Michael Bloomberg: Republican, Democrat, or Plutocrat?

Last October, Michael Bloomberg, New York City's Mayor, announced that he would seek to extend the city's term limits law and run for a third term in 2009, since he needed more than that silly old law limiting the Mayor to two terms, especially during the Wall Street financial crises. "Handling this financial crisis while strengthening essential services...is a challenge I want to take on." Although Bloomberg rejected former Mayor Giuliani's grab for a third term after 9/11, saying that no one is indispensible, he suddenly discovered that someone is -- himself. The public did not unanimously rejoice in his announcement, but according to Wikipedia, "many elite New Yorkers such as David Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger, and prominent businessmen including Jamie Dimon and press mogul Mortimer Zuckerman voiced support for such a proposal and published an open letter urging the City Council to extend the term limits." It is a safe bet that anything Henry Kissinger supports warrants very close inspection by a forensic team wearing latex gloves.

The City Council voted 29-22 in favor of extending the term limit to three consecutive four-year terms, thus allowing Bloomberg to run for office again. And he may run again in four more years if it suits his fancy, thus turning a great city into a banana republic controlled by the richest man in the city. One critic declared that "Bloomberg's tactics in seeking a third term, along with his failure to foresee the Wall Street crisis at the same time his policies were making the City more dependent on finance, real estate and tourism, are proof that Bloomberg is unfit for the job." I won't argue with that. The wreckage I see all around me is national in scope but here in New York City it has the special Bloomberg logo on it.

Sometimes I find hypocrisy entertaining. In literature it can be delightful -- we have Tartuffe and other great literary hypocrites to make us laugh and Iago to make us shudder -- and in life we have the giggles provided by a Rudy Giuliani offering his opinions on marriage, gay or straight, or by Sarah Palin's family on sexual abstinence. But in the case of this Mayor I find it disheartening. There's just no fun in his hypocrisy -- it's bland, joyless, and boringly self-serving. He has shown himself to be no Mayor LaGuardia who nursed New York City through the great depression with warmth, wisdom, and a rough charisma, and supported the arts in the process. My former High School of Music & Art, dedicated to giving city kids from struggling families an opportunity to become painters, writers, and musicians, was a depression-era LaGuardia project. He understood that the arts were a necessary part of a great city and vital to its life. What we have now is New York's richest citizen, flooding our TV stations with ads that drown out the voice of the opposition, and living in a tragic disconnect from the average citizen of the city. Here is a man with the warmth of a snapping turtle and the charm of an impatient bank teller waiting for his lunch break, offering to work for a dollar a year for the pleasure of holding on to power. And power is the ultimate pleasure for the man who has everything.

A frightened population, losing jobs, and seeing so many store windows shuttered, while prices rise as incomes fall, may turn to this Messiah to save them. I can see very little about this man of great wealth that understands the lives of ordinary citizens -- actually extraordinary citizens for having managed to live in New York during the past ten years of unrestricted growth. He may ride the subway from time to time, but it's a tourist ride, not a necessary way to get to a necessary job.

This Mayor, who let rampant residential building take place without providing the necessary schools for the children of new residents, who took over the failing school system with a hope of improving it, but who places an almost religious faith in standardized tests, which hardly reflect or develop those rare talents of a child, cannot be considered a success by me. How much better it might have been if the millions spent on his campaign were distributed among the poor and middle-class residents of New York to see them through this economical trial. I'm not kidding. I would respect him more if he had the decency to buy the Mayoralty from the voters openly -- send out checks to where it can make a difference in everyday lives rather than enriching the advertising coffers of the TV moguls, the campaign managers, and his fellow plutocrats. Plutocrat, an old word describing the rich who hold power by force of their wealth, is charged with the rhetoric of the defunct and strident 1930s left, but it has an honorable history going back to the Greeks and it is time to rehabilitate it in discussing this mayor.

Why am I so adamantly opposed to four more years of Bloomberg, a man whose social views are often close to my own -- pro choice, reasonable immigration policy, gay rights, civil rights -- and whom I admire for his enormous generosity in giving of his wealth to worthy causes? It is because I find that he lacks the moral imagination and the sense of proportion necessary to run a great city and keep its human scale alive. Having a genius for crunching numbers is but one part of leadership. An understanding of what it takes to keep a great city great is the primary asset a Mayor can have. From the point of view of ecology, I have seen the old, low rise neighborhoods demolished under Bloomberg to make way for behemoth buildings that turned Yorkville, for example, into a perpetual construction site like East Berlin. An ineffective and toothless landmark's commission appointed by Bloomberg -- but controlled by realtors -- allowed the destruction of what was old but necessary for a humane environment to be destroyed in the name of progress and a bigger tax base. What could have been recycled housing was bulldozed into history. A lot of lip service has been paid to ecology -- plans for tolling the bridges and restricting auto use -- but most of it ends as a scheme to increase the city coffers. Not an evil in itself, but ineffective in cleaning the air of the city which is its stated purpose.

Under Bloomberg NYU swallowed the West Village, and Columbia University made its predatory move on Harlem. Educational institutions, once notable for their sense of a just proportion, have now joined in the great land-money-grab. Bigger is always better -- until it isn't, as we have discovered in the Bank of America, which dominates the city with its branch offices and is now the biggest beggar around. I keep hoping that the Democrats will get behind a human scale candidate and put up a decent fight against this Mayor -- but I don't see one in sight. The Bloomberg landslide that seems likely to come is one that may well bury the greatest city we have. He brings the smarts of an accountant rather than the wisdom of a philosopher-king to his office -- and right now we need the philosopher-kings to get us through the hard times. But money not only talks, it shouts, and it can be shaped into a club to beat the opposition into submission. The silence in the Democratic field is deafening as the Bloomberg avalanche rolls on.