There is a big digital clock in the offices at New York’s City Hall counting down the last days of the mayoral tenure of Michael Bloomberg. Now that there are less than five months remaining on what will be a twelve year term, it seems that this is as good a time as any to begin a retrospective on the Bloomberg Era in New York City. And it is fair to say that any analysis will arrive at the conclusion that it is A Tale of Two Bloombergs.
Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor in 2001 as a “virtual” political rookie. Buy many people forgot the “virtual” part of the description because Michael Bloomberg may not have ever run for political office before, but he certainly was no rookie when it came to politics. He wielded his unlimited funds and his media empire in the political process and was not a stranger to the arena where he was now the main attraction.
Michael Bloomberg rode into office on a tidal wave of cash that had only one donor – himself. That meant that he was not beholden to any interest group by reason of their financial support. That also meant that he felt that he didn’t really have to listen to anyone else unless he wanted to.
In telling The Tale of the Two Bloombergs, it should be clear that Michael Bloomberg introduced the people of New York to expanded visions of what the world’s greatest could be – and should be. As a result New Yorkers saw amazing (and free) art installations that encompassed all of Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Bloomberg the visionary shared that vision with the people of New York and then, amazingly, he made many things happen. There is no doubt that Michael Bloomberg and Robert Moses would have gotten along famously if they had ever met.
Bloomberg the visionary installed hundreds of miles of bike lanes and turned out to be absolutely serious in bringing about a green, environmentally friendly culture to business, industry and everyday New Yorkers. But in The Tale of Two Bloombergs, even while New York became greener, Michael Bloomberg routinely flew around the world in one of the jets from his private fleet – arguably the most environmentally unfriendly way to travel known to humankind.
Perhaps most importantly, Mayor Bloomberg implemented serious public policy measures in the area of health that have saved lives. Most famously, the ban on smoking in most public places has certainly saved thousands of lives over the past twelve years and for the foreseeable future. “Nanny State” naysayers notwithstanding, the visionary Michael Bloomberg proved once again that government can be a force in transforming – and saving – lives.
The Tale of Two Bloombergs also has shown us Michael Bloomberg playing a maniacal Captain Ahab to the White Whale of “Stop and Frisk”. Even as the majority of New Yorkers, the federal court and the United States Department of Justice have seriously questioned the tactic, Michael Bloomberg has refused to even acknowledge the possibility that black and Latino young men are being constitutionally violated by the extreme measures employed by the New York Police Department.
Bloomberg the inflexible either cannot, or will not, see that there may be another side to the narrative that he has articulated. And it is Bloomberg the inflexible who is channeling his inner George Wallace by stating that his administration will not cooperate in any way with the federal court decision regarding “Stop and Frisk”. And it is Bloomberg the inflexible who has now gone so far as to suggest that public housing residents should be fingerprinted raising the specter of the Slave Codes from long ago and apartheid-era identification cards from not too long ago.
Bloomberg the inflexible has been unapologetic and unrepentant in the face of the facts that the senior officials of his administration reflect so little diversity that there almost has to be an intent to bar all but a few people of color from the higher echelons of Team Bloomberg. Indeed Team Bloomberg has turned out to be whiter that the senior team of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani who is the godfather of denying diversity and affirmative action.
Finally, by spending approximately a quarter of a billion dollars of his own money in getting himself elected three times, Michael Bloomberg has skewed the political process in New York City for the foreseeable future. If he wasn’t writing the playbook on how to buy elections, it certainly looks like it.
So the Tale of Two Bloombergs is complex and not given to simple analysis. Michael Bloomberg probably doesn’t care whether history will be kind to him. We can hope that history will tell the whole truth.
Wallace Ford is the principal and founder of Fordworks Associates, a New York-based management consulting firm, a professor at Metropolitan College of New York in New York City and is the author of two novels, The Pride and What You Sow.