Huffpost Politics

Dem foe says billionaire NYC mayor buys support

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NEW YORK — Billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Democratic challenger bickered vigorously about money in city politics during their first debate, trading accusations about who has bought support and who has been bought.

City Comptroller William Thompson Jr. accused Bloomberg, who's a philanthropist and the richest person in the city, of buying off New Yorkers by donating hundreds of millions of dollars to organizations that later back his policies. He said Bloomberg is spending an "obscene" amount of money on his campaign.

The mayor has spent $64.8 million on his bid for a third term, while Thompson, who raises money, has spent about one-sixteenth of that.

"The people of New York City aren't for sale," Thompson said.

Bloomberg insisted that many organizations that get his money aren't aware he's the donor, and he said he's proud of his philanthropy. He gives away hundreds of millions of dollars every year and says he plans to keep giving.

Bloomberg, meanwhile, said Thompson is owned by special interests, referring to reports that the comptroller – whose job includes overseeing the municipal pension fund system – took campaign funds from investment managers who do business with the city.

"The bottom line is, if you want to do business with the city pension fund, you would have had to pay, and that's wrong," Bloomberg said.

Thompson said nobody has ever gotten a favor from his office in return for a campaign contribution, and he said it was insulting for the mayor to question his integrity.

"You should be ashamed," he told Bloomberg. "You should stop it now."

It was one of several spirited exchanges during Tuesday's televised meeting, the first of two debates. The second debate is Oct. 27.

Thompson, trailing Bloomberg in recent polls, sought to portray Bloomberg as opportunistic for political moves he has made, including changing his lifelong party registration from Democrat to Republican to avoid a crowded primary in 2001 and persuading the City Council to extend the term-limits law last year so he could run again.

Bloomberg is no longer a member of any party but is running on the Republican and Independent Party lines.

The candidates clashed on nearly every question during the hourlong debate, which touched on issues including education, housing and development. The arguing prevented either candidate from delving into specific policies.

Bloomberg was much more feisty in his first debate against his Democratic challenger than he was in matchups four years ago.

In one back and forth, Bloomberg and Thompson argued about the failures of the nation's largest school system when Thompson was president of the Board of Education from 1996 to 2001.

Bloomberg faulted his opponent for everything wrong about the city's notoriously disastrous school system during that time.

Thompson said it's an "apples to oranges comparison" to lay the blame with the Board of Education president, who was one of seven members who answered to a schools chancellor. That system was dissolved, and now the schools are run by the mayor.

"I didn't run the school system," Thompson said. "If I was the mayor and had the $20 billion that the mayor has right now to run the school system, and had mayoral control, I would do a better job."

There were successes under Thompson. In 1999, the board began to end the process of automatically promoting failing students by requiring summer school. The board also ended principal tenure, and dropout rates improved during some of the years Thompson was on the board.

It wasn't enough, Bloomberg said.

"You don't get a medal for rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," he said.

On the economy, Thompson said Bloomberg has made it harder for the middle class to afford living in the city because of higher fines, fares and fees.

The parking ticket fine was $55 for most violations when Bloomberg took office in 2002; he has raised it to $115. Apartment rents also have gone up steadily since he took office – the Rent Guidelines Board, whose members are appointed by the mayor, has approved hikes of as much as 4.5 percent some years.

And this year Bloomberg raised the sales tax by one-half percent to 8.875 percent.

The mayor has said he has made tough choices to try to revive the city's struggling economy.