Give Mayor Michael Bloomberg this: He's a survivor.
In his first year in office he oversaw an unpopular 18 percent hike in property taxes. Then he considered and dropped a plan to toll the East River bridges. He lost a fight to transfer the MTA's West Side stadium site to the Jets in a no-bid $100 million deal. During his second term he's navigated a blackout in Queens, the police killing of Sean Bell and a furor over a disastrous mid-year switch in school bus routes. Recently, he pushed unsuccessfully for that hugely unpopular congestion pricingprogram.
You've got to be a survivor to make it as New York City mayor -- whether you're William Jay Gaynor, the chief executive who stayed in office for three years after an assassin shot him in the neck in 1910, or Fiorello LaGuardia, who saw the city through depression and war. And Bloomberg possesses an advantage no previous mayor ever enjoyed: a personal fortune that allows him to carpet-bomb any obstacles to his continuance in power.
The mayor's 2009 re-election effort already has spent more on television advertisements ($5.7 million) than Rep. Anthony Weiner laid out for his entire 2005 mayoral campaign. And it's only June. When Bloomberg's full spending for the 2005 campaign was revealed, we learned that the mayor had spent more money developing his voter list than Fernando Ferrer spent on everything.
Even the hardiest of previous occupants of Gracie Mansion have eventually stumbled. But given Bloomberg's money, his talent for bouncing back and his less-than-overwhelming potential opponents, it would seem that our current mayor put his re-election problems behind him when he eliminated the term limits barrier.
Or did he?
When future New Yorkers look back at October 23, 2008 -- the day the City Council extended term limits at the mayor's request -- they might remember it as the day that Bloomberg iced a third term victory. But it might also turn out to be just the opposite: the day he sowed the seed for his political decline and fall.
Democrats who think the 2009 race isn't yet over say Bloomberg's sweeping aside the term limits that had been imposed by voters in a referendum is a big reason -- maybe the only reason -- why there could actually be a contest this fall. "He's a good mayor," one Democratic assemblyman said privately of Bloomberg last week, "but with the term limits thing, I think Billy has a real shot," referring to City Comptroller William Thompson, who is seeking the Democratic nomination along with Councilman Tony Avella of Queens.
So far, undoing term limits hasn't undone Bloomberg's substantial lead in the polls over Thompson and Avella. And the extension hasn't prevented the Bloomberg campaign from trumpeting endorsements by names both big (like Queens Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman) and very small (the Ecua Times?). (the Ecua Times).
However, the term limits controversy is out there. It's crept into other races in the city. Manhattan Councilman Alan Gerson lost a valuable club endorsement in part because he supported the term limits extension. When Councilwoman Helen Sears of Queens told a recent community forum that term limits was "a very small issue," the audience laughed.
What's different about term limits compared to the other risky political moves that Bloomberg has made is the degree of opposition he's trying to buck, at least as measured by the relevant Quinnipiac polls. Fifty-two percent of New Yorkers opposed congestion pricing and 58 percent didn't like the Jets deal at one point. More than two-thirds of New Yorkers are thumbs-down on East River tolls and 68 percent wanted Bloomberg to do something other than raise taxes to close the budget gap in 2002. But the unpopularity of the term limits move was in a league of its own: Eighty-nine percent of New Yorkers wanted to deal with the issue by referendum. Only seven percent thought the City Council vote was the way to go. (A recent Times poll shows a rich and powerfullined up to back the head of their class during the term limits debate. And if you think the issue's a dud, recall how sensitively Bloomberg reacted recently when asked a fairly gentle question about term limits by a reporter from the New York Observer, who will now be remembered as Azi "You're a disgrace" Paybarah.
Of course, term limits becoming an issue in the 2009 race depends on there being a race, which in turn requires the daily newspapers to report that there is one. Bloomberg's opening salvo in the push to extend term limits was to huddle with the city's press barons and secure their support. For all the money the mayor spent in 2005, free media help was also valuable to keeping his opponents from gaining traction. Remember the Post's Ferrer dunce cap cover? Time will tell if the dailies, radio stations and local TV news depict an election or a coronation in 2009.
The mayor's predecessors might have survived longer in spite of their missteps if the media had been as enthusiastically on their side. Except, that is, for William Jay Gaynor. He died of complications from that bullet wound two months before the 1913 election.