After a year as the unlikeliest mayor in New York history, Michael Bloomberg, whose wealth would make him a formidable contender for almost any other office, says he’ll end his political career once his stint in City Hall is over.
"This is it for me," Bloomberg told The Jewish Week. "My next career will be running a private foundation, which I will create, and I’m looking forward to that."
The billionaire Republican, who won a slim upset victory over Mark Green in 2001, made his first comments on life after he leaves office (either in 2006 or 2010 if he is re-elected, as he hopes) at a time when his approval rating has plummeted to 31 percent.
Bloomberg also is fighting an uphill battle for enough state aid to keep the city out of bankruptcy and making unpopular decisions about tax hikes and layoffs while dealing with a range of pressures, from unprecedented terrorism concerns to an unusually snowy winter.
But Bloomberg, who turns 61 on Friday, insists he still loves the job.
"Nobody should feel sorry for me," he said. "I have looked forward to coming to work every single day since the first day."
Bloomberg spoke to The Jewish Week in the former Board of Estimate chamber in City Hall that now serves as a bullpen for the mayor and top administration officials. On one side of the room, the raised dais where members of the abolished board once sat now contains a carnival-style popcorn cart, soft drink refrigerators and several conference tables.
On the other side hangs a huge wooden mock-up of a helicopter, a prop from last year’s Inner Circle charity dinner in which Bloomberg, a pilot, lampooned his own fondness for flying Police Department choppers.
Grabbing a handful of popcorn and sitting at a conference table, Bloomberg notes that a dinner engagement the previous night took longer than expected, making it difficult to rise at his usual 5 a.m.
"I’m getting too old for this," he said with a laugh. The mayor, who often speaks as if he has already been re-elected, later noted that "I’ll be 68 years old when I finish," and that seems to account for his limited political ambition more than any frustration with the job.
Bloomberg maintains that being mayor is not much different from running the financial news empire he founded, Bloomberg LP.
"I’ve always worked from 7 in the morning to 11 at night, six days a week," he said. "The jobs in government and in business are not identical, but there is more in common than separates them … The objective is to get teams together of people and delegate to those people and trust them and promote them and protect them and give them the tools they need to work together. That’s true in commerce as well as government."
Bloomberg aides say he has changed little since his first day in office.
"Clearly he’s more comfortable in front of the press than as a candidate and during his first few months, but other than that he is who he is," said Jonathan Greenspun, the commissioner of the mayor’s Community Assistance Unit and Jewish liaison, who travels extensively with Bloomberg. "He’s just a regular guy, but because of his success people feel they can’t relate to him and that’s unfair."
Ester Fuchs, the mayor’s adviser for governance and strategic planning, says the mayor has been "sobered" by the staggering fiscal crisis, but "he is still somebody who believes in fixing things that are broken and being accountable to the people who elected him. He is trying to create access for so many people who previously felt unwelcome at City Hall."
Due to the budget problems, however, "he’s got to do a lot more negotiating to do the things we want done," she said.
Asked how he had changed since assuming office, Bloomberg said: "I’m a little beaten up sometimes." But it’s not the stresses of snow removal, crime statistics or labor negotiations that make him wonder what he was thinking when he threw his hat in the ring. Rather, he said, "it’s when the polls don’t like you or somebody doesn’t appreciate what you do for them."
Bloomberg accepts his sinking popularity with a grain of salt. "Look, overnight you don’t go from 60 percent to 30 percent unless you phrase the question, ‘Are you happy about your taxes going up?’
"I’m not happy about our taxes going up, but you will see taxes go up in every municipality around the country and every state," he said. "We did ours first, and in the long term the quicker you get it over with the better off you will be."
Comparisons With Rudy
Perhaps one of the bigger burdens Bloomberg faces is not his own performance but the legacy of the erstwhile mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. That’s especially true in the Jewish community, where Giuliani was enormously popular.
"I’m not an expert on the Giuliani administration," said Bloomberg, when asked to compare his style to his predecessor’s "Rudy left the city much better than he found it. I hope I will do the same.
"People always want to have comparison, but itís not fair. There are different problems. You address the issues differently with different resources and different luck."
But observers note many differences between the two men. Although Bloomberg has shown a vindictive side, freezing out some City Council members who voted against his 18.5 percent property tax increase, he is widely considered more affable and approachable than Giuliani, who seemed to know no middle ground between close friends and bitter enemies. Bloomberg also has a far better relationship with other elected officials.
"Giuliani saw himself as the chief actor on the political stage," said Douglas Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College. "Bloomberg wants to be in the background doing the production design."
One observation made by Jewish leaders is that Bloomberg has been far less solicitous of his own religious community, about half of whose voters helped put him in office, than was Giuliani, a Roman Catholic.
