I’ve spoken to Mayor Bloomberg just once, at a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event at a soup kitchen in Harlem in 2005 where I’d gone with my wife and baby son to celebrate the holiday, not to report. The mayor showed up and worked the room. My first-born, then 13 months old, was eating Cheerios, so the mayor discussed Cheerios with us. It was brief and friendly. My son does not remember it, and it’s rather likely the mayor doesn’t either.
It was not clear at that point, in the early months of the final year of his first term, just how significant a figure Michael Bloomberg would be. Now we know that he’s the most consequential mayor we’ve had since LaGuardia.
For anyone my age or younger, he’s been New York’s mayor for about a third of our lives, and for almost all our adult lives. And from our smoke-free bars to our gentrified neighborhoods, the stamp of the Bloomberg era will be detectable in the very fabric of New York for decades.
So, since City Limits closes out every year with a Top 10 list, and because a single list just won’t do for our outgoing three-term leader, here are our top ten Top 10 lists about Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
None are exhaustive, and all can be quibbled with, but it’s our take on New York’s 108th mayor:
Ten Finest Moments
1) The Mosque Speech
The mayor faced down a difficult combination of genuine emotion and ugly sentiment in delivering a pitch-perfect defense of American pluralism.
2) After Sean Bell
Bloomberg’s quick expression of alarm and sympathy was 180 degrees different from how his predecessor would have reacted.
3) Getting mayoral control of schools
Critics don’t like how he’s used it, but getting accountability for the system was a tremendous early victory.
4) The 2002 property tax hike
Deeply unpopular, but fiscally necessary. Bloomberg didn’t blink.
5) Executive Order 41
Early in his mayoralty, he issued a policy limiting what city agencies (even the police) could ask or disclose about people’s immigration status.
6) Supporting marriage equality
In 2011, more than a year before President Obama’s conversion and two years before the big Supreme Court ruling, the mayor added his voice—in an unusually personal way—to a movement.
7) The gun investigations
Sending private investigators using hidden cameras into gun dealers and gun shows made him a pariah in NRA Country. What a badge of honor.
8) Keeping church and school separate
In an era of government deference to faith institutions, Bloomberg held the line against encroachment.
9) Struggling in Español
It’s not my language, so it’s easier for me to say, but the mayor’s painfully bad pronunciation seemed to at least demonstrate an effort to communicate—clumsy, but more elbow-grease than many of us devote to bilingual New York.
10) Seeking the soda ban
Was it a big reach in terms of government intrusion? Yep. Was it right? Absolutely.
Ten Worst Fits of Pique
1) The tape recorder incident
Awkward. Very, very awkward.
2) Leak of the Scheindlin dossier
The mayor may have had nothing to do with this cynical effort to tarnish a federal jurist and undermine confidence in the courts, but he ought to have fired whoever did.
3) Saying homeless shelters are too nice
Let me go out on a limb and posit that sometimes it seems like the mayor is a little out of touch.
4) Bill de Blasio’s campaign was “racist”
Not only was it dumb, it fueled de Blasio’s pre-primary surge
5) Getting testy about the race to succeed him
What, were we supposed to pretend the election wasn’t happening?
8) Not understanding what “maintain” means
At the mayor’s Christmas party that year, he gave the reporter involved a personal “maintenance” kit. The press corps gave him a dictionary.
9) Refusing to discuss his weekend schedule
Being leader of the greatest city in the world means letting us know where you are.
10) Telling a reporter to go to the back of the room
It often seemed like the problem wasn’t reporters getting under the mayor’s skin, but rather that he’d been born with no skin at all.
Ten Best Ideas
1) Affordable Housing
The plan had its limits and some of the units were not affordable to the neighborhoods they served, but the creation or preservation of 160,000 units over 11 years is a signal accomplishment.
2) Small High Schools
Closing the old, big schools had a host of complex consequences, but the rising graduation rates don’t lie.
3) Select Bus Service
Over political resistance, Bloomberg launched the most cost-effective way to bring New York’s transit system into the 21st Century.
4) The smoking ban
This saved thousands of lives.
6) Roosevelt Island tech campus
A visionary example of how the government can and should interfere in the economy.
7) Bike lanes
Some (and only some) of the complaints are legit, but the mayor’s expansion of the bike-lane network made a fun, healthy and green method of transit practical.
