As the Michael Bloomberg era comes to an end, what it will be remembered for remains as yet unclear. Bloomberg’s multi-term predecessors in City Hall were outsize figures: Ed Koch (1978–89) was known for his humor and self-promotion and for saving New York from bankruptcy (see “The Last Sane Liberal,” Winter 2012). Rudy Giuliani (1994–2001) was known for his pugnacious style, his successful anticrime crusade, and his achievement in making New York livable again. But after 12 years as mayor, Bloomberg is noted more for his less significant side projects—his national antigun advocacy and his efforts to crack down on smoking and unhealthy food—than for his major policies, which, in areas such as public safety and welfare reform, were unarguably impressive. The departing mayor plans to devote some time to his new consultancy, which will attempt to do for other cities what he did for New York. But New Yorkers can be forgiven if they lack a clear picture of Bloombergism as a governing philosophy, if such a thing even exists. What does the Bloomberg legacy add up to?
The early biography of New York’s first billionaire mayor is by now well known. Born in Boston—an electoral liability for any Gotham politician—Bloomberg attended Johns Hopkins and then Harvard Business School. Landing on Wall Street, he became a general partner at Salomon Brothers until the company bought him out for $10 million in 1981. With that money, he created Bloomberg L.P., a financial information firm that soon became an empire, today worth $31 billion.
In his late fifties, Bloomberg launched his second career: politics. He was first elected mayor in 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11. Bloomberg’s campaign—his introductory foray into the public arena—was marked by an opportunism that would characterize his approach to politics. Until the race began, Bloomberg was a Democrat, if not a particularly partisan one. But in a city in which Democrats hold a five-to-one advantage in voter registration, Democratic primaries are invariably crowded, with candidates often seeking an edge by championing particular racial or ethnic groups. In the 1977 primary, for example, heavyweights Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch, and Bella Abzug all sought to unseat Abe Beame, the incumbent mayor, with each appealing to different constituencies. Entering a Democratic primary in New York is an uncertain business. Bloomberg saw a far easier route through the sparse Republican field. In other political contexts, Bloomberg’s social liberalism and pro-gun-control stance might have proved insurmountable obstacles to claiming the GOP mantle. But New York Republicans have always been more socially liberal than the national party, and the self-financing candidate won the nomination.
The general election was another matter. New York City seemed poised for a Democratic mayor after two terms of Giuliani’s strong but often contentious leadership. The media and liberal interest groups had grown relentless in their criticism of the administration, and voters started to agree. In June 2001, polls showed Mark Green, who would emerge as the Democratic challenger, leading Bloomberg by more than 40 points. The September 11 terrorist attacks changed this dynamic, bringing security back as a defining issue and reminding New Yorkers of a time, not too long before, when the city seemed out of control. The attacks also restored Giuliani’s approval ratings, as his courageous leadership rallied the city. The mayor’s subsequent endorsement of Bloomberg thus proved much more meaningful than it would have earlier in the race: Time called the endorsement “magic.” Polling expert Ken Goldstein contends that the Bloomberg ads featuring Giuliani, which ran near the end of the campaign, were crucial to the candidate’s overcoming of his early deficit. Bloomberg pulled even with Green one day after the Giuliani ads started to run.
No one would have seen those effective ads, though, if Bloomberg hadn’t had the funds to get them on the air again and again. Fortunately for him, money—a second transformative force in the 2001 race—wasn’t an issue. Bloomberg spent as much as $70 million on the campaign, dwarfing the Green camp’s $15 million or so. Bloomberg’s television ads outnumbered his rival’s 6,500 to 2,500, but that was only part of the advantage. Toward the end of the race, noted the New York Times’s Adam Nagourney, Bloomberg “was ubiquitous: on television and radio, in mailboxes, on Web sites. Mr. Bloomberg even mailed videotapes, in which he appealed for votes, to households across New York.” As the Democrat’s spokesman, Joseph DePlasco, told the Times, “We spent more money than you should spend in a mayoral election, but we couldn’t compete. This isn’t like comparing apples and oranges; it’s like apples and watermelons.” In an earlier period, Koch had attained ubiquity by going after every available microphone—on radio, TV, the movies, even on Broadway; Bloomberg managed a similar feat with his checkbook.
