Polls Vaulting

The question around City Hall these days is, how can Mayor Bloomberg turn it around? Poll numbers in the twenties, continuing cascades of unpleasant news to offer the citizenry, the charisma of a carpet remnant. Assuming he does want to seek reelection, what can he do?

One thing he was trying to do until last week was to promote this idea of nonpartisan city elections as a way for him to avoid having to run as a Republican in a city where that breed is outnumbered by Democrats more than five-to-one. But last Thursday night, sensing that the citizenry was smelling a rat, he did the correct thing and announced that the new scheme, if accepted by the voters, wouldn’t kick in until 2009. No amount of prattle about “good government” and “85 percent of American cities vote this way” and yadda yadda yadda could make the plan look other than self-serving. So he backed off.

If he really wants to be Mr. Nonpartisan, I have an idea for him that’s a lot simpler and cleaner than going through all this rigmarole. Not only simpler and cleaner but, for a mayor with approval ratings in the twenties, a towering home run.

Bloomberg should bolt the Republican Party and become an independent.

His numbers will shoot up twenty points in a week. Thirty.

Some context: New York mayors can have programs and policies and plans. Sometimes they hurt, sometimes they help. But mostly people don’t really pay attention to all that. What a New York mayor needs more than anything else is a persona. Memorable mayors are memorable because they have larger-than-life identities. The urban narrative, especially in a tabloid town, is rooted in melodrama. Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani understood this. David Dinkins, while not an alpha pol in the way those two were, nevertheless had the drama of being the first black mayor, and of representing a kind of experiment in insurgency that was not without its operatic moments.

Bloomberg is the least melodramatic mayor imaginable. And he has zero persona.

His identity crisis began, I submit, the day he skulked down to Board of Elections headquarters in the fall of 2000 and re-enrolled as a Republican. Everybody in town knew—and knows—he’s no Republican. His reason for switching—that the Democratic primary was rigged because every local party apparatchik was already in the pocket of one contender or another—was more or less accepted because even a bachelor billionaire is more sympathetic than a Jurassic party organization. Still, the odor of a shotgun wedding attached itself to the union.

Then we saw him begging for the Republican convention. We’re happy to have it for economic reasons; but spiritually, thousands of right-wing Republicans descending on Manhattan makes about as much sense as the denizens of Chelsea moving en masse to Tuscaloosa. Yes, he went after the Democratic one, too, but parties don’t throw conventions in towns where the mayor’s in the other camp, so everyone knew that was lip service. And then we witnessed him hosting Republican fund-raisers at his house, having Dick Cheney speak there. And we watched, too, as he spent last year’s gubernatorial campaign providing political cover for George Pataki, saying all year that raising taxes was a terrible idea and then—mirabile dictu, a week after Pataki won re-election!—proposing a 25 percent property-tax hike.

“Memorable mayors are memorable because they have larger-than-life identities.”

And what’s it gotten him? Pataki took an ax, or tried to, to the city in his last budget. George W. Bush has screwed the city on domestic-security funding left, right, and center.

Meanwhile, in reality, we know: Bloomberg’s a Democrat! So are most of his top aides, the vast majority of his commissioners, and the lion’s share of his proposals and priorities. So Bloomberg is both things—or, more accurately, neither thing. There’s a way in which a particularly adroit politician—a Bill Clinton, say—could pull this off. But that isn’t Mike Bloomberg.

So that’s why he should leave the GOP. It’s a false face. He wore it comfortably enough for a little while. But it’s outlived its usefulness for him.

Yet he should not become a Democrat. This is the thing: He must take the opportunity to position himself as above parties.

Talk about identity—he would immediately go from having no discernible persona to having solid ownership of a persona that is the envy of politicians everywhere! In the blink of an eye, he becomes New York’s John McCain. He can say all those things that every politician in America wishes he or she could say, things like: I’m my own man. I do what I think is right without regard to party labels (remember how respect for Rudy Giuliani shot up when he bucked the GOP to endorse Mario Cuomo in 1994? The city may have been punished as a result, but we took our medicine with pride). I don’t need party organizations to win (which of course he doesn’t; he has money). I owe nobody—not a bunch of Democratic lickspittles, and not the White House either.

It would be pure gold. He could even start to talk about how dangerously right-wing the national GOP is, which we all know is what he actually believes, and offer liberated opinions on things like Pat Robertson’s recent prayer for the Supreme Court.

With voters, he can’t lose. White liberals are the only people still with him now. They’ll love this. The people who put him in office—the outer- borough middle classes—will buy it because while they’re not liberal, they are mostly Democratic. Blacks and Latinos? Big hit.

How could he do this before the convention, you ask? That’s precisely the point. It has to be done before the convention to have meaning. And then, during the convention, he blows town. He goes to Bermuda, but this time, he invites every Room 9 reporter to follow him down. Plays golf with them. The convention will lead the papers, but he’ll get at least two pages in the tabloids every day, and it will be favorable—maybe even in the Post, whose thirst for conflict occasionally trumps its ideology.

Then—it gets better—just before the presidential election, he hints that he’s voting Democratic. This would also be great for him since the Democrat (whoever it is) will probably carry 70 percent of the vote in the city.

The downside is that Karl Rove, along with the state GOP, will try to kill him. They’ll pay someone to run against him in 2005. And, of course, there’ll be a Democratic candidate, so in a three-way race, he might lose. You could even say he might well lose.

Of course, you could say that today.

But no. Instead, we’ve got this silly ballot thing. And even though it may not kick in until he’s gone, he’s probably going to spend some of his own fortune to pump it when it’s on the ballot. There’s a bill in the City Council now to block him from doing that, and it reportedly has a veto-proof majority of supporters. I pray it does. Then maybe the mayor’s hand will be forced and he’ll do the courageous thing.

No local pol in history has paid more money to more consultants. Mike, you never got advice this good from any of them. It’s all free, and it’s all yours.

Polls Vaulting