"While he has surrounded himself with fine folks, he has not immersed himself in [Jewish] issues," said one well-known communal leader, who believes Giuliani would have held "press conference after press conference" to denounce terror bombings in Israel that have occurred in the past year.
Bloomberg visited Israel shortly after he was elected, and has often denounced terrorism, although he has said he would not have barred Yasir Arafat from a city event as Giuliani did. And although he denounced the recent spate of anti-Semitic vandalism in Brooklyn, he has yet to visit the troubled area. A recent public forum in Borough Park was his first large-scale appearance in a major Jewish community.
"People recognize that this mayor brings a different style to City Hall," said Michael Miller of the Jewish Community Relations Council. "But as long as crime rates are going down … and the end product is improvement of the quality of life, what difference does it make whether the mayor shows up at a breakfast or not?"
During his campaign, Bloomberg mailed out fliers featuring himself at the Western Wall during his first Israel trip. He also announced while marching in the Salute to Israel parade that his Hebrew name is Mordechai, and declared during a Holocaust commemoration at the East Side’s Temple Emanu-El that he was a member of that Reform congregation.
"I think religion is a personal thing," Bloomberg said in the interview, but noted that he belongs to two area temples and recently paid to dedicate Temple Ahavas Shalom in his hometown of Medford, Mass., after his parents, William H. and Charlotte Bloomberg. His mother still attends the temple.
"I come from 2,000 years of tradition and scholarship and tolerance, and I’m very proud of all those who came before me," he said. "When you think about it, it’s an awesome burden to carry on and leave for the future the great tradition created for me."
Asked about concerns that the Jewish population in the five boroughs was dwindling, and whether cuts in services and higher taxes would fuel that trend, Bloomberg was dismissive.
"Who knows?" he shrugged. "I’m very concerned that we have enough to help everybody who needs help. But in terms of their leaving, what’s the realistic alternative? Where are they going to go? I know of no municipality or state that has excess money."
Faith And Politics
Discussing the historic presidential campaign of Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who would be the first Jew in the White House, Bloomberg said Lieberman was "a smart guy" and a friend.
Although he intends to support George W. Bush for re-election, he seemed to ascribe a decent chance to Lieberman.
"The fact that he can run proves that the old conventional wisdom that a Jew canít get elected president just isn’t accurate," Bloomberg said.
Does he feel a conflict between his feelings as a Jew and as a Republican?
"I don’t vote for somebody just because of their religion and I would hope nobody else [does]," the mayor said. "Given that only 5 percent of the country is Jewish, all Jews should hope that the public does not use religion as a factor."
Passing up a chance to link Lieberman, a likely Democratic frontrunner, to what his own party might call failed policies of the past is one illustration of how Bloomberg has been a loyal Republican soldier but no slave to the party line. He has endorsed GOP candidates, or in the case of one Manhattan state Senate race, a Democrat who served Republican interests. But he also famously came out as a liberal in the presence of Gov. George Pataki, who uses the L word with derision.
Republicans insist that Bush’s policy on Israel is creating a groundswell of Jewish converts to the GOP. But Bloomberg, who switched parties purely for political reasons to avoid a fractious Democratic primary, argues that party labels are increasingly insignificant to voters.
"The old-time politically dependent groups are no longer dependent and that’s very healthy for democracy and healthy for those groups," he said. "You have a lot more leverage if the elected officials have to compete for your vote. It’s true in the Jewish community and virtually every community. If your vote is not in play, nobody is going to focus on giving you services."
Bloomberg has advocated nonpartisan elections in New York, which would strengthen independent candidates and weaken the two-party system.
Bloomberg was extremely helpful to Pataki’s recent re-election bid, both in terms of financial contributions and covering his back politically. The governor has since done little publicly to return the favor as Bloomberg lobbies for state aid. But the mayor insists he’s "not the least bit discouraged," insisting the two men are close friends and following that up by extolling Pataki’s commitment to Jewish causes.
But the understated battle that lies ahead may be just as treacherous for Bloomberg as it was for the cityís first Jewish mayor, Abraham Beame, who paid the price politically for an intractable budget crisis.
Bloomberg already is at work cementing his legacy. This week he released a detailed report on the status of 280 campaign promises, claiming that 80 percent have been implemented or will be launched this year.
"He is talking to his poll numbers, saying this is what you elected me for," said Muzzio, the Baruch professor.
That may be one of the most important differences between Giuliani and Bloomberg. While the former’s career is still a work in progress, whose tenure as mayor is considered the foundation for future political office, Bloomberg clearly sees City Hall as the beginning and end of his public service legacy. An aide said the private foundation he envisions would likely be philanthropy devoted to healthcare or education.
"After eight years, if you can leave office with the school system better, with crime down and with the budget balanced in the long-term, not just the short term," Bloomberg mused, "if housing is going up and you find some way to help private schools … if you could do that you really can look in the mirror and say Iíve made my contribution to society."