by Richard Kostelanetz (December 2012)
As people looking at New York City from afar frequently ask me about our mayor for the past decade, I penned some notes. First of all, as a profound democrat, I regard the 2009 New York City mayoral election as subtle testimony to both the power and the limitations of the people. The initial surprise was that Michael Bloomberg, the incumbent, got only 51% of the vote, with approximately 200,000 fewer fans than he had won only four years before. Such a narrow margin wasn’t expected, as the City’s single wealthiest New Yorker spent not just millions but tens of millions of dollars of his own money, hiring the smartest campaign advisers available, and even establishing on the ballot a second line (officially called the Independence Party) for those NYC Democrats congenitally unable to push the Republican lever that he already owned.
For two previous terms, eight years, Bloomberg had been a strong mayor, a nouveau patrician, instituting changes that might have stymied a less resourceful leader (e.g., John Lindsay, an old patrician), such as establishing a telephone help line (“311”), changing drastically the public school system, building outdoor cafés and bike lanes in city streets, reducing administrative corruption, constraining rapacious unions, and banning smoking from nearly all public spaces (including some outdoors, such as baseball stadia, public parks and even public beaches with their breezes!). As chief of the Obesity Police, he also tried to ban the sale of sodas in large cups.
So swathed in his own success had Bloomy been that most New Yorkers hardly noticed that he screwed up the building department approvals of private renovations while giving sweetheart deals to real estate developers who didn’t need public charity, such as the New York Yankees. Some regard him as a fascist overleveraging governmental power; others as simply a Jewish mother in disguise instructing New Yorkers on petty tastes. Nonetheless, no one ever accused the city’s single richest man of taking a bribe he didn’t need. What happened, instead, was that he used his own money not only for his campaigns but to instill, if not purchase, loyalty.
Most New Yorkers approved of Bloomberg until, nearing the end of his second term, he changed a recently established statute limiting all elected city officials to only two terms. (Edward I. Koch still visible, had three from 1977 to 1989.) Less concerned about the future than his own immediate ambitions for a third term, Bloomy made himself the only acceptable exception. This mad desire to continue as our mayor changed him into a grubby politician, pandering to certain interests, making deals to get more votes initially to extend his tenure, buying loyalty and subservience, perhaps even rigging the selection of his opponent. Since he long ago announced that he would devote his post-mayoral years to philanthropy, everyone in the large NYC nonprofit world necessarily shows respect.
Back in 2009, the Democrats indicatively chose not an aggressive antagonist, like Congressman Anthony Weiner [later undone by a pathetic scandal], but an amiable African-American named Bill Thompson, who had been Bloomberg’s comptroller and thus was personally close to him. A crippled duck from the start, Thompson was also uncomfortably reminiscent of David Dinkins, likewise an amiable African-American factotum, by common consent a weak and lousy mayor two decades ago. Whenever Dinkins appeared on local television to support Thompson, he reminded voters of their common insufficiencies (that implicitly might be racially contagious).
Worse for Thompson, President Obama didn’t come to New York, though he twice campaigned in nearby New Jersey for Jon Corzine, also an incumbent who nonetheless lost. Nor did the current New York State governor, David Patterson, likewise an African-American New Yorker, campaign for Thompson. Given such default, voting for Thompson was not an attractive option. Instead of his name, the election machine might have read “No Bloomberg,” which is just as comprehensible in Spanish as English.
New York City voters turned against Bloomberg not only because of his chutzpah in overturning term limits solely for himself, but because of the unprecedented degree of campaign overkill—negative advertisements knocking poor Thompson (whom few cared about anyway), oversized pro-Bloomberg glossy fliers in the mail, robot telephone calls, his wiseguy smugness, etc. On the afternoon of election day itself, when answering my apartment-house doorbell rang I heard a young female voice asking if I’d already voted for Bloomberg. Enough already.
Several weeks after election, in the Village Voice, Wayne Barrett, NYC corruption’s most dogged ferret, documented how Bloomberg’s support of a pet project initiated by Thompson’s new wife (a proposed museum of African art) compromised the Democratic candidate, thus accounting for Thompson’s evident reluctance to attack Bloomy’s softest spots.
Thompson’s immediate reward was a private post-election breakfast where Bloomy praised his buddy Bill. Like other great investigative journalists, Barrett uncovered the sleazy moves that everyone else missed. His detailed story must be read not only for its verifiable revelations but for the suggestion that the Bloomberg team connived to cut out Weiner, whose candidacy they feared. http://www.villagevoice.com/2010-01-05/news/bloomberg-and-thompson-the-really-odd-couple. The resulting mayoral election was from the beginning not a championship fight but a rigged match more typical of the undercard. No wonder so many possible Bloomberg fans didn’t show up.
Those of us who went to public high schools in New York State some decades ago remember in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge a character named Michael Henchard, who was undone by his excessive ambition, the implication being that his unfortunate fate illustrated a universal truth. Since Michael Bloomberg grew up in Boston, he might not have learned yet Hardy’s truth. Consider that Bloomberg overkill perhaps accounts for why the turnout was so low, implicitly favoring anti-Bloomberg sentiment. The final truth, scarcely acknowledged, was that Bloomy almost lost. Consider what might have happened to him if Thompson actually won? What if? My mind boggles.
Some libertarians have made term limits into an issue worthy of legislation, as indeed it probably is. Critical historians have also noted that, even for successful mayors, third terms are rarely as successful as their first or their second. So far, three years down in Bloomberg-3, so to speak, that last truth holds.
Last spring 2012, when the Republican candidates were knocking each other out, I conjectured only in private emails that Bloomy would emerge as the unscathed savior, the proverbial white knight, of his adopted party. No matter that he was Jewish and that he was a socially liberal divorced man with a handsome designated mistress; no matter that he was a New Yorker in a party that doesn’t campaign for New York State’s electoral votes. At least he was bloodied. My calculation was that not only would Bloomberg the Presidential candidate spend his own money generously, but his candidacy wouldn’t upset current arrangements among Republicans, especially if he failed. Though my hunch was wrong, may I conjecture that, given Mitt Romney's loss in November 2012, some professional Republican will tell his partisans that they should have chosen Bloomberg. May I further conjecture that, had Bloomberg defeated Obama, his presidency would have included surprises.
Such a monopoly in NYC mayoring has Bloomberg achieved that no likely successor is visible in either party copy. Consider the possibility that in 2013 he might figure how to run for an unprecedented fourth term. That’s a 50 to one longshot. I’m sure he has some minions working on it. As Bloomy surprised us before, so he might again.
Thinking back to 2009, may I ask if anyone can think of any earlier American (or Western) election in which an incumbent nearly overkilled himself? Not even FDR in going for this third term in 1940? Will anything similar ever happen again? Or is this 2009 joke of Bloomberg nearly losing to himself unique?
Richard Kostelanetz’s books include SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony (Routledge, 2003).
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