8) The diet measures
I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I will live longer because of the calorie counts and the ban on trans fats.
9) The bad rezonings
While some of the administration’s record number of rezonings were harmful (see below) and others are still unrolling (see further below), many were modest and sensible.
10) Juvenile justice reform
Reducing detention and bringing detainees closer to home was humane and sensible.
Ten Worst Ideas
1) Conditional cash transfers
This gimmicky anchor program for the mayor’s anti-poverty initiative was based largely on the idea that poverty is chiefly a behavioral problem.
2) Cathie Black
How could the mayor put the future of a million kids and the most important aspect of his legacy in the hands of someone so poorly qualified?
3) Ending the shelter-Section 8 link
The mayor thought the chance to get priority for housing benefits drew people into the homeless shelter system, so ended it. They came anyway, and eventually, there was nowhere for them to go.
4) Vetoing the living wage
In a city accumulating huge numbers of low-paying jobs, why is it so crazy to insist that publicly subsidized developments pay more than a poverty wage?
5) Opposing paid sick leave
For a mayor so deeply committed to public health, the refusal to recognize a basic workers’ right was deeply puzzling.
6) Charter school co-locations
These are often unfair to kids and parents, and very bad politics for a charter school movement that needs allies.
7) Welfare diversion
Welfare rolls fell as the recession worsened in New York City. The administration saw that as a success. It could also be seen as a failure of safety-net policy.
8) Yankee Stadium
It was immoral to subsidize the construction of a playground for the world’s richest sports franchise on top of parks used by some of the city’s poorest people,
9) Willets Point
Rather than improve a functioning blue-collar employment hub, the mayor wants to pave it over for a mall and some housing.
10) The bad rezonings
Greenpoint-Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn were among several that hurt low-income renters, small businesses and manufacturing.
Ten Biggest Disappointments (His and/or Ours)
1) Fixing the MTA
One of the mayor’s 2009 re-election promises was to implement a slew of innovations to strengthen the transit system. Many of the ideas never went anywhere.
2) Reducing homelessness
He set an ambitious goal, but his efforts to meet it were hamstrung by preconceived notions about why people seek shelter and what they need when they get there.
3) Reducing poverty.
He promised a major reduction, put in place small-bore programs and congratulated himself on the city’s treading water.
4) Congestion pricing
A perfectly good idea that was terribly packaged as anti-driver, when it was really about saving the subway system.
5) Nonpartisan elections
The mayor was a poor messenger for this idea, but declining turnout means it’s worth reconsidering.
6) The 2010 charter revision
His charter revision panel focused narrowly on repairing the term-limits damage, missing a chance for broader reforms.
Lots of good data went online, but getting press questions answered or FOIL requests fulfilled was too hard at some agencies.
The administration gets credit for setting goals for percentages of city contracts going to minority- and women-owned businesses. It gets poor grades for meeting those targets.
9) Lack of inclusion
Bloomberg’s cabinet was surprisingly white in a city becoming less so.
10) Very few town hall meetings
If Rudy Giuliani could stomach them, why couldn’t Mike?
Ten Most Out-To-Lunch Moments
1) Sandy’s aftermath
A nimble early response devolved into paralysis. How could no one have planned for the lights being out?
2) The 2010 snowstorm
Government’s primary responsibility is to protect people in emergencies, weather or otherwise. On this one, the Bloomberg administration blew it.
A massive boondoggle and a massive fraud. Bloomberg never reacted to the warning signs.
4) Stop and frisk
The mayor let an aggressive policing program grow from defensible to unconstitutional.
Bloomberg cut operating subsidies, charged the authority for police and sanitation services and made a housing neophyte the landlord for 400,000 people.
6) The Deutsche Bank Building
Mayors don’t inspect buildings. But they ought to make sure that more than a couple low-ranking officers are held accountable when lapses at the biggest demolition site in the city lead to two firefighters’ deaths.
7) FDNY discrimination
The mayor seemed to ignore the barriers facing blacks who wanted to become firefighters, prompting aggressive court intervention.
9) John Haggerty
Bloomberg was a victim of the embezzler’s schemes. But just why was the mayor giving a political operative so much money for “ballot security” in the first place?
9) Defending the Iraq War, sans logic
“Don’t forget that the war started not very many blocks from here.” Hmmm.
