For Michael Bloomberg and the 2013 crew, it’s legacy time

Bloomberg, made of parking tickets. (Azi Paybarah)
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Michael Bloomberg was delivering an address inside Columbia's 114-year-old Low Memorial Library Wednesday morning, with his voice echoing off the stone walls and dome ceiling.

"The things that really matter are not the day-to day-things that grab the headlines, that the editorial writers write about," he said. "They are the long-term things that impact whether we're going to have a future or not."

For example: "investments in education where you really can't see the payoff for years."

Also: improving contemporary roadways and bridges, which Bloomberg equated to the building of the Erie Canal and Transcontinental Railroad. Like education, the mayor said, "those kind of things had enormous impacts and the problem with the big infrastructure stuff is the payoff is down the road."

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Bloomberg doesn't have much roadway ahead of him. He has 778 days left as mayor of New York City, and, understandably, is looking to the not-too-distant future, when the newspapers' first-draft attempts at documenting his time in office give way to higher-altitude assessments of his legacy. 

Bloomberg isn't the only one who's beginning to talk about his two-and-a-half-term tenure as the city's executive-patron in historical terms, and in an ever-less premature past tense.

(On Monday, at a breakfast in midtown hosted by the Association for a Better New York, Bloomberg told moderator Charlie Rose that he has "loved" being mayor. Rose responded, "I assumed you loved it so much that eight years was not enough.")

Bloomberg's would-be successors, who have an obvious interest in tailoring perceptions about the Bloomberg mayoralty, positive and negative, to fit their prospective mayoral agendas, have begun addressing his legacy in earnest, too.

At a proto-candidate forum yesterday at the law firm of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan entitled "The Future of New York City," former comptroller Bill Thompson, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio all made some version of the case that Bloomberg could have been a more forceful advocate for the city's interests. They each indicated, for example, that they would put greater pressure on the federal government to pay for transportation projects here; that they would more effectively leverage the city's purchasing power to compel vendors to hire local workers; that they would be more aggressive and effective in wresting the prerogative from Albany on city-specific issues.

Stringer, the first guest to speak, snuck in a term-limits joke to warm up the crowd.

By 2035, Stringer said, the city's population is expected to grow by 1 million; by 2030, there will be an increase of 44 percent in the number of senior citizens here.

"And by 2025, it is, it's possible, Mike Bloomberg may not run for re-election," he said.

Stringer, a former assemblyman, talked about Bloomberg's failure, despite his sometimes-energetic efforts, to win more concessions from the state legislature, which has considerable say over how the city allocates and raises resources.

(The city can't raise of even lower taxes without state approval, and can't realistically undertake many major projects if Albany isn't on board. Among other things, the legislature has spiked Bloomberg's plans to build a football stadium on the West Side of Manhattan, to place tolls on East River bridges and to initiate a congestion-pricing scheme in Manhattan. A more Bloomberg initiative to reshape surface transportation in the city by introducing "outer-borough taxis" isn't dead yet, but has stalled in the face of unhurried opposition from Governor Andrew Cuomo.) 

After calling for the reinstatement the long-dead commuter tax, which raised money for the city from suburban commuters, Stringer said, "It's going to take a mayor that understands Albany."

He also said, "The fact that New York City government has not fully appreciated or understood the power that Albany has, has hurt us. It's hurt us on major infrastructure projects, it's hurt us going forward on education issues."

Stringer rattled off other criticisms of Bloomberg, including the current state of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, which he said was ineffective and was costing the city $75 million annually.

The next speaker at the event was de Blasio, who said Bloomberg's departure from City Hall is "a profound moment of change."

To the extent that the end of the Bloomberg era would represent an opportunity to rethink the city's future, de Blasio said, "this is something we haven't seen in a long time."

"By the time the next election happens, it will have been 12 years, not just with one mayor, but 12 years with a mayor who we have not seen before and won't see again," said de Blasio.

Bloomberg was unique because he "so dominated the discourse that we haven't had the chance to really look closely at what's working and what's not, when it comes to economics."

De Blasio repeatedly referred to Bloomberg as the architect of policies that were from "another time" when nobody questioned the ability of financial institutions headquartered in Manhattan to propel the economy, locally and nationally.

Later, de Blasio said, "Maybe in good economic times the mayor could justify letting the market work its magic. But in this day and age, we can't."

De Blasio said he'd use the city's purchasing power to demand vendors create jobs locally, and said Bloomberg should have done that when select a new car maker to manufacture the next fleet of taxis.

When it was his turn to speak, Thompson said, "We have a city government that really has, for a period of years, treated the people of New York City as the cash cow. At every opportunity, it's an effort to squeeze them, additional fines and fees, and penalties and you name it. Squeezes and pushes them out."

On education policy, which has undergone profound changes since Bloomberg won mayoral control of public schools during his first time, Thompson said, "We've learned the mistake about focusing on standardized testing, and instead, we need to focus on comprehension and critical thinking."

Later, I asked Thompson if he was serious when he said this morning's event was "exactly" what need to happen for the next two years.

"Obviously you're not going to have one a week," he said. "But I think you are going to have discussions over the next two years, in a number of places about the future of New York City."

After the event, I spoke to Bill Cunningham, Bloomberg's communcations director and a veteran operative.

Speaking broadly about early efforts by politicians and reporters to assess the Bloomberg legacy, he said, "The danger is, his term isn't over. The danger with reporters trying to determine answers to questions better left to history is, history often makes you look like monkeys."

Referring specifically to the high-level criticisms of Bloomberg from the Democratic mayoral aspirants, Cunningham said, "someone will be sworn in on January 1, 2014, and they're going to turn around and thank Bloomberg for what he's done. [And] they might want to find out now what they think they can do to improve on that."