor should say, “I love this program. But right now it’s a luxury. So we’ll mothball it and use the $1.6 million in savings to pay for 50 mentors who’ll train teachers in the new curricula.”

There is one other stratagem Bloomberg could use if he truly desires reelection. New York still has 36,000 armed, battle-tough personnel, even with attrition rapidly shrinking the Police Department. We should liberate Wyoming. It’s a state with valuable natural resources, and it gave the world Dick Cheney, mastermind of the war-and-tax-cut regime. Yes, it will be staggeringly expensive. But a big, easy victory sure would feel good while we’re waiting for the once-a-week garbage pickup.

Learning Curve