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Dolman: New York City needs a change, but what kind?

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is urging

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is urging the City Council to vote down a legislation creating an outside watchdog for the NYPD. (Jan. 18, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

New York’s voters aren’t looking so much for a leading man or woman this year as for a best friend.

They want a mayor who feels their pain—who knows what it’s like to wait for an eternity in a subway station the temperature of Venus, who knows what it’s like to spend most of your paycheck on an apartment that makes an ordinary motel room seem like Versailles.

As for Michael Bloomberg? Meh.

So maybe the guy—in his 12-year City Hall suzerainty—measurably improved city schools, reduced crime, and gave New York a sense of livability and physical grace—bike lanes and all—that most of us couldn’t have imagined a few decades ago.

What of it? Stop and frisk operations are a problem. So are schools that have yet to reach their full potential. And who wants a public health scold for a mayor, a grumpy dad glaring over the kitchen table at us because we’re guzzling Pepsi by the bucketful and scarfing down triple Whoppers like they’re kale-and-bean hors d'oeuvres?

Its time for a change, 61 percent of voters recently told canvassers for a New York Times-Siena College poll. They say a candidate’s ability to grasp the needs, problems and dreams of ordinary New Yorkers is the most important factor in choosing a mayor.

“Someone with a few billion dollars looks at life a little differently than the common man,” a Bensonhurst school bus driver told the Times. “The middle class is going down the tubes. Without the wealthy there is no city, but you need some sort of justice.”

Well, look. All mayors have their constituencies and limitations. Fiorello La Guardia had the city’s burgeoning immigrant community. David Dinkins had the Harlem political establishment and most minority groups in the city. Rudolph Giuliani had the outer-borough whites. And Michael Bloomberg has the business community—or at least most of it. All of them had their acolytes and all of them could all get a little crazy.

Empathy may help a mayor run the city successfully. But way more important is an ability to beat back special interests—from public-employee unions to taxicab fleet owners. So is a talent for making sure that the massive municipal bureaucracy works for the mayor and the people and not the other way around.

Oh, and so is an engineer’s keen appreciation for things that run smoothly —whether we’re talking about the smooth flow of waste-management systems, of truck traffic on major avenues, or of the circulatory systems of 8.4 million city residents out there in the body politic.

When it comes to mayors, I’d rather have an annoying, headstrong noodge who knows how to run the city in all its astonishing complexity than someone who can feel my pain but—in the end—leaves it right where it's always been.