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Debating whether Bloomberg's changed, media panelists offer mixed but critical views of the mayor

The New School’s Center for NYC Affairs yesterday hosted a fascinating panel titled The Media and the Mayor: Michael Bloomberg’s Transformation.

Panelists offered mixed but notably tough comments; still, observations by the panelists likely won't sway the owners of the three major newspapers from endorsing the incumbent.

Daily News columnist Errol Louis, a powerful critic of Bloomberg's machinations for a third term, targeted the mayor for lying repeatedly on the issue and suggested it was a journalistic challenge to tease out the contradictions in Bloomberg's message as well as to analyze the mayor's "reverse influence-peddling."

(Go to Michael D.D. White's Noticing New York for some of the latter. And consider that Atlantic Yards has prompted journalists to point again and again to contradictions in the record.)

Has Bloomberg changed?

The first question, asked moderator Dominic Carter, Anchor, "Road to City Hall," NY1 News: Is Bloomberg a very different leader and politician today than he was several years ago?

Wayne Barrett, Senior Editor of The Village Voice, answered as a faux-Bloomberg (here's the Daily Politics transcript), suggesting that the mayor had a chip on his shoulder because his aspirations to be nominated as a national candidate were dashed. “Barack Obama drove me to the choice of running for a third term.”

Last November, Barrett wrote a much-discussed piece headlined The Transformation of Mike Bloomberg. I thought Barrett left out evidence regarding AY.

Perception more than performance?

Louis, also a News Editorial Board Member, suggested that the perception of the mayor has changed more than his performance, noting that Bloomberg has been good on some issues and ignored others. One example: longtime neglect of the New York City Housing Authority.

Louis suggested we resist the temptation to say Bloomberg had changed, citing the Mayor’s Machiavellian effort to overturn and extend term limits. A sense of him as a reformer “specifically vanished the day of that terrible vote took place at City Hall, where there was arm-twisting, where there was street money flowing around. They crowded out the public,” Louis said. “This administration made it impossible to have anything representing a coherent or civil debate. I don’t think you just wake up one day and just do that. I think the tendency was there all along.”

Joyce Purnick, veteran political columnist and reporter, The New York Times, is writing a biography of Bloomberg. She said her view was that human nature is formed in youth. “I think in Bloomberg’s case, what changed the most is us,” she said, noting that the public knew little about Bloomberg--especially compared to other successful mayoral candidates--when he first ran.

Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush, Executive Editor, El Diario/La Prensa, made a distinction between Bloomberg as mayor and as politician. Like Louis, Vourvoulias-Bush suggested Bloomberg could be very impressive, but also suggested that, on other issues--one example, a long-delayed report on day laborers--the administration had been ineffective.

Political boss  

Bloomberg, Vourvoulias-Bush observed, has become more of a politician: “Now, I think he has shown he has certain political boss skills that would make Hugo Chavez sit up and take notice.”

Robert George, Associate Editorial Page Editor, New York Post, reminded the audience that Chavez trusted the people to actually vote in a referendum. Even more important than the street money to the term limits issue, he suggested, was Bloomberg’s ability to line up support from the publishers of the three major daily newspapers.

He noted that Bloomberg had significantly dampened tensions between the police and minority communities. Part of that was achieved by “co-opting” leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Can Bloomberg be beaten?

Carer asked if Bloomberg could be beaten? Panelists all predicted Bloomberg would be re-elected, but Louis said he’d seen City Comptroller Bill Thompson, the leading Democratic candidate, give a presentation to a Teamsters Local 237 panel, and “was on fire. I had not seen the case laid so coherently or so passionately... He said, look, we have a city where working people are being squeezed on all sides. And we have a mayor, who as Alberto pointed out,scattered and disorganized on issues of great concern to those people. If we turn our backs on that fact, then shame on all of us, and it’s not the city we grew up in. The sense that something important is being lost I think is very deeply felt across the city.”

Louis also pointed out that, at that same forum, candidates for Public Advocate all talked about the mayor and the issue of the city no longer becoming a home for the working class. “In a way, they were pounding away at the mayor.” Given the natural edge in registration among Democrats, that gave a challenger a fighting chance.

George was more skeptical. He suggested a candidate would have to zero in on two or three concrete issues where Bloomberg can be said to have failed. “You can’t beat someone just on atmospheric argument.”

Barrett piled on, suggesting that Local 237, like other public employee unions, probably will endorse Bloomberg. He said he was surprised that other panelists think the mayor hasn’t changed. While Bloomberg once tried to revamp labor relations, “when he ran for election, he went into the tank with every municipal union.”

Change post-recession?

