POLITICS
11/05/2013 09:16 pm ET | Updated Nov 06, 2013

New Yorkers Drop-Kick Michael Bloomberg And His Legacy Over The East River

By this time Wednesday, what little "2013 Election Night" we are going to have will be in the books and the pieces attempting to weave together a Grand Political Narrative from a few scattered, hyper-parochial electoral contests will be in orbit over the blogosphere, waiting to fall on unsuspecting heads like so much space junk. We will hear all about how Chris Christie provides a new path for the GOP to follow to success (it will be overblown), and how the Virginia governor's race is a referendum win for Obamacare (also overblown), and that will be that.

So, for the sake of variety, let's take a look at another of Tuesday's electoral contests, the New York mayoral election, and marvel at the beating that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's legacy took at the hands of voters in the five boroughs. Boy howdy, it was dandy.

The steady erosion of Bloomberg's standing in the Big Apple really began in the 2009 mayoral election. On that Election Night, political observers watched as what was presumed to be a certain laugher -- the final October polls of the race had Bloomberg coasting to double-digit wins over the Democratic nominee, Bill Thompson -- briefly become something of a nail-biter. In the end, Bloomberg prevailed, 50.7 percent to 46.3 percent, but Thompson backers were left convinced that they fell just short of the effort needed to unseat the two-term incumbent.

Flash forward to 2013, and it's as if New Yorkers retained some knowledge of their affinity for Bloomberg alternatives. The candidacy of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whose turnabout on term limits allowed Bloomberg the opportunity to have a third term, even as it forced Quinn to put her own aspirations on hold, spectacularly failed to launch. From April to September, Quinn went from frontrunner, to contender, to also-ran.

The final judgment of Democratic primary voters on the woman who enabled Bloomberg's third term and who ran as the standard-bearer for a de facto Bloomberg fourth term, was severe. She finished with less than 16 percent of the vote. And the winner of that primary -- public advocate Bill DeBlasio -- ran as much of an anti-Bloomberg campaign as one could.

Gawker was not wrong to have called Tuesday's mayoral election for DeBlasio the moment the sun rose and it was clear that the world was not going to end. By the time you read this, he will have likely won in a romp over Joe Lhota, who in his fumbling way, attempted to become the "Bloomberg Fourth Term" candidate. Which was, frankly, a mistake.

But you have to give Bloomberg his due. New Yorkers are a famously liberal lot, but as voters, they have a history of daddy issues. The way to crack that nut without running as a progressive lion is to offer the electorate enough sops to "polite society liberalism" while positioning yourself as something of a stern father/taskmaster type.

And Bloomberg managed to go a lot further in both directions than his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani. At times, Bloomberg took the stage as an authentic progressive. He was an enthusiastic ally for marriage equality. For liberals looking for a figure of national importance who took the challenge of climate change seriously, Bloomberg was a champion. And in the latter days of his rule, he broke with his fellow "No Labels" milquetoasts to put his name, his brand, and his money behind changing the discussion of gun safety.

Of course, all the while, he was slowly and semi-permanently transforming the city into a playground for plutocrats. This was tolerated for a long time, until it wasn't.

If you want to point to where it all went wrong, you have options. Perhaps the most derided part of Bloomberg's latter-term legacy are his strange and halting attempts to erect something of a nanny state, and a love for regulations that did enough to insult people's sensibilities without actually doing a whole lot of public good. Bloomberg's war on sugary sodas had exemptions large enough to drive a truck full of Big Gulps or venti Frappuccinos through, ensuring that whatever positive impact the effort would have would come pre-limited. His attempts to curb New Yorkers' smoking habits proceeded from the now bog-standard ban in bars and restaurants, to a weird requirement that cigarettes be kept in drawers at corner stores -- a policy geared more toward annoying vendors than enhancing public health.

There was, of course, the pillar-to-post LOL-fiesta that was his appointment of Hearst chairwoman Cathie Black to the position of public schools chancellor. This appointment, seemingly an attempt on Bloomberg's part to prove that his high society cronies were all part of some elite managerial master race, proved only that the longer you're steeped in the meritocracy, the weaker the tea. Black's 95-day term was a daily exercise in just how badly out of her depth she was, and long after she'd given up the job, Bloomberg was spending $25,000 of taxpayer money in an attempt to keep the emails between his administration and Black from falling into the hands of reporters.