Bloomberg’s prodigious spending helped him get reelected twice. During his 2005 campaign, which culminated with a 20-point victory over Fernando Ferrer, his wealth allowed him, for example, to spend over $10 million compiling an extensive delineation of New Yorkers into new categories, such as FANS (“fearful and anxious New Yorkers), “Middle Middles (middle-class moderates of all races), and “Cultural Liberals,” and then target these voters with tailored messages. Reporter Jim Rutenberg drily observed of the lists: “It is unclear whether another city candidate would ever be able to afford to replicate Mr. Bloomberg’s effort.” In his final campaign, in 2009, Bloomberg beat his Democratic opponent, Bill Thompson, using similar expensive methods, after winning an extension of the city’s term-limit law to let him run for a third term. (Not long after he was safely back in office, the two-term limit was reinstated, suggesting that Bloomberg objected not so much to the limit as to having it imposed on him.) This time, the margin of victory proved much narrower—just five points. All told, Bloomberg wound up spending about $245 million of his own money on his three campaigns—a staggering sum but barely denting his overall wealth.
Bloomberg’s money was useful to him politically in ways that went beyond campaign season. He sometimes extended personal donations to city organizations facing budget restrictions. “When Bloomberg cut the budgets of cultural institutions to help close a budget gap,” observed Chris Smith in New York, “he quietly reached into his own pocket to make up some of the difference.” The mayor’s personal giving flowed disproportionately to New York City–based institutions. “Five hundred-plus of the twelve hundred-plus recipients of the Mayor’s personal largesse are based in the city,” reported Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker. Spreading so much money around doubtless helped shield the mayor from criticism.
Yet chance and money alone can’t explain how Bloomberg was mayor for 12 years. After all, he leaves office with about half of New Yorkers approving of his stewardship of the city—and only a small percentage saying that he did a lousy job. But what, exactly, is it that they liked? A quick survey of the mayor’s major initiatives shows some significant successes but also some missteps—and considerable ideological ambiguity.
The ambiguity was already evident in the composition of the mayor’s high-priced, all-star political team—“Bloomberg’s Golden Army,” the New York Observer dubbed them. The heterogeneous group included media guru David Garth, who had worked for mayors on both sides of the political aisle; Frank Luntz, the pollster of the 1994 Republican revolution; Democratic pollster Doug Schoen; GOP lawyer Lawrence Mandelker; and liberal Barnard professor Ester Fuchs. One wonders whether all these people could have amiably conversed at a cocktail party, let alone worked together to advance one man’s political interests. The mayor’s policy aides were equally diverse politically, ranging from Clinton Justice Department official Joel Klein, who came on board to run the vast New York City public schools system, to former George Pataki appointee Robert Doar, who joined the mayor’s team in 2007 as commissioner of the Human Resources Administration. Bloomberg looked to talent and technocratic brainpower, not ideology, in his major personnel choices.
One undisputed Bloomberg policy success has been maintaining law and order. Back in 1990, the number of murders in New York City reached an all-time high of 2,245, prompting many observers to wonder if the city was even governable. The proactive crime-fighting revolution brought by Mayor Giuliani and once-and-future New York Police Department commissioner William Bratton swiftly reduced killings in the city, and other felonies, too, bringing the city back from the edge of disaster and making it a symbol of urban success. But crime reduction continued under Mayor Bloomberg and his police chief, Ray Kelly, even as the NYPD developed top-notch counterterror capabilities in the aftermath of 9/11, had its ranks slimmed due to budget constraints, and faced ongoing litigation over its stop-question-and-sometimes-frisk policies. Murders fell to 414 in 2012, making New York the safest big city in America—a remarkable achievement that Mayor Bloomberg can call partly his own.
As with crime, Bloomberg’s welfare policies built on the Giuliani successes and even expanded on them. By cracking down on fraud, instituting ambitious “workfare” programs, and transforming the welfare bureaucracy to emphasize getting jobs for recipients instead of just checks, Giuliani cut the city’s 1-million-strong welfare rolls by more than half. Though he faced a tougher economy and a smaller but more chronic welfare population, Bloomberg pledged to continue the work-first policies. “We will not allow our city to recede to a culture of dependency,” the new mayor said, and he proved true to his word. Bloomberg vetoed several city council efforts to weaken work requirements, and he offered new reforms. His 2005 WeCare initiative devoted individualized attention to welfare recipients struggling with substance abuse, emotional problems, or other difficulties—with the emphasis, again, on helping people join the workforce. Under Bloomberg, the city’s welfare rolls dropped another 20 percent.
At the same time, Bloomberg showed a willingness to combine the work emphasis with more generous government efforts to fight poverty. In 2006, the mayor rolled out an aggressive citywide antipoverty program built around the new Center for Economic Opportunity, which received more than half of its $100 million initial funding from the city. The CEO launched a battery of new initiatives—the Office of Financial Empowerment, SaveUSA, CUNY ASAP, Jobs-Plus, and the Young Men’s Initiative, among others—all designed, in one way or another, to fight “the cycle of poverty in New York City” and “build human capital and improve financial security.” Whether these efforts will deliver positive long-term results remains to be seen. From a political standpoint, though, Bloomberg’s social-welfare record had something for everybody. As the New York City Coalition Against Hunger’s Joel Berger described the mayor’s approach in 2005: “It’s brilliant the way he has convinced Giuliani conservatives that he hasn’t changed the policy, and the way he has convinced liberals he has.”
