Mayor Billionaire squeaks by

November 11, 2009

Kevin Prosen explains why New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg doesn't have much to celebrate about his re-election in last week's vote.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG can formally claim victory in New York City's mayoral election, but the reality is that the election was a repudiation of the mayor and his agenda for the city.

Despite polls predicting a landslide for Bloomberg, his margin of victory was only 5 percentage points. He won 100,000 fewer votes than in 2005, and only one in four eligible voters went to the polls.

The mass abstention and closer-than-expected outcome shows that despite Bloomberg's high approval ratings and millions spent on the campaign, voters are deeply alienated by his influence-peddling and his anti-democratic manipulation of the City Council to extend term limits, which allowed for him to run for a third term in the first place.

With a net worth upwards of $20 billion, Bloomberg is the wealthiest man in New York City and the 8th richest American. According to the New York Times, he has spent more of his personal wealth in pursuit of public office than anybody else in American history. For this re-election campaign alone, he's estimated to have spent over $100 million. By contrast, his main rival Bill Thompson spent about $6 million.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

THE $100 million figure doesn't include the various ways in which Bloomberg uses his wealth and philanthropy to win support among disparate parts of the city's population. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Bloomberg is the leading individual donor in the U.S. at $235 million in 2008. The money was given to causes ranging from flashy public art installations to donations for small community organizations and churches.

As a result, many prominent Black ministers supported the mayor in exchange for access and funding. For example, Rev. Calvin O. Butts III of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem endorsed Bloomberg over his longtime friend Bill Thompson. In addition to more than $1 million in private donations from Bloomberg to the Abyssinian Church, the church and its non-profits have received more than $7 million dollars in city contracts, according to the New York Times.

Other prominent ministers have been given posts on important city development boards or received funding for their own projects. The Thompson campaign complained to the Times that many Black religious leaders were reluctant to publicly endorse Thompson, for fear of alienating the mayor.

Even Barack Obama endorsed Bill Thompson under his breath, referring through a spokesman for support for "the Democratic nominee" and not even mentioning Thompson by name. In the past, Obama has praised Bloomberg's "extraordinary leadership." After treating the mayor to a "private breakfast" before his big speech on financial reform last year, Obama joked to the press, "The reason I bought breakfast is because I expected payback. I'm no dummy."

The Thompson campaign made a point of referring to "Republican" Mike Bloomberg, despite the fact that his current political ties are just as close to the corporate wing of the Democratic Party.

Having hosted the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004 and publicly endorsed George W. Bush for re-election that year, Bloomberg put his finger to the wind after the 2006 midterm elections that drove the Republicans out of control of Congress, and calculated that the Republican "brand" was losing its cache. He officially left the party in 2007, though he used the Republican ballot line in 2009.

Bloomberg received endorsements from prominent Democratic leaders like Al Gore, who praised his environmental record, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Liberal celebrities like Matt Damon and U2 have endorsed Bloomberg; Bono went so far as to praise the mayor from the stage at U2's recent Madison Square Garden concert.

Further, he hired Hillary Clinton's communications director Howard Wolfson as his campaign spokesperson. Wolfson tried to tone down the mayor's elitist airs and sell him as more of a "regular guy" (changing "Michael" to the presumably more folksy "Mike").

Bloomberg is a liberal on social issues, occasionally speaking more forcefully on questions like abortion than establishment Democrats, with language like: "Reproductive choice is a fundamental human right, and we can never take it for granted...[O]n this issue, you're either with us or against us." That earned him the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice New York. Further, prominent activists in the LGBT movement like David Mixner and Lt. Dan Choi have endorsed Bloomberg because of his call for marriage equality for New York.

A self-described independent, Bloomberg brands himself as "post-partisan," "non-ideological," and "pragmatic," but this is merely a superficial justification for his opportunistic politics, oriented on the pursuit of power and influence.

Despite opposing term-limit extensions as recently as 2005, Bloomberg conveniently changed his mind as his second term drew to a close, and pushed an extension of term limits in New York City through the City Council, which extended its own term limits in the process. In doing so, he circumvented the will of the voters in a 1993 voter initiative that supported two-term limits and a 1996 referendum that was decisively in favor of maintaining the limits. A judge threw out a complaint by two members of the City Council arguing that there was an illegal conflict of interest in elected officials voting on whether or not to extend their own terms in office.