And, of course, there was the NYPD. In addition to going down in history as America's greatest collection of Keystone Kounterterrorists, courtesy of a solid reporting effort by The Associated Press' Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, Bloomberg's third term became inextricably linked with the widespread antipathy for the police department's stop-and-frisk policy and the many, many lies fed to the public claiming the tactics were supposedly keeping New Yorkers safe.

But if there's one thing that defines the Bloomberg era, it's simply this: During his three terms, Michael Bloomberg has made it much harder for poor and middle-class New Yorkers to continue to live in New York City. Ken Auletta's New Yorker profile of Bloomberg tells part of the sad story:

“No one has done more to help the poor than we have.” The city, he insisted, “created three hundred and fifty thousand jobs in tourism. These are entry-level jobs.” In his twelve years as mayor, it built “one hundred and sixty-five thousand units of affordable housing.” And by improving education the city addressed “one of the keys to getting out of poverty.” Yet a report issued by one of his own agencies, the Center for Economic Opportunity, revealed that by the end of 2011 more than a fifth of New Yorkers were living below the poverty line and another quarter just above it. These figures will rise, the report added, especially if federal spending declines, as expected.

This spring, the Fiscal Policy Institute, a progressive nonprofit research organization, issued an even grimmer report, concluding that there has been “no meaningful reduction in poverty” in the city in thirty years.

I say "part of the sad story" because, as The Awl's Choire Sicha points out, that whole thing about "one hundred and sixty-five thousand units of affordable housing" being built is not true, at all:

It's true that Bloomberg's New Housing Marketplace Plan calls for the creation and preservation of 165,000 units of affordable housing by 2014. Here's how the administration put it:

"At the end of my first year in office, we announced the New Housing Marketplace Plan, the City’s largest affordable housing program since the Koch Administration. The plan pledged to create or preserve 65,000 units of affordable housing by 2008. In April of 2005 we increased that commitment to 68,000 units…. [W]e are now expanding the original five-year New Housing Marketplace Plan to a 10-year plan to create and preserve 165,000 units of affordable housing."

That's where the 165,000 number comes from.

You will notice that the word "built" doesn't appear. Whenever they drag out these numbers, create is always coupled by "preserve." People get fuzzy about this, and development is complicated, and then, something totally untrue gets passed around.

Sicha goes on to point out that from 2008 to 2009, the number of permits issued for new construction of residential units in New York City went from 34,000 to 6,000, and by 2012, it had only rebounded to 10,000 or so permits. "One thing that's very hard to do is to create new affordable housing when there is barely any housing being created at all," writes Sicha. And the affordable housing picture is worse yet:

Since 2003, actually, the city has only "funded" 100,000 units of affordable housing -- except most of this is retention. Overall, fully 66% of the units of affordable housing expected to be created by the time Bloomberg leaves office are actually "retention," not creation. (By the end of the fiscal year of 2011, 65% of the affordable housing "gain" was just retention.) Absolutely it costs a ton of money to retain affordable housing. But it's far, far harder to build it. And that hasn't happened.

Somewhat late in the game, Bloomberg offered a kooky plan to create a new stock of 300-square-foot "micro-apartments" and pass them off as "affordable housing." How a middle-class New York family was supposed to live in one of these teensy boxes was never really explained. As a unit of housing, 300 square feet seems more geared toward equipping the coming army of Thought Catalog economic correspondents with a cubbyhole than realistically addressing the needs of normal people. As it turned out, however, the descriptor "affordable" could not be said to be apt. Per the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development:

On a per-square-foot basis, the rents are higher than the average free-market rents for the neighborhood, which are $53/square foot, according to the latest Ellisman report. Even the largest unit, at 350 square feet, is still over $60 a square foot for the 145% and 155% AMI units. And the average rent for a studio in in the neighborhood is $2,247. An “affordable” MicroUnit is only about a 15 – 20% discount over a typical studio for the neighborhood, and is about 30% – 50% smaller than HPD affordable housing guidelines for studio apartments.

