Chris McNickle's Bloomberg: A Billionaire's Ambition
By Richard Flanagan
Michael Bloomberg, three-term mayor of New York (2001-13), was an effective manager, sensibly balancing cautious budget making with bold planning. He led New York through the post-9/11 fiscal and social crisis in his first term, and the severe financial recession in his last term. In a new century marked by tragedy and tumult for our nearly 400-year-old city, Bloomberg diversified the local economy and sounded alarms about climate change. He put the city on a surer footing to face the future.
Chris McNickle’s Bloomberg: A Mayor’s Ambition is a necessary read for any serious student of the city’s political history. This latest contribution to his work on the mayoralty adds luster to McNickle’s impressive record as one of the preeminent political historians of New York City. Interviews drive the book’s narrative. McNickle enjoyed enviable access to administration officials who worked closely with the mayor. He conducted over sixty interviews and made full use of the voluminous literature of books, policy reports and press accounts of this period. As an insightful mayor-watcher for decades, McNickle appreciates the difficulty and complexity of the job, and knows quite well that success in city hall for any mayor turns on the alchemy of management and political skill. It is also refreshing that McNickle has no axe to grind and no grand social theory to advance. This is a serious effort to take stock of how Bloomberg’s decisions shaped New York, and how effectively the mayor was able to achieve his agenda.
Bloomberg was a policy wonk, and McNickle quite sensibly organizes the book around policy initiatives with interludes devoted to politics. McNickle’s chapters on Bloomberg’s management of the budget and the local economy are particularly outstanding. He does a wonderful job of breathing life into these dry subjects and explaining complicated concepts well. McNickle is quite convincing when he argues that Bloomberg was a disciplined fiscal manager who “enhanced city government and expanded service delivery at the pace the city could afford.” Bloomberg was a mayor more focused on growth than economizing, and he was right. While the city’s debt increased during his tenure, robust growth in real estate values and personal income left New York more creditworthy by the end of his tenure. Bloomberg also promoted high growth sectors like technology and tourism, and, more than any other of the modern mayors before him, rezoned vast stretches of the city. The old, industrial map was remade to better match use of the land with the city’s mature, post-industrial economy, one fueled by service industries and housing.
Of course, to write about Bloomberg is to consider the role of wealth in politics, and from the book title to the final pages of this biography the mayor’s money shares center stage with the man himself. Forbes ranked Michael Bloomberg as the eighth wealthiest American in 2017, with a net worth of $45.5 billion. He has spent the past three decades in this space, building a storied and eponymous Wall Street company famous for piping financial data and news through computer terminals to anxious stock traders. Bloomberg started on the Wall Street fast track in the 1960s as a trader who rose to partner at Salomon Brothers. His ambitions were stymied there; so, capitalizing on his knowledge of finance and technology, and with a great deal of grit and determination, he started his own firm, an enterprise of such success that he eventually graduated from the ranks of the extraordinarily affluent to the very short list of U.S. billionaires.
This money trail papers over some of the story, however. Although the Johns Hopkins and Harvard graduate had very little hard luck on his way to the top, he faced difficult competition along the way. While many observers see a self-assured billionaire who flies his own helicopters and jets to his luxury properties around the world, Bloomberg sees himself as an underdog, a scrappy entrepreneur from a modest middle-class family who built a firm from scratch, fueled by a mission to prove his former partners at Salomon wrong. This background influenced his governing style. The classic entrepreneur, Bloomberg had little patience for process and procedure when dealing with government bureaucracy or other elected officials. He delegated a great deal of authority to the commissioners who ran the city departments, bucking the decades-long trend to centralize operations in city hall. McNickle is quite right to look approvingly on all of this, but he does not note how this was a chronic source of complaint for city council members who wanted the mayor to cut through red tape on occasion, or revisit decisions made by the bureaucracy.
Bloomberg decided to run for mayor on the Republican line in 2001 as the next thing to do on his bucket list, not at all driven by any devotion to a social cause, opposition to political corruption, or the fulfillment of long-held career ambitions. Since one or the other category — amateur or professional — is the usual explanation for ambition in urban politics, it makes the Bloomberg story quite unusual. The purpose of his candidacy only emerged well into his first campaign, when the 9/11 terror attack created the case for the businessman-mayor as a safe bet in tough times. Bloomberg came to the major policy issue of his first term, education, not from the heart but from the head, figuring it was the best way to revive and stabilize the city’s economic future.
Bloomberg’s money freed him from politics. He could pay for his own campaigns, and easily dismiss or ignore many of the hacks that populate party politics and municipal government. Throughout the book, McNickle reminds us that Bloomberg focused on high risk / high reward policies and often advocated long-shot innovations like congestion pricing (a ring of tolls around Manhattan intended to generate revenue for mass transit and improve air quality) if for no other reason than to set the stage for success for a future mayor. Bloomberg worked best under those conditions where he could manage and govern independently, as if the city were his old firm writ large and a canvass for the best qualities of his leadership. Bloomberg recruited top talent to his administration, let them run their departments and agencies with a free hand, and loyally had their back when they stumbled. Innovations in public heath, planning, economic development and transportation — places where mayoral agencies drive the agenda — resulted, and burnished the Bloomberg record.
