Outer Pain

Michael Bloomberg—Manhattan billionaire, Lincoln Center board member, opera companion of Beverly Sills—was getting ready to play boccie.

The mayor stood by an indoor court in the dingy basement of a senior center in Carroll Gardens. He looked uncomfortable. He hadn’t realized that this event, a photo op with some local octogenarians, would actually require him to play this game. But two old men were demanding that he take a turn, and the cameras were rolling. So on the court he went. Sal Noto, 86, threw a ball and missed. Bloomberg threw his ball—and connected. “Hey, Sal,” a local shouted. “Didn’t ya know he’s part Italian?”

Slowly, Bloomberg loosened up, even started enjoying himself. The game ended in a tie, but it appeared as if Bloomberg had scored a victory in Brooklyn. “He’s a good man,” Noto remarked. “He’s not one of those guys who say, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ ”

But then, after the mayor’s van pulled away, the talk turned to shuttered firehouses, and Noto’s assessment darkened. “There were a couple he shoulda never, never touched,” he said. “For instance, the one at DeGraw and Court.”

The big question in city politics right now, the one that will consume Bloomberg’s advisers for the next two years, is this: Can the mayor win back the support of outer-borough New Yorkers?

For more than a year, these voters—the mostly white, blue-collar, and middle-class homeowners and small shopkeepers who carried Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and Bloomberg into City Hall—have been telling pollsters that they definitely don’t like Mike. And for just as long, Bloomberg has been staging events in their neighborhoods in hopes of getting them back.

“These voters backed Bloomberg because Rudy did. What they got was a cross between the taxman and Felix Unger.”

But if conversations I had recently with several dozen of these voters are any indication, their anger has, if anything, hardened. Bloomberg, to hear them tell it, gouged them with property-tax hikes, shuttered their firehouses, wagged his finger in their faces about cigarettes, and buried small businesses in tickets. Just listen to Patricia Neller, a Staten Island homemaker. “He ain’t getting my vote,” she told me. “I’d vote for Bozo the Clown, not him. I call him Doom-berg.” These voters supported Bloomberg because Rudy said he was a good man. Who did they get? A cross between the taxman and Felix Unger.

Now, with less than two years to go until the 2005 mayoral election, Bloomberg is embarking on a far more aggressive bid to win back these alienated New Yorkers. He has taken pains to emphasize law-and-order issues, like school violence, which are important in those communities. He’s spreading that perk of incumbency, municipal resources, around the boroughs with newfound generosity. He’s announced plans for acres and acres of new parkland for Queens and Brooklyn, and promised to address overdevelopment on Staten Island, a huge issue for homeowners. Then there’s his proposed $400 rebate for owners of houses, co-ops, and condos. Is there a more bald political appeal than a check in the mail?

Bloomberg has also quietly moved to repair relations with City Council Republicans in key districts. The mayor recently made an unpublicized surprise visit to the office of the Republican council minority leader, James Oddo of Staten Island. It was Bloomberg’s very first visit to Oddo’s office, even though the mayor’s City Hall “bullpen” is only two dozen steps away. The two men have frequently been at odds, but this time they traded holiday greetings and swapped political war stories. “I took it as an olive branch,” Oddo says.

How did Bloomberg get into this fix? He didn’t comprehend the vast chasm that exists between two New Yorks—his, and the one populated by the people taking a beating from his policies. Outer-borough New York is light years from Bloomberg’s New York. It’s a place where an 18 percent property-tax hike leaves a mark. Bloomberg’s New York is the Upper East Side of multi-million-dollar penthouses and bottomless expense accounts. The simple truth is that Bloomberg forgot what it’s like to worry about money.

As a result, the mayor was slow to recognize just how visceral the issue of property taxes is to outer-borough voters. He was needlessly dismissive of those who were pummeled by rising taxes, and slow to react when voter anger calcified. To make matters worse, for too long he disdained the type of retail politicking that might have bridged the divide. All that—combined with the constant references in the tabs to Bloomberg’s wealth—proved a combustible mix.

There is no one “outer-borough New York,” of course. Huge numbers of Latinos, Caribbean Islanders, Asians, Eastern Europeans, and a growing class of black homeowners live outside Manhattan. But the key outer-borough constituency, the one that drives elections, remains the white homeowners. These “Giuliani Democrats” and Republicans—mostly Catholics, though some middle-aged and elderly Jews—were key to Bloomberg’s 2001 victory, and he’ll almost certainly need them next time, particularly if a challenger resurrects the traditional minorities-and-labor Democratic coalition.

The official line at City Hall is that if the mayor keeps emphasizing his big-picture achievements—crime, the schools, the budget—voters, outer-borough and otherwise, will return to the fold. “We got tagged early as spreaders of doom and gloom,” says Bill Cunningham, the mayor’s communications director. “But we’ve got two years. We’ll pile accomplishment on top of accomplishment. Low crime. Better schools. Tax rebates.” Still, Bloomberg aides clearly see that talking up their record may not suffice—hence the new offensive.

Judging by my thoroughly unscientific survey, it has yet to pay off. The fury over property-tax hikes hasn’t abated—even with the mayor’s planned $400 rebate. “Right now, the rebate’s there because the vote is coming up,” says Maddy Curry, a worker at a bakery in Bay Ridge. “Some way, somehow, he’ll take that back.”

Meanwhile, the anti-smoking law and the perceived spike in ticketing continue to create the perception of a mayor indifferent to small-business owners. “He’s choking the businesses of Staten Island,” says Maria Pappas, who owns a diner.

Crime? Many people I talked to, although fully aware of the continued drop, are unwilling to credit him for it—unfair, yes, but an ominous sign. “I give Giuliani the credit,” says Norma Ryan, a pension consultant from Staten Island. “Not him.”

Bloomberg spent too much of his first two years alienating these voters. To his credit, he’s trying to make up for it. He’s going to have to play a lot of boccie to get the job done.

With reporting by Jeff VanDam.

Outer Pain