These days, Michael Bloomberg probably wishes he skipped his successful push to serve a third term as New York City mayor.
His standing as one of the most-successful players in the nation’s school reform movement took a hit earlier this month when he forced the resignation of former Hearst Corp. magazine boss Cathleen Black as chancellor of the Big Apple’s public school system just four months after putting her in the job. The fact that Bloomberg vigorously gave her votes of confidence — even as teachers union bosses, defenders of traditional public education, and even some reformers argued that her inexperience and aloof manner made her a poor fit for the job — made the reverse of course even more embarrassing.
Environmentalists once were enthralled by Bloomberg’s efforts to banish cars from some of the city’s most-congested corridors are now bickering with him over his move to delay construction of four garbage treatment plants in the tony areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn. They complain that the mayor is backing away from his promise to make sure that all areas of the city would be equally burdened by the smell of refuse. Motorists are also steamed with Bloomy after the mayor announced a plan to charge motorists involved in car accidents for emergency rescue service. (The plan has since been tossed in the dumpster.)
Meanwhile Bloomberg is fighting with the once-servile city council over his efforts to cover a $3.2 billion shortfall in the upcoming 2011-2012 fiscal year budget. The mayor’s newfound fondness for fiscal discipline — after nine years of fiscal profligacy that has doubled the budget to $43 billion — doesn’t sit well with the council. In particular, they oppose Bloomberg’s plan to lay off 5,312 public-sector union workers (or 2.1 percent of the city’s 250,000-person workforce) and cut out $1.5 million for something called the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, which has done little to fulfill its mission of stemming the rash of foreclosures that have hit the city since the economic downturn three years ago.
None of this has helped his standing with New Yorkers, many of whom also retain long memories of how his mishandling of a blizzard last December paralyzed the city for days. Just 40 percent of residents surveyed last month by news network NY1 and Marist College rated his performance as good or excellent, a 30-point decline from the same period three years ago. Another 53 percent said the city was heading in the wrong direction, a stunning reversal from three years ago, when 52 percent of residents thought the city was on the right path.
Thanks to term limits — and a city council unwilling to amend the city charter one more time to allow him another four years — Bloomberg won’t suffer the kind of humiliating electoral defeat that marked the final days of predecessors such as the notoriously incompetent Abraham Beame or his legendary successor, Ed Koch. Among school reformers, Bloomberg will be celebrated for steady reform of what was once one of the Superfund sites of American public education. At the same time, he will likely not be as celebrated as the famed Fiorello LaGuardia or as grudgingly admired as the man Bloomberg succeeded, Rudolph Giuliani. He has never fully learned the lessons about improving quality of life taught by LaGuardia’s and Giuliani’s successful tenures. And now, fiscal reality (along with the city’s perpetual exhaustion with its politicians) is making it even harder for Bloomberg to achieve anything close to their legacy.
The former Wall Street stock trader-turned-media baron at least deserves credit for two stunning successes. The first lies in his continuing the longstanding decline in crime that began under predecessor Giuliani two decades ago. Just 471 homicides were reported in 2009, 20 percent lower than when he took over in 2002, while reported robberies declined by 34 percent during the same period. As a result, New York City no longer resembles the land of bedlam, arson, and rampant gunplay that fueled such films as Fort Apache in the Bronx and King of New York.
The other is the reform of New York City’s public schools, which he seized control of just after taking office nine years ago. With former Clinton Administration appointee Joel Klein serving as his schools czar, Bloomberg proceeded to revamp the district (and increase graduation rates from an abysmal 37 percent to a slightly less horrifying 50 percent) with such moves as shutting down the district’s persistent dropout factories, embracing charter schools, and successfully breaking the oft-servile relationship between the district and the teachers union. This success, along with the reductions in crime, helped convince the city council in 2008 to revise the two-term limit on mayoral service, allowing Bloomberg’s tenure (along with their own) to be extended by another four years.