This, more than any other single act of the mayor's, fostered the resentment behind the low voter turnout and the narrow election, with people coming to the conclusion that Bloomberg was able to simply buy the mayor's office.

BLOOMBERG CLAIMS that because of his business background, he is uniquely capable of managing New York City in the context of the current financial crisis--and from Wall Street's perspective this is true. As head of the financial data giant Bloomberg LP, his fortunes are intimately connected to the very sectors of finance that caused the current economic crisis.

According to a recent article in Forbes magazine, 90 percent of Bloomberg's profits come from subscriptions to their financial information system, an indispensable tool for the hedge funds, investment banks and other purveyors of obscure financial commodities.

However, because of the current recession, thousands of Bloomberg subscriptions have been canceled. The collapse of Lehman Brothers alone wiped out 1 percent of Bloomberg's subscription, or "installation" base. As the Forbes article continued:

"Bloomberg is brilliant at catering to the masters of the universe. But it tied its fate to the hardest-hit sectors of Wall Street," says an industry analyst who closely follows the company and refuses to be identified for fear of losing access to their data. "Bloomberg's sales have massively slowed down," he says, estimating the company is averaging a loss of 1,000 "installs" a month.

Thus, Bloomberg's fortune is directly tied to the financial and real estate speculation that caused the most recent economic bubble--and that has wreaked so much damage in New York through aggressive gentrification. Low-income housing in the city has been disappearing, replaced by expensive condominiums for affluent professionals. Over 16,000 housing units have been pushed out of rent-stabilization since 2005.

One example of the kind of real estate development recently is the fate of the Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village housing complexes. Three years ago, mega-developers Tishman Speyer and Blackrock Realty paid $5.4 billion for the property, the largest real estate deal in history.

Both complexes have long been made up of rent-stabilized housing for low- and middle-income workers. In order to make the deal profitable, these people had to be pushed out and replaced with high-income professionals. Last spring, an appellate court ruled that the development's new landlords illegally raised rents after receiving tax breaks for providing rent-subsidized housing.

After the collapse of the financial markets and massive layoffs on Wall Street, effective demand for luxury housing has slowed. The current rental rolls at Stuyvesant Town put its value at less than half of what was paid for it, and the landlords are in danger of defaulting on their loans.

Then there's the question of schools.

Bloomberg has, perhaps more than any other issue, claimed to be a leader on education. Under his administration, the old Board of Education was disbanded and replaced by a system of mayoral control, headed by corporate tool Joel Klein as chancellor. The Bloomberg-Klein administration has imposed a data-driven corporate model oriented on accountability for teachers based on student performance on standardized tests.

In step with the priorities of the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, Klein's project is to weaken and eventually do away with teacher seniority and tenure, and implement a union-busting merit pay system to reward teachers whose students score highly on standardized tests.

Klein and Bloomberg have also aggressively pushed privatization of public schooling through charter schools--currently, they pressuring Albany to lift caps on charter schools, another criterion to qualify for federal Race to the Top grants, and have vowed to open 100 more charters during their tenure.

The powerful United Federation of Teachers (UFT), one of New York's most influential unions with 200,000 members, has been particularly cowardly in standing up to this attack. Union leaders have been pliant on the issue of charter schools (the UFT actually runs two of its own charter school campuses in the city) and standardized testing.

UFT officials claim that mayoral control is popular with the public, and therefore can't be opposed. Instead of using the union's massive resources to wage a public campaign against the most destructive aspects of Bloomberg's agenda and educate the public around charters, testing and mayoral control, union leaders like Randi Weingarten and Michael Mulgrew have accepted the basic framework of Bloomberg and Klein's project, and played the role of intermediaries, selling concessions to members in exchange for small trade-offs.

The union's contract expired on October 31, and as of yet, no agreement has been reached.

Despite the support of the entire establishment of New York City and his own lavish spending on the campaign, Michael Bloomberg barely squeaked back into office. Building on the sentiment that led to this unexpected victory--growing anger around unemployment, budget cuts, rising rents and more--is the key to building a movement from below that can challenge Bloomberg's corporate agenda for New York.

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