Bloomberg’s education record was mixed. He and Joel Klein unquestionably pursued lots of innovation. The New York Times’s Fernando Santos recently summed up the array of reforms: “giving principals more power over their budgets, making teacher tenure harder to obtain and, in the face of intense protest, closing more than 100 schools and opening scores of charter schools in poor and middle-class enclaves.” The accountability-based, competition-driven school reforms of the Bloomberg era resulted in a better-run school system and at least some progress on student achievement. High school graduation rates are up substantially (though so, too, is the percentage of students entering the City University of New York requiring remediation), and state tests show city kids closing the gap with students in the rest of New York. A pilot program introduced by Klein, implementing the content-rich Core Knowledge curriculum, showed particular promise, and will now be expanded to more city schools.
The mayor’s reputation as a school reformer suffered a blow in 2011, though, after a report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—considered “the nation’s report card”—revealed that New York City eighth-graders had made negligible gains in math and reading achievement since 2003. A mere 24 percent scored at NAEP proficiency in math; an identical 24 percent read at NAEP proficiency level. The 2013 NAEP tests showed much the same. And even if some gains have been made, at what cost? The schools budget doubled under Bloomberg, from $12 billion to $24 billion—easily the biggest short-term increase in education spending by any city in American history. The mayor also made a mistake when he hired Cathie Black, a friend and former publishing executive, to replace the outgoing Klein as schools chancellor in 2010. Nobody would say that Black wasn’t smart in the technocratic way Bloomberg admires, but she had no education credentials, and her appointment proved an ongoing disaster of public gaffes, including a birth-control joke that offended a group of parents and appearing to mock another group of parents opposed to the closing of their children’s school. She resigned after just three months.
New York’s economy under Bloomberg was also a mixture of good and not so good. Gotham enjoyed a development boom on Mayor Bloomberg’s watch, encouraged in part by smart rezoning of approximately 40 percent of the city. Eight of the tallest buildings in the city arose during Bloomberg’s tenure. The average cost of a New York apartment soared from $382,000 to $825,000—good news for property owners and the real-estate industry, if not for buyers. The city also recovered more rapidly from the post-2008 downturn than has the country as a whole, thanks partly to generous federal bailout funds for Wall Street and artificially easy credit, courtesy of the Federal Reserve. By 2011, New York had regained all the jobs it lost after the financial crisis, and it has added another 100,000 since then; the national economy, by contrast, remains 4 million jobs below its prerecession peak. The city’s Independent Budget Office projects that, if the current momentum is maintained, the local economy will exceed 4 million jobs in 2014, the first time that figure has been surpassed.
But city taxes remain extremely high, even by American big-city standards, and Bloomberg’s 18.5 percent property-tax increase in 2002 made things worse. In fact, since Bloomberg took office, Gotham tax collections have doubled, growing about twice as rapidly as the city’s economic output (see “Overburdened,” Special Issue 2013). With competition among states and cities for investment getting ever more intense, New York can ill afford such business-discouraging levies. Unfortunately, reducing that tax burden isn’t going to be easy. While Bloomberg was often called the “businessman mayor” with an eye on the bottom line, city spending jumped 55 percent during his 12 years in office (a big portion of it going to the schools and public-sector worker pensions), and the debt doubled.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Bloomberg’s mayoralty was his belief that government should push people to make healthier choices. From bans on smoking in bars (and just about everywhere else) and on trans fats in restaurants to requirements for fast-food chains to post calorie counts to his (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to outlaw Big Gulp sodas, Bloomberg’s nanny-city tendencies were frequently on display, and just as often derided. Indeed, when people outside New York hear the name “Bloomberg,” this is often the first thing that comes to mind, right before they think of his advocacy for gun control far beyond his mayoral jurisdiction.
Still, as he hands over management of New York City to his successor, Bill de Blasio, the first Democratic mayor in two decades, Bloomberg can look to his overall record and credibly claim it as a mostly positive one. He may have had detractors on both sides of the political aisle—but he had fans on both sides, too, reflecting the fact that both those on the right and on the left could cite Bloomberg policies they applauded and those they deplored. As for “Bloombergism,” Mayor Bloomberg was sui generis: there is unlikely to be another ideologically malleable, tough-on-crime, pro-welfare-and-education-reform, somewhat financially irresponsible, autocratically intrusive, technocratic billionaire mayor of New York any time soon. After a few years of a “progressive” de Blasio administration, though, New Yorkers may be missing Mayor Bloomberg a great deal.