What to Like About Mike
Life was going very well for Michael Bloomberg at the millennium. As the founder of one of the great media companies, Bloomberg News, he was ridiculously wealthy, highly regarded, extraordinarily philanthropic, and, it seemed, fully engaged. Then, in 2001, he decided to compete for one of the most challenging jobs in the world-the mayoralty of New York. That would be hard enough in the best of times, but in 2001, just after 9/11, New Yorkers were depressed and fearful. Under the shadow of terrorism, the city faced an exodus of businesses, a collapsing tax base, a decline of city services, and huge budget deficits. Six years on, we barely remember the gloom. Six years of Bloomberg have been like a wonder drug, the city so revived that the man who made it happen is now talked of as a serious candidate for the presidency.
His hat is not in the ring, but the many New Yorkers who think it should be point out that Bloomberg practices the bipartisanship others talk about. He is the Republican mayor in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, but you would never know it. He has governed in a common-sense, adult, nonideological manner. He has never used his office for partisan advantage. He clearly has an aversion to confrontation and histrionics. His style is pragmatic. He speaks directly but builds a consensus around an ideologically neutral management style, appreciated by an electorate less interested in rhetoric than results. He differs from his predecessor Rudy Giuliani in his management style. Appointing cabinet members on the basis of their expertise, he took a chance on giving them the freedom to act, and it paid off. Virtually all have remained in their posts over six years. Symbolically, Bloomberg placed his own desk in the middle of an open office section and seated his deputies and staff members around him, with other aides at cubicles nearby, ensuring unity of focus, ease of access, ready accountability, and the understanding of lower ranking managers.
Performance measures. Into that coherent frame he injected the lifeblood of data analysis, not as a sterile tracking of numbers but as a key to driving policy forwardrather like the celebrated Compstat system, whereby the police identify dangerous hot spots and move to make them cool. He created the 311 help line to provide one-stop shopping about everything in the cityfrom parking rules to trash pickupsand, most important, channel residents' grievances. The result has been improved performance, from filling potholes to reducing traffic accidents. The detailed score card tells how it all works:
The economy. Bloomberg inherited a recession and a $6.4 billion deficit. He correctly assessed that a decline in public safety and quality services would hurt the city more than raising taxes. A lesser mayor would have drifted. Bloomberg was decisive. He bumped taxes on income, sales, and real estate, then persuaded the state to restructure some of the city's debt. He cut costs by reducing city employment by 18,000 people. None of these moves were popular, but he got the city of New York out of the literal and metaphorical pothole. Many of the big corporations returned their headquarters to Manhattan, and the number of visitors has increased from some 30 million a year to about 45 million, buoying the leisure, hospitality, and retail sectors.
With the financial base secure, Bloomberg supervised a land rezoning that resulted in vast development projects in all five boroughsnot to speak of committing to 165,000 new units of affordable housing. The general upsurge and the construction revivalthe biggest since the post-World War II yearshave replaced the economic bust with a boom. Unemployment has never been lower, nor bond ratings higher. The city moved from a budget deficit to a surplus and can now set aside billions of dollars to pay for looming pension costs.
But competence will get you only so far. Without imagination and courage, you cannot advance, and Mayor Bloomberg has both. He has shown himself a visionary as well as a manager. He has looked beyond his time in office to present a "greater" and "greener" program of 127 initiatives that will make a growing New York more livable and a leader in combating global warming. He provides an estimated $400 million a year toward improved mass transit. His congestion pricing would sensibly make motorists pay for using the busiest streets and help address the maddening delays in driving crosstown.