Building smaller units to address a growing population of single-person households is an interesting development idea, but in order for it to be an effective affordable housing policy the units must, at a bare minimum, be more affordable than the open market. With 80% of the units in this development commanding more per square foot than the current market rate, and with only a slight discount off the rental prices of a full-size studio apartment in one of the most expensive rental markets in the country, this is not the case.

Eventually, Bloomberg just sort of gave up and sold the desperate shortage of affordable housing as a "good sign" for New York. So, you need not search high and low for a reason that New Yorkers have flocked to Bill DeBlasio, and his "tale of two cities" campaign message.

It's a result foretold in the exit polls conducted by Edison Research after the Democratic primary. As Edison's surveys found, New Yorkers were happy enough with Bloomberg to give him a little head-pat -- 51 percent gave Mayor Mike their generic approval. But 73 percent of those surveyed said that it was time for New York to "change course" from the Bloomberg era. (A large majority -- 66 percent -- expressed regret for Bloomberg being legally cleared to seek a third term in the first place.)

It's an open question as to whether DeBlasio will succeed as the agent of change he's promoted himself to be. His promise to soak the rich to pay for universal prekindergarten seems like the kind of populist promise you make when you know that it will be strangled to death by lawmakers in Albany at the behest of phony-progressive Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (And while DeBlasio will jettison stop-and-frisk, he's volunteered to carry the torch for Bloomberg's weird soda ban.) Nevertheless, he seems game enough to try to ameliorate some of New York City's income inequality that he's scared the elites who sit on the city's newspaper editorial boards (and Joe Scarborough, who is sort of an elitist editorial board unto himself), and that's apparently good enough for the voters.

What then, becomes of Michael Bloomberg? Well, the Michael Bloomberg presidential campaign will probably remain the fetish of the centrist-milksop commentariat for as long as Bloomberg draws breath. But he's taken a bit of a hit nationally, as his overall campaign to bring about modest gun-safety legislation has been greeted with resistance strong enough to bounce two allies from the Colorado Senate. And while I don't necessarily find much significance in the fact that the Terry McAuliffe-Ken Cuccinelli race for Virginia governor seemed to tighten not long after Bloomberg dropped an anti-gun ad buy on Cuccinelli, you can bet that a bunch of pundit-idiots will.

For his part, Bloomberg's been fairly coy about what he plans to do next. Showing his astonishing ability to relate to the common man in post-crash America, he told Time magazine's Michael Scherer, "I want to do things. And I think the first answer to your questions is if you came to me and said, 'I’m just retired or lost my job or whatever. What should I do?' My answer is wait a little while, a couple of months, and see what’s out there because of the things that will become available to you that you never ever even remotely thought about." So, Bloomberg may just spend the next 60 days daydreaming about tomorrow and its wonders, just like all the other unemployed people in America are doing.

Down In Mexico, they are apparently getting way, way into soda bans, but seeing as Bloomberg is bringing his patented brand of sunlight-blotting mega-developments to London, it makes sense that the hot speculation is on his next ambition taking him across the Atlantic. As Michael Grynbaum reported in The New York Times back in February:

Bloomberg Place, roughly the size of a Manhattan city block, is the future European home of Michael R. Bloomberg’s company and charity. But it is only one piece of the New York City mayor’s growing British empire.

He is underwriting a major expansion of one of England’s most prestigious galleries, in Kensington Gardens, designed by the noted architect Zaha Hadid.

He has the ear of London’s raffish mayor, Boris Johnson, who dispatches aides to City Hall in New York for tutelage in municipal management.

Mayor Bloomberg and his aides court the city’s elite, holding expensive dinners for tastemakers and Downing Street officials. The buzz is so great that a chief aide to Prime Minister David Cameron impishly floated the idea of a Bloomberg candidacy, for mayor of London.

My advice to Londoners is to lock down a decent flat now, and keep guard over your Cornish pasties. They will be among the first things to go.

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