Of course, every virtue reveals a vice, and loyalty can stretch too far. Despite a clear record of success with fighting crime, Bloomberg’s police commissioner Ray Kelly persisted with an enormous number of police “stop, question and frisk” encounters of allegedly suspicious characters on city streets when circumstances clearly did not warrant. Those stopped were in disproportionate numbers African-American and Hispanic. Bloomberg’s support for Kelly was “unequivocal to a degree that was not wise,” McNickle writes. Curiously, even though young African-American men were the target of many cop frisks, Bloomberg was able to manage race relations relatively well throughout his three terms.
Money freed Bloomberg from politics, but successful politics often depends on constructing grassroots coalitions (something the mayor did not often execute well), and qualities such as patience, of which the mayor was often in short supply. Education was the policy area where the grassroots mattered most, and education — the arena in which Bloomberg staked his mayoralty — was impossible to crack with Bloomberg’s technocratic formula. Bloomberg failed to cash in on early momentum garnered from the state legislature giving him direct control of the public schools. He spent significant money on a program to develop small schools with little hard data to support the effort. School commissioner Joel Klein’s feud with the teacher’s unions, fascination with charter schools, and cultivation of wealth patrons distracted from the hard work of building sustainable alliances among stakeholders at the grassroots. Good ideas and progress on such initiatives as giving principals training and autonomy, and reforming fiscal practices, were lost in all the acrimony. Klein was Bloomberg’s worst high-ranking appointment, but McNickle does not make much of it.
Bloomberg’s failures relate to those issues and moments when a more emotionally engaging style was needed, whether the distasteful work of hobnobbing with Albany politicians, or connecting with citizens in the far-flung neighborhoods of New York whose circumstances were far different from his own. McNickle has it right when he notes that Bloomberg employed “a clinical approach, not an emotional one. Bloomberg lacked the palliative empathy of a practicing physician.” He had a difficult time with professional politicians, too. Bloomberg never mastered state and Albany politics like Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York from 1959 to 1973, and the billionaire politician of his age. Many of his boldest ideas, such as a new football stadium and congestion pricing for Manhattan, died in the state legislature.
Certainly, suspending term limits so he could run for a third term was the most controversial decision of Bloomberg's mayoral career. New Yorkers embraced term limits by referendum, even as professional politicians viewed term limits with distain. State courts held that the city council had the right to alter or reject term limits though passage of legislation. However, most politicians were afraid of bucking the public, or believed terms limits reflected a public mandate. Not Bloomberg. He wanted another term, and thought the city needed him as the national economy collapsed in this second term. Bloomberg’s staff strong-armed city council members to pass a local ordinance to that end. McNickle’s soft spot for the billionaire shows here. Of his decision to run for a third term McNickle writes that was not a self-indulgent act but rather what entrepreneurs routinely do, namely, to “change reality in ways most people would not dare.” Where the line is between boldness and narcissism McNickle does not consider.
There is a broader point about how Bloomberg left the state of democracy in his city, which McNickle acknowledges but does not give the attention it deserves. Bloomberg spent $250 million in his three campaigns for mayor, outspending his opponents by many multiples. In addition, it was an open secret that Bloomberg Philanthropies donated an estimated $1.5 billion in New York during the Bloomberg mayoralty to the city’s not-for-profits, and that this support muted criticism of the administration from this sector. In a city and state with low voter participation and other signs civic decay, Bloomberg did little to change the notion that money talks. Bloomberg’s attempt to promote non-partisan municipal elections through charter reform — a good idea that would have promoted competition — would have been something of a corrective to his use of personal wealth to finance campaigns and shape opinion. But Bloomberg did not pursue it to the end as ferociously as he did the engineering of his third term, and the measure failed.
McNickle’s comprehensive account of the twelve Bloomberg years reminds and surprises. Despite his lack of the common touch, Bloomberg presided over a long stretch of racial peace. Unlike his predecessors, mayors Giuliani and Koch, Bloomberg never played the race card to his advantage. He met with civil rights leaders and for this Bloomberg deserves more credit than he often gets. McNickle’s narrative also runs the other way. While Bloomberg and his high-ranking appointees ran a scandal-free operation, the CityTime scandal — a debacle where consulting firms stole $700 million and failed to deliver a uniform system of time-keeping for city employees — unfolded during Bloomberg’s watch. The mayor himself was inexcusably dismissive of the disaster. Because of his reputation as a brilliant manager, Bloomberg evaded the scrutiny that his administration richly deserved on this point. The administration’s poor management of the recovery from Superstorm Sandy in 2012 also belies Bloomberg’s record as a stellar executive.
But Bloomberg’s blind-spots should not define his mayoralty. There were moments of vision as well. Bloomberg’s PlaNYC was a landmark strategic blueprint that forthrightly addressed the challenge of climate change with a program of infrastructure projects to protect the city. While the full plan moves well beyond the years of the Bloomberg mayoralty, he made critical investments to get the city moving in the right direction. In the field of public health, the city exerted much effort to end smoking and get New Yorkers to eat healthier food.
Mayor Bloomberg was a decent man who made New York City a better place. This fine account of his mayoralty leaves the reader with a sense of how better off we would all be would if this billionaire found his way to the White House rather than the current occupant.
Richard Flanagan is a Professor of Political Science at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York (CUNY).