But Bloomberg has always struggled with the quality-of-life elements of running city government that residents consider as important as safe streets and good schools. The kind of graffiti and vagrancy that Giuliani ruthlessly combatted has now returned with a vengeance. Bloomberg would rather attend to such nonsensical nanny state efforts as banning restaurants from serving foods laced with trans-fat (even though the diners are only clogging their own hearts) and faux-environmental crusades such as banishing automobile traffic on Times Square for the creation of pedestrian plazas (without considering that it won’t do anything to trim traffic or pollution).
Meanwhile he has never reined in the kind of fiscal recklessness that nearly bankrupted New York City four decades ago, to the benefit of the city’s public sector unions (and their allies in the city council). The biggest beneficiaries of all: The American Federation of Teachers, whose New York City local is the nation’s largest. In exchange for agreeing to reforms such as allowing principals to actually hire and fire teachers, the union won a series of double-digit pay raises, and even such protections for low-performing rank-and-file members such as a so-called “rubber room” in which they collect salaries in exchange for staying out of classrooms. By 2008, a New York City teacher with more than 20 years of experience could earn as much as $100,049, double the national average for teachers and the average American household.
Bloomberg could pony up the dollars thanks to taxes collected from the Wall Street firms and media outfits that have long made the Big Apple their base of operations. Those dollars also flowed up to coffers in the state capital at Albany, and in turn flowed back down the Hudson to subsidize city government. But thanks to the global meltdown in the finance sector, the current economic malaise, and the Empire State’s own (relative) belt-tightening, New York City can no longer count on easy money; it faces $12 billion in budget shortfalls over the next four years, according to the city council’s own analysis.
An even bigger tab is coming thanks to the array of defined-benefit pensions, which provide annuities to 274,754 retirees (and counting). Taxpayers face as much as $78 billion in pension deficits, according to a report released last year by the Manhattan Institute’s Empire Center for New York State Policy. Thanks largely to deals Bloomberg struck with public-sector unions — including one with the AFT in 2007 that reduced the number of years a teacher could earn a full pension from 30 to 25 — the city’s paid $6.6 billion to cover the annuity payments last year, a ten-fold increase over the amount paid in 2000.
As a result, Bloomberg must cut deep. But the price of fiscal profligacy is that everything in a city budget becomes a sacred cow — even agencies deserving the name such as the city’s heralded (and 9/11 massacre-scared) fire department. His plan to shut down overnight service at 20 of the department’s 343 engine and ladder companies has been rejected out of hand by the city council. Bloomberg is also getting no help in securing his school reform legacy. His effort to put the kibosh to a state law requiring teacher layoffs to be based on seniority was rejected by New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is mindful of the AFT’s vast influence (and his own plans to reach the lofty national stage squandered by his father and predecessor as governor long ago). As a result, Bloomberg may have to lay off many of the 30,000 young, talented teachers hired in the last decade who have been instrumental in turning the schools system around.
Meanwhile Bloomberg’s problems complicate his own effort to groom a successor. The person he most likely wants to follow him into office, city council Speaker Christine Quinn, is as well-known for petty scandals involving favored community groups and lashing out at reporters such as the Daily News‘ Erin Einhorn, as for being the mayor’s lapdog. The other favorite, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, has a reputation for moodiness that doesn’t fit the image of someone holding the proverbial (and often, actual) second-toughest job in America. And former schools boss Klein, the Bloomberg official with the best temperament for mayoral job, is more focused on building up the school reform movement and helping Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. get into the education business.
As a result, the lineup it has opened the door to a possible run for office by a motley crew that includes Eliot Spitzer, the scandal-plagued former Empire State governor who has parlayed his fall from grace into a gig on CNN, and former New York Stock Exchange boss Dick Grasso, Spitzer’s foil during his days as a crusading prosecutor. New Yorkers would have a better chance picking a worthy successor to Bloomberg from the Bronx Zoo.