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Steven Cohen

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A Job Description for the Next Mayor of New York

Posted: 09/10/2012 8:29 am

As the presidential election campaign heads toward its inevitable and much-welcomed completion, we New Yorkers are starting to focus on an election that will mean at least as much to those of us who live in "the City" -- the November 2013 election of our next mayor. While nothing in local politics is ever simple, everything about local politics is very immediate and very real. The next mayor of New York City will have a significant impact on the future of this city. New York City's charter provides for a strong, executive-based governmental structure. The City Council has more power than it used to, but the real action remains in the mayor's part of City Hall.

I believe that New York City has been fortunate enough to attract first-rate leaders over the past several decades. As I wrote last winter:

Mike Bloomberg has been a superb mayor. I should mention that I think New York City, America's largest local government, has been well-led for many years. Ed Koch, David Dinkins, and yes, Rudy Giuliani helped rebuild this city from the depths of bankruptcy to its restored status as America's world city. Bloomberg has built on the foundation painfully built by his predecessors.

Mike Bloomberg became mayor a few short months after the destruction of the World Trade Center. While Ed Koch took over a city battered by near bankruptcy, Mayor Bloomberg took over a city that was shattered physically, psychologically and economically by a sudden and inexplicable act of madness. Both mayors used their brainpower and impressive leadership skills to call on the resilience of a city that is difficult to defeat. Other than being very smart and realistic guys, both of these mayors were unlikely leaders for New York City. Koch was a Congressman with no significant executive experience. As mayor he had to learn how to manage a large, complex and deeply entrenched public bureaucracy. Bloomberg was a business executive with no public sector or political experience. He had to learn how to run a government that operates under constant scrutiny by the most skeptical of publics -- New Yorkers.

As New Yorkers set about to select their next mayor, it is important to understand that the qualifications for the office are neither obvious nor easy to understand. I have also come to believe that the office itself has a way of training its occupants. Mayor Koch became a superb executive and Mayor Bloomberg has become an excellent public communicator and political leader. The complexity of the job and its relentless scrutiny ensure that all mayors will fail at something big, and all mayors will suffer defeats on a regular basis. The key issue is their ability to listen, learn and grow. Both Koch and Bloomberg learned on the job. They may not always been the most gracious losers when they lost, but when they suffered defeat, they absorbed the lessons and moved on. In that way they resemble the people they governed.

If America is a nation of immigrants, New York City is the national capital of the newly arrived. About 40 percent of the people who live here legally were born in other countries. When you add illegal aliens, tourists, foreign business travelers and foreign students to the mix, most of the people walking the streets of New York were born in other countries. This is a place of constant movement and change. The city I was raised in is long gone. That industrial and commercial hub has been replaced by the brain-based city of the 21st century. Most New Yorkers make their living in education, media, finance, software, management, tourism, health care and retail. The Hudson river and the High Line are no longer used to haul freight on the west side, but are impressive and attractive public spaces. Our next mayor must have the energy and imagination to continue this amazing transformation of New York City.

The next mayor of New York must continue to work to create the sustainable city of the 21st century. Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC2030 has been codified into city law and should allow the next mayor to continue the progress made during Bloomberg's time in office. We need to make sure that the next mayor does not fall victim to the "not invented here" syndrome characteristic of weak leaders. Bloomberg's environmental legacy needs to be built on and expanded. All the bike paths, smoke-free bars (and teenagers), public spaces and green infrastructure plans must be continued. Smart grid technology, renewable energy, more effective solid waste management, and reduced air pollution are still on the agenda and are needed for the city to continue to progress. We also need to continue to focus on improving public safety and education -- two essential services that are incredibly difficult to provide. The 21st century city is a global city in constant competition for people and business -- to win that competition New York needs to be safe, and its schools need to be world class.

Some of the other traits needed by a mayor of New York may seem obvious, but are worth articulating. The first is absolute personal financial probity: honesty, rectitude and integrity. Obviously, Mayor Mike is too rich to steal from the city's treasury. But there was never a hint of personal corruption by Mayors Koch, Dinkins or Giuliani. These guys may have been misled by dishonest deputies, but their personal integrity was never seriously challenged. The second is the gift of empathy and the ability to communicate grief and joy. The sacrifices made by New York's finest and bravest unfortunately provide the mayor with many opportunities to lead public grief. But our mayors are also expected to send signals to the city about correct behavior in this complicated place: Giuliani's appearance at a mosque after 9/11, Bloomberg's public meal with his defeated opponent Fernando Ferrer, all of our Mayor's visits with families that are victims of violence. And let's not forget the fun stuff: dropping the New Year's ball on Times Square or throwing out the first ball at Citifield or Yankee Stadium.

Finally, a mayor needs to have a strategy and set priorities. One of the problems with setting priorities is that when you say what is most important, you implicitly say what is less important. By telling us what you want to do, you inevitably tell us what you are not going to do. A mayor cannot do it all. A politician that is used to pleasing everyone will be a mayor who accomplishes nothing and ends up pleasing no one.

Not all of our mayors have been great communicators, but all have risen to the occasion when needed. Koch famously stood at the Brooklyn Bridge to welcome commuters during the 1980 transit strike. Rudy was magnificent in the hours after the attacks of 9/11. And my friend and Columbia colleague David Dinkins was eloquent in his concession speech after his failed bid for re-election:

"Mayors come and go but the life of the city must endure," he declared. "We must all reach out," he implored. "Never forget that this city is about dignity. It is about decency."

New York's next mayor has big shoes to fill. It's really important that we continue the recent record of excellent leadership.

 

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