10) Lloyd Blankfein
In a city with huge foreclosure numbers, long lines at food pantries and tens of thousands of unemployed people, the guy who needs a burger and a buddy is the head of Goldman Sachs?
Ten Worst Affronts to Democracy
1) Term limits overhaul
It deepened cynicism about politics, hurting us all.
2) Bringing in “paid” supporters
Having groups he helped fund testify on behalf of the term-limits change? Tammany Hall would have been proud.
3) 2001 campaign spending
Early in the race the mayor said spending more than $30 million would have been obscene. He was right. Spending $70 million was doubly obscene.
4) 2005 campaign spending
With all the advantages of incumbency, he still needed to outspend Freddy Ferrer 9 to 1.
5) 2009 campaign spending
It’s not really possible to buy an election. Unless you spend $108 million.
6) The Panel for Education Policy
We get that mayoral control means mayoral control—but then why have a panel? The illusion of democracy is worse than its absence.
7) Continuing involvement with company
Bloomberg assured us that he was at arm’s length from Bloomberg, Inc. Turns out that wasn’t true.
8) Muslim surveillance
It’s a shame Orwell died before hearing about “the demographic unit.”
9) 2004 RNC arrests
During its moment in the nation’s spotlight, the NYPD detained 1,800 protesters in abysmal conditions.
10) Atlantic Yards
If ever there were a project that deserved ULURP, it was this one. Bypassing that process was a wound to decades of efforts to involve community voices in development.
Ten Policies on Which the Jury is Still Out
1) School reforms
Poor scores on recent tests, flat performance on national benchmarks and pending change under the de Blasio administration make it hard to predict what legacy “the education mayor” will enjoy.
2) The Young Men’s Initiative
YMI is a great idea but so far demonstrates little traction.
3) Labor contracts
The mayor says the massive pile of overdue labor negotiations is a plus for his successor—who vehemently disagrees. We’ll see who’s right.
4) Debt service
The Independent Budget Office says servicing the debt on all Bloomberg’s capital expenditures is the fastest growing budget pressure. Will the investment be worth it?
5) Again, the rezonings
After a real-estate boom and a housing-sector bust, a lot of the rezonings are only now playing out in a “normal” economy. Their full impact will be visible years down the road.
The mayor added a lot of parkland. Will the city be able to maintain it all?
7) Hudson Yards
The rise of this section of the West Side will impact the entire Manhattan real-estate market, hopefully for the better.
8) Storm infrastructure
It will be up to future mayors to erect the set of coastal defenses the mayor proposed in Sandy’s aftermath.
9) Taxi plan
The green-painted taxis are a welcome site in the outer boroughs. The city is finally moving to accommodate the disabled in its Taxi of Tomorrow effort. The next mayor will see it all through.
10) Campaign finance
In three straight elections, Bloomberg’s personal spending undercut the city’s public financing system, which aimed to reduce the role of money, prevent corruption and increase engagement. How will the system evolve now?
Ten Things That Made Him Better Than Giuliani
1) His private life stayed private.
Can you imagine Bloomberg strolling down the street with his mistress while his wife waited in Gracie Mansion? Nope. And not just because Bloomberg didn’t live in Gracie Mansion.
2) He never threw a world leader out of a party.
What the Middle East didn’t need was another cheap publicity stunt. Bloomberg never went there.
4) He did not pretend to love sports.
Giuliani’s obsession with the Yankees was a little weird.
5) He achieved more civility around race.
Bloomberg could appear blind to the racial impact of some of his policies, but he was not aggressively confrontational toward black leaders.
6) He put a lot of stuff online.
Vastly more information about city operations is available on the web now than before Bloomberg was mayor, making life easier for citizens (and reporters) .
7) He did not engage in culture wars.
There was no jihad against an art museum under Mike Bloomberg.
8) He decided not to run for president.
Unlike Giuliani or John Lindsay, Bloomberg could read the writing on the wall.
9) He did not appoint Bernie Kerik.
With a couple exceptions, Bloomberg appointed very solid commissioners. So far, none of them have been nominated for federal office only to be exposed as tax cheats with previously undisclosed marriages and a penchant for entertaining mistresses in apartments donated for Ground Zero use. And that’s a good thing, right?
10) He proclaimed a City Limits Day!
Who cares if mayors issue proclamations every time a new hotdog cart opens? This baby was ours!
Ten City Limits Stories We Hope He Read