Monday, 7 October 2013

Beyond the Bloomberg years

Here in New York there has been a lot of looking back over the 12 Bloomberg years lately as his regime enters its final months. It’s interesting to hear all the perspectives and to note that everyone, without a single exception that comes to mind, has mixed feelings about the guy.

In addition, we can now grasp the political zeitgeist a bit more clearly after the wacky mayoral primary just concluded. It’s a tale of elite disconnect and the usual cluelessness of the powerful.

Bloomberg himself contributed to the reflections with a long interview in New York magazine, the gossipy celebrity-driven weekly that provides far more detail on the rich and famous than anyone should confess to wanting. In it, he outlines why his three terms in office were the best thing that ever happened to the city and also that he’s really great, what, are you stupid or something?

On the positive side of the ledger is the fact that Bloomberg handled the crisis atmosphere of the early years fairly well. He came into office amidst the collective trauma around 9/11 very fresh and with half the city limping back to some sort of normalcy. The local economy could have been in serious long-term trouble given the fears of a repeat attack. It wasn’t a moment for a guy with low self-esteem.

His signature public health initiatives ranged from wildly successful (smoke-free public spaces) to respectable failures (banning super-sized sodas and congestion pricing, i.e., taxing cars at rush hour). His approach is fully in the spirit of the disturbingly dictatorial public health tradition—do it because I said so because it’s good for you. It’s hard to imagine getting cigarettes out of restaurants any other way, and the precedent has been copied all over the world. But while Bloomberg always noticed that people were put off by this approach, he never expressed the slightest understanding for their resistance. It was a pattern repeated in all aspects of his tenure, and we’re now living through the reaction.

For example, policing practices in New York are and have been appalling, and here too Bloomberg just bulldozes forward with his buddy Commissioner Kelly, insisting that Keeping Us Safe justifies any abuse they decide is necessary. It’s the same mentality at work, except that here we’re not dealing with a kid’s 64-ounce Dr Pepper, but rather that same kid’s physical wellbeing and survival. NYPD’s notorious permanent ‘stop & frisk’ dragnets are probably the number one reason that Bill de Blasio will be our next mayor instead of Christine Quinn, and neither Quinn nor Bloomberg ever fully grasped how pissed off people are over it.

Quinn, the current City Council president, was the heavy favorite to succeed Bloomberg, and it’s still a bit amazing that her early commanding lead collapsed so precipitously, landing her in a distant third place in the Democratic primary. As several commentators have pointed out, she played up her technical knowledge, her grasp of city issues and her reasonableness, which policy nerds like me respected. But that same careful approach buried her. It never occurred to her to take the TV cameras and go visit the family of Ramarley Graham, the unarmed 19-year-old whom the cops followed into his Bronx bathroom and shot dead in front of his grandmother. If she had made that call, Kelly would have had a cow, and Quinn might be mayor.

Meanwhile, de Blasio denounced the rich, made a scene at the closing of a Brooklyn hospital, and showed off his biracial family. It was cheap, theatrical and very effective, which suggests that under the glossy surface that Bloomberg is so proud of, with the new buildings going up everywhere and the improvements in bike lanes, a lot of people are not doing well and are not happy about it. We’re so used to having Bloomberg around as mayor (‘mayor-for-life’ is one of his common nicknames) that it will take some adjustment to start hearing from the relatively unknown de Blasio. The tabloids already have their knives sharpened to feast on him, and the cops are going to be more surly and resentful than at any time since the Dinkins years. Should be interesting.

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