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Replacing Mike Bloomberg

May 31, 2013

As the 2013 New York City election campaigns heat up, I will be posting about the candidates, the campaigns, the primaries, the likely run-offs, and the election. But before we get to all of that, I want to begin with some thoughts about the man we will be replacing: Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg came to office a multi-billionaire with a Boston accent, a Republican succeeding another Republican for the first time since Reconstruction. Initially, as a political neophyte, Bloomberg was awkward with the press and clumsy in his public statements; as he gained experience and comfort at his podium, he has too often been brittle, peremptory or flippant – traits that are especially unattractive in a plutocrat. Bloomberg’s campaign to revise the City’s term limits law to allow him, but no future mayor, to run for a third term, enhanced a sense of him as arrogant and entitled. His use of mayoral authority has often been heavy-handed, and he frequently seems to believe that he knows better than New Yorkers do what is good for them.

The Mayor has had a difficult relationship with city employees’ unions, prominently among them the city teachers’ union. And his enthusiastic support for all-out deployment of the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy has rubbed lots of people the wrong way.

For whatever combination of reasons, among liberals Bloomberg’s name has become Mud. As a close observer of New York City politics, this has always surprised me. Mayor Mike is much more liberal than most liberals seem to recognize.

We start with the fact that Bloomberg was a life-long Democrat – he changed his party registration to Republican in 2001 so that he could run for mayor on a major-party line. Given Democratic politics in New York, an outsider – especially a Bostonian billionaire – couldn’t win a Democratic nomination. Six years into his mayoralty, Bloomberg left the Republican Party and became an Independent, and he has been harsh in his assessments of Tea Party-infused Republican orthodoxy.

Mayor Bloomberg is probably farther to the left on gun control than any other major elected official in the country. And there has been no money-mouth discrepancy – he has contributed to politicians and organizations who favor gun control. Bloomberg co-founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns and remains its biggest funder. Post-mayoralty, it will be interesting to see how Bloomberg uses his fortune to challenge the NRA.

The Mayor is also pretty far to the left on immigration. He favors amnesty for illegal immigrants, and in 2003 he issued executive orders prohibiting city employees from asking about a person’s immigration status except under very narrowly prescribed circumstances. Those measures made real differences in the lives of real people – the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, for example, changed its requirements for taxi drivers and no longer driver applicants to prove legal residency, opening whole new fields of legal employment to illegal immigrants in New York.

Immigration is a subject on which Bloomberg can wax uncharacteristically eloquent.  In 2006, he testified before Congress that

It’s as if we expect border control agents to do what a century of communism could not: defeat the natural market forces of supply and demand and defeat the natural human desire for freedom and opportunity. You might as well as sit in your beach chair and tell the tide not to come in. As long as America remains a nation dedicated to the proposition that “all Men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” people from near and far will continue to seek entry into our country.

Bloomberg has spoken with equal force about the net positives that immigrants, legal and illegal, bring to New York.

Bloomberg is known to be a strong advocate of abortion rights and same-sex marriage. It is less well known that he opposes the death penalty – presumably less well known because New York State has no death penalty law, and no substantial movement to restore it.

People can and do criticize Mayor Bloomberg’s education policies and his health policies. If you like the sound of the phrase “nanny state,” just say “no big sugary drinks” in the presence of a Republican. But for all the criticism, no self-respecting liberal can say that Bloomberg’s heart is in the wrong place on public health or education. He wants a public education system that works, that lifts people from poverty, that gives meaning to capitalist theory of merit-based opportunity. Bloomberg thinks that government can and therefore should help people to make better choices about their lives, to protect us from our own vulnerabilities. For all his success in the cutthroat capitalist world of finance, Bloomberg does not believe that government should allow its citizens to be victimized by cutthroat capitalists.

Perhaps one of Bloomberg’s greatest legacies will be the institutionalization of his commitment to mitigation of the effects of climate change. The Mayor is without doubt America’s leading environmentalist big-city mayor. He championed congestion pricing, which failed to win legislative approval; and he championed miles-per-gallon standards for New York City’s 30,000 taxis and liveries, which failed to win judicial approval.

But he also achieved enormous environmental successes. He initiated a project called PlaNYC, and created a high-level office of long-term planning and sustainability to oversee the project, which is intended to ensure that the City remains livable and thriving – looking ahead as much as 40 years, accounting for trends like population growth and sea levels rise.

The PlaNYC project collects scores of initiatives in more than a dozen fields, all directed to making life better in New York while defending against long-term threats. In addition to important successes like hundreds of acres of new parks, the office of long-term planning claims to have reduced New York’s carbon emissions 13 percent from the levels of 2005, the year before the office was established. The office was recently lauded by Carol Kellermann in the Huffington Post for adopting a collaborative approach rather than a regulatory approach.

One of the new parks is the High Line, built on an abandoned elevated freight line running through the lower west side of Manhattan. The High Line is surely one of the world’s most interesting and attractive urban parks, and – who knew? – it has proved to be a spectacular engine of economic development.

Bloomberg has fostered innovative investments in technology and broadband – so much so that New York City has quietly become Silicon Valley East. In a decade or so, Silicon Valley may be renamed New York City West. Technology campuses are in development, high-speed fiber corridors are planned, low-cost internet connections for business start-ups are underway, pilot projects connecting low-income public school kids and other underserved populations to the internet are nearing conclusion. All of New York City government has been yanked into a mindset of fostering technological innovation.

Crime has not only remained as low as when Bloomberg took office – it has dropped to historic lows. Bloomberg achieved less flashy historic lows in fire deaths and traffic deaths and ambulance response times. With a succession of aggressive and innovative parks and transportation commissioners, the city is more attractive than it was, and easier to get around. Tourism is at all-time highs, with New York surpassing Disneyworld as America’s leading tourist destination.

Bloomberg championed government transparency, consolidating diverse city agencies’ call centers, information systems, and data centers and posting enormous amounts of city data on-line. On the other hand, the practice has not always achieved the lofty level of the theory, and Bloomberg has resisted disclosure of critical reports and embarrassing documents.

If a premise of human endeavor is that we should always try to do at least as well next time as we did last time, then the premise of the 2013 mayoral campaign is that we should look for a mayor at least as good as Michael Bloomberg. Contrary to the received wisdom of my fellow liberals, I think that is going to be a hard task.

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