In what ways could Bloomberg be vulnerable?

Barrett noted that, in the previous races, Bloomberg’s money didn’t offend voters. In a different economic climate today, Barrett said, it’s unclear if voters would be upset. Also, there’s more skepticism about our business elites today. (Barrett thinks the 9/11 crisis elected Bloomberg, while the Mayor thinks the battle between Mark Green and Freddy Ferrer did it.)

Purnick observed that, while panelists may not know how much the public cares about Bloomberg’s spending, the campaign is inevitably conducting focus groups and polls to shape its message.

She said Bloomberg will be talking about gaining control of city schools, and it will be impossible to find definitive statistics to challenge the performance. He’ll bring back the fact that he knows about finance, and we are in a financial crisis, she added.

As for the struggling middle class, what can a mayor do about economic conditions beyond the city’s control, she asked--even though, she noted, mayors claim credit when things are going well.

George noted that President Barack Obama called Bloomberg “the outstanding mayor of New York,” a quote that should nudge Democrats (already not on his payroll, George quipped) toward his side.

Framing the issue

“Some of this is a challenge of reporting more than anything else,” Louis observed. “We understand how Bloomberg is going to try to frame the issue, that he’ll say, at one and the same time, 'Because of this economic crisis, I had to change the City Charter and you had to give me a third term, and, at the same breath, I had nothing to do with this.... but I’m the only one who can rescue you from it...' There’s a little dissonance there that I think is going to register with people..”

Louis said the city was AWOL on the mortgage crisis: “When the mayor wants to focus on something like Jets Stadium or getting the Olympics here, you know it’s a priority for him. Does anybody recall any similar focus on helping people keep their homes in working-class Southeast Queens?”

(The same criticism might be made of the mayor's support of Atlantic Yards. Similarly, AY brings up challenges in framing issues; is it about jobs, or public spending, or civic engagement, or sports?)

He suggested that the black middle-class in neighborhoods like Southeast Queens would not support Bloomberg the way they did in 2005.

How to govern after "lying to the city"

“I think the more important question, and I’m already looking past the election to a certain extent, is: how’s he going to govern?” Louis asked. 

“How do you govern a city that’s in distress... when you have taken something that you said was important to you, that was a core part of your political beliefs, and then just thrown it overboard, because it was inconvenient? How do you get away with lying to the city, and that’s what it was, on term limits... over and over and over again, rigging a vote so you can get past that lie, and then expect everybody to just say, ‘Well, I guess we couldn’t do better and I’ll just struggle along with my family.’”

Development issues

Vourvoulias-Bush cited the foreclosure crisis, NYCHA, and affordable housing as big issues, noting that, while Bloomberg isn’t to blame for the Wall Street crisis, he’s one of the mayors most associated with development and with larger developers.

“That is something which the public understands, that the economic development plan... was part of what changed the city in the past decade,” he said, acknowledging that it was up to the Democrats to make the case.

(Given that Thompson will get significant support from developers, that critique will more likely come from longshot candidate Tony Avella.)

Purnick later pooh-poohed the issue. “I think he’s vulnerable to anti-development forces, there’s no question about that. That’s a charge that’s been made against every mayor I’ve ever covered, that they’re pro-development. It’s a very complex issue, because you’ll get mayors who argue in favor of the trickle-down theory and say that if you don’t have development, the city won’t prosper. I’ve talked to Bloomberg... his attitude is precisely that.”

Yes, it’s a complex issue, and it’s not helpful to frame it as pro- or anti-development. There are gradations and processes. Other cities manage development with greater civic involvement and a closer look at subsidies.

Media challenge

Louis later pointed out that it was new for the media to look at “reverse influence-peddling,” in which Bloomberg gained backing from nonprofit and civic organizations dependent on his wealth. He also pointed to the “conspiracy of silence” concerning the City Council’s “phantom funding scandal.”

Civic reformers, many of whom support the mayor, “are not going to cover themselves in glory,” he said.

The mayor as volunteer

George said the mayor has big deal of the fact that he’s being paid only a dollar a year, so he can’t be bought. “The question that comes to my mind is: that in a sense makes him a volunteer--he’s not working for the people of New York City,” George mused.

He said that Bloomberg had done good things, notably with schools, but that the volunteer status changed the relationship, that the mayor doesn’t have to answer to the public in the same way the average mayor does.


  1. Bloomberg is a complete fraud.

    His flip-flop on term limits is inexcusable and speaks volumes about his integrity and trust-worthiness.

    Thompson (if he is the democrat nominee for mayor) should make that the number-one issue in the campaign.

    Voters HATE frauds, and bloomberg is a fraud through-and-through.


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