Crime. New York is now one of the safest cities in the United States. Giuliani broke the back of crime. Bloomberg sharpened the trend with the hiring of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, one of the nation's toughest and most intelligent law officers. Murder is down by almost 40 percent compared with six years ago, and crime overall is down more than 25 percent. The city has created a multifaceted antiterrorist unit of over 1,000 police officers, making New Yorka model for the rest of the country. To get crime even more under control, Bloomberg has boldly raised the critical issue of keeping guns away from the people who should not have themcriminals and those with a history of potentially being dangerous. He correctly frames the issue as "crime control" rather than "gun control." He does not assail the rights of law-abiding gun owners, but there have been howls from the gun lobbyists who seem willing to overlook that illegal guns in the hands of criminals and the demented kill innocents every week. Bloomberg, unfazed by the misrepresentation of his campaign, has fathered a coalition of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and mobilized over 200 chief executives nationally, while mobilizing New York State to pass some of the toughest gun legislation against offenders. This is leadership of a high order.
Schools. The New York City school system, with 1.1 million students and entrenched bureaucracies, was notoriously impossible to fix. It eluded Giuliani. Bloomberg undid the knots. He won mayoral control from the Board of Education; he moved its offices from Brooklyn to the Tweed Courthouse next to City Hall in Manhattan; he appointed a schools chancellor from outside the system, namely Joel Klein, a former White House counsel and assistant attorney general. Then, having taken control of the Board of Education, he dismantled the decentralized system of local school boards, notorious as sources of patronage. These "impossibles" achieved, Bloomberg and Klein worked together to set up a management school for principals, authorized them to manage, gave them financial incentives, and enhanced their capacity by negotiating changes in the work rules in the teachers union contracts that had made it difficult to fire teachers for poor performance or reward individual excellence.
The directional arrows all point in the same startling direction: a 27.8 percent increase over 2002 in those students exceeding state mathematics standards and a 16 percent improvement at the lowest level in that period, with strong gains among black and Hispanic students; and high school graduation rates at the highest in decades. There are many more charter schools, and Bloomberg has won funding for the largest-ever school construction program.
Race. While black and Hispanic leaders felt locked out of Giuliani's City Hall, Bloomberg early on sent a message that he would be open to dealing with them. Race relations have improved dramaticallyeven an inordinately violent police shooting of a black man has been managed without a typical public explosion.
Public health. Bloomberg is probably best known for banning smoking in bars and restaurants. Cynicism and criticism followed. Now the Bloomberg rules have been adopted by many cities in America and around the world; similarly, his restaurant ban on trans fats, which are believed to cause heart disease.
Politics. Bloomberg won a landslide re-election. In a recent Daily News poll, "Mayor Mike" was chosen overwhelmingly as a more effective mayor than Rudy Giuliani by 56 percent to 29 percent.
In short, a great mayor. He has a level of national recognition; he has been on the cover of U.S. News and Time magazine. There is certainly an opening for such a smart, effective leader who is focused less on winning easy headlines than on tackling long-term issues. Some 73 percent of Americans think we are on the "wrong track," and there's dissatisfaction with both main parties.
If the primaries do what they frequently do and squeeze out the moderates, there may be an ideal condition for a third-party candidacy, given that independents are the fastest-growing and most frustrated segment of the electorate. He tends to mock himself by doubting whether the country is ready for a short, divorced, Jewish billionaire.
Forget it. The country is looking for leadership and will judge on that issuenot looks, marital status, or vertical inches. He could go to the country with the following unique message: "My father never earned more than $11,000 a year. I have had a different experience in this land of opportunity and have tried to reflect that through a lifetime of public philanthropy and public servicebut public service of a particular kind. I paid for every penny of my two political campaigns for the mayoralty of New York, and I will do so were I to run for the presidency. I would not take one penny, one nickel, one dime, one quarter, or one dollar from any of the financial interests or lobbyists whose financial contributions have given them an undue role in the legislative process under both parties that has produced a system of legal corruption through the dependency of our candidates on their financial contributors, not to speak of the illegal bribery of politicians. You won't get that under a Bloomberg administration."
A Bloomberg third-party run is not without vulnerabilities. He lacks national security experience, not a trivial weakness in an age of terrorism. Here he would have to hire an outstanding team. He has one great advantage. Given that his wealth enables him to delay a decision until after the national primary on February 5, he could then run as a fresh face and not the stale candidate.
In any event, a Bloomberg candidacy would set campaign '08 on fire.
This story appears in the June 25, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.