NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaves undeniable impact despite stumbles
When Mayor Michael Bloomberg clears out of City Hall in 10 weeks, he will leave an enduring mark -- for those who call 311 for help, breathe smoke-free air in restaurants or walk and bike around waterfront parks.
These tangible changes, and others, sprang from a 12-year Bloomberg run that began on New Year's Day 2002 with the devastation of 9/11 still fresh.
The city's 108th mayor stepped into his first elected post with a less showy style than some of his predecessors and with more personal wealth than anyone who held the job before. Unlike Nelson Rockefeller, New York's patrician four-term governor, Bloomberg had made his own fortune -- and then applied the same aggressiveness to his governance.
Despite his share of stumbles, he often got his way. In his first year he got the state to grant him sole control of public schools, a domain unlikely to be relinquished by future mayors.
Some perspective is in order.
In recent months, he and his aides cited violent crime in Chicago and Philadelphia, and fiscal collapse in Detroit, as cautionary tales. But mentioned less often, at least locally, is that since the 1990s, New York's biggest successes had close parallels in many U.S. cities, which as a whole reversed a decades-long trend by growing faster in population than the rest of the nation.
Life expectancy overall rose in the five boroughs -- and also in Houston. Pittsburgh repurposed its industrial riverfront. High-tech startups bloomed in Boston. Once-blighted Cleveland streets now offer cultural events. And while statistics showed New York had become the safest big city, crime also plunged in San Diego and elsewhere.
Given Bloomberg's dual leadership in the business and municipal worlds, his policies and actions contrasted most sharply with previous New York mayoralties. He promoted big plans -- some flops, others fruitful -- on behalf of an unabashedly big government.
"He used instruments of power to influence almost every aspect of civic life," from arts to zoning, said Mitchell Moss, an NYU urban policy professor who occasionally advised Bloomberg. One example: the administration "harnessed digital technology to spark the renaissance in moviemaking in New York," Moss said.
Since 2002, city and state officials cleared the way for construction of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, pushed massive development on Manhattan's West Side and began to transform Governors Island. Two new major league baseball stadiums opened after decades of stalled efforts.
Neighborhoods gentrified at a faster pace. Rents soared along with home prices.
Some of his most dramatic proposals sputtered and failed, including a West Side Stadium for the Jets that was part of an all-out push for the 2012 Olympics, which was rejected. So were proposed tolls on East River bridges. A court has blocked a ban on sales of giant sodas in restaurants and movie theaters. Love or hate them, his Transportation Department's bike lanes caused a ruckus. More seriously, the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policies became racially divisive.
Though running as a Republican for tactical reasons, Bloomberg never embraced the small-government shibboleth. Twice he hiked property-tax rates for a total of 25 percent in all -- most of it as assessments escalated. In his first term he boosted pay for teachers 16 to 22 percent; most other employees got raises before his final term.
Throughout his years in power, Bloomberg used his personal fortune as political rocket fuel. When in 2008 he toyed with a presidential run, national insiders took him seriously for the huge war chest he could fund. Once that blew over, he and City Council leaders legislated themselves the right to run for a third term. Bloomberg broke his own two prior records by spending more than $100 million on his 2009 campaign.
Monetary contributions helped him maintain cordial relations with the city's GOP organizations and his access to the Independence Party line. It also lubricated his alliance with the state Senate Republicans.
Top advisers received hefty bonuses for helping in his campaign.
Bloomberg also funded research into how to lift young minority males out of jail and poverty and a national political campaign for more gun control.
Sometimes his money talked more smoothly than he did. There were small verbal oddities -- such as adding "s" to words so that Yankees manager Joe Torre came out as "Joe Torrez." And there were bigger gaffes: Early in his first term, he promoted building modern trash burners -- but not in his backyard. "If you were to put an incinerator on Park Avenue, you would drive away the revenue base that supports this city," he said.
Third terms tend to be the most troublesome, and Bloomberg's proved no different. A contracting scandal involving the city's payroll system produced criminal charges. After a blizzard, with the mayor in Bermuda, the city's cleanup was a fiasco. When Schools Chancellor Joel Klein departed, Bloomberg picked publishing executive Cathie Black to succeed him. She lasted three months.
But at City Hall, they speak of a lasting legacy. "Think about how much has changed since 2001," Bloomberg said through an aide -- including lower crime, cleaner air and water, "more top-quality schools and more transit options," and that "most of the record number of jobs we've created have been outside of Manhattan."
"We haven't done everything -- the work of government never ends," Bloomberg said in a statement sent by aide Francis Barry. "But we've shown that everything is possible."
That's a bit hyperbolic. But anyways -- as the mayor might say -- some far-reaching changes indeed proved possible.