THE FIRST THING YOU NOTICE about Michael Bloomberg is that he doesn’t behave like other politicians. When he finishes an interview, New York’s mayor doesn’t smile or shake hands — he just gets up to go. Stuck on a podium with a class of third-graders, he doesn’t chat them up, or clown around, just coolly assesses the skies for evidence of rain. Asked whether he’s ever smoked pot, he beams and says, “You bet I did! And I enjoyed it.” Pressed to reiterate his working-class roots, so voters will forgive him for being a billionaire, he refuses. “In New York City politics, there’s a race to the bottom: ‘My mother washed more floors than your mother, for less money.’ I mean, come on.” Bloomberg behaves like someone who believes he has discovered an alternate political physics, one where the normal rules don’t apply.
Bloomberg is small and stands very straight and wears great suits and has a face that looks strikingly fresh, exfoliated to the edge of pink. He gives off an air of social awkwardness and sometimes has a tin ear for the problems of ordinary New Yorkers: When the city’s transit workers threatened to strike in 2002, he showed off for the cameras a fancy, spanking-new $600 mountain bike he’d bought to ride to work and urged New Yorkers to do the same.
In recent months he has become the GOP’s loudest and fiercest internal critic. He calls the Republican position on stem-cell research “insanity,” derides the party’s gun-control legislation in Congress as “god-awful” and says of conservative plans for illegal immigrants, “We’re not going to deport 12 million people, so let’s stop this fiction.” Thanks to his loud attacks on partisanship in Washington, he has begun to be talked about as a third-party candidate for president. Here, supporters say, is a man who can bridge the blue-red divide: the Republican mayor of the nation’s biggest and bluest city, a fiscal conservative who is liberal on social issues, a power broker on a crusade against the establishment, a billionaire who spends what for a man of his class must be an unseemly amount of time in the Bronx. He is coming to seem, more and more, like the Republican equivalent of Sen. Joe Lieberman: a man seemingly out of place in his own party.
Bloomberg, in fact, identifies strongly with the defeated Democrat from Connecticut. “I think what they’re doing to Joe Lieberman is a disgrace,” the mayor volunteered when I met with him in his offices in July, shortly before anti-war bloggers helped Ned Lamont beat Lieberman in the primary. Lieberman lost not because he supported the war in Iraq, Bloomberg insisted, but because “he’s been willing to say what he believes even if it doesn’t help the, quote, party.” The mayor was as apoplectic as he gets — not quite angry, exactly, but deeply, deeply annoyed. “My point is that there are things you’ve got to stand up for,” he said. “And when we are intolerant of opposing views, what does that say about us?” What Bloomberg calls intolerance, of course, others call voting: The mayor has an unrepentant streak that can come across as undemocratic.
A few days later, Bloomberg was offering to campaign for Lieberman — and political observers wondered whether the move wasn’t a calculated way to pull in support among centrist Democrats for Bloomberg ’08. Although the mayor has frequently dismissed the possibility of a self-financed presidential run (“Which letter in the word ‘no’ do you not understand?”), he has recently turned more coy. At a dinner party this spring, he noted that he had half a billion dollars to devote to a bid for the White House, the kind of cash that would enable him to completely bypass the political parties. And in August, Bloomberg had dinner with Al From, the head of the Democratic Leadership Council and the centrist kingmaker behind Bill Clinton’s run for the presidency. (Bloomberg, long a Democrat, switched parties to run for mayor.) This summer, when I met Bloomberg in his office, he told me in no uncertain terms, “I won’t be announcing any candidacy for any office — sorry to disappoint.” But one of his senior advisers, a few minutes later, walked up to me and said, “You’re in for ’08, right? You’re on the bus?”
Bloomberg’s wealth — the size of the annual national product of the Bahamas — is hard to ignore. The plain fact is that he enjoys being rich. He has a private plane, which he uses to toggle between his $17 million town house on New York’s Upper East Side, a $10 million Victorian town house in London, a $10.5 million estate in Bermuda, a $1.5 million condo in Vail and another house north of Manhattan, which he bought, as New York magazine put it, “as a base for his daughter Georgina’s equestrian training.” He has taken trips to promote the city of New York to Greece, Afghanistan and Turkey (dining with the mayor of Istanbul in a former prison that has been converted into a Four Seasons hotel), paying for the trips himself. “I went to Miami with the mayor for a meeting once,” said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “And when we were ready to fly back, there was some problem with the mayor’s plane. So we got on his other plane. That was pretty good.”
Americans have historically been suspicious of the very rich getting involved in politics; all those billions too close to the voting booth seem like something edging a little too close to monarchy. Even the most philanthropically inclined billionaires, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are spending their money on social services that circumvent government. Bloomberg is trying something different: not just buying himself into public office but banking on his vast reserves of cash — which mean he never has to take a single campaign donation — to render politics irrelevant. He aims to forge an unlikely brand of politics: billionaire populism. Along the rotten old industrial sections of Brooklyn and the Bronx, bright glass buildings are rapidly being pushed into the empty ghetto spaces between warehouses as if some wealthy, distant hand were playing Monopoly with the boroughs. That distant hand, of course, is Bloomberg’s. But in his time in New York, the mayor has already achieved something more profound, and lasting, than mere development: He has shown Americans what they might get if they ever manage to get politics out of government.
IT IS SUMMER IN THE SOUTH BRONX, in the nation’s poorest congressional district, and a tall Puerto Rican politician named Adolfo Carrión Jr. is addressing the Chamber of Commerce. Carrión, the Bronx borough president, is remembering an ugly episode in the city’s history. As a child in 1977, he tells the crowd, he watched as the broadcast of the World Series at Yankee Stadium cut away to images just outside the ballpark, where rioters had started a fire in an empty elementary school that had engulfed the surrounding streets. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Howard Cosell intoned, “the Bronx is burning.” The moment would become a symbol for the next quarter-century of chaos in New York’s outer boroughs.
But Carrión is here today to mark a new epoch: The ugliest ghetto in the country, he says, has cut unemployment to six percent, about the same as Sweden, and is sending up airy new high-rises in lots that once burned. Carrión waits for the applause to die down, and then he turns to the small, stiff-standing white guy on his left. The mayor, he says, deserves the credit. Carrión is a liberal Democrat who opposed the billionaire businessman when he first ran for office; now, he tells the crowd, Bloomberg will go down “as one of the greatest mayors — if not the greatest — in our history.”
I met with Bloomberg in the vast, open room in City Hall that his aides call the bullpen, a room that is itself one of the mayor’s proudest accomplishments. An unabashed management geek, Bloomberg conducts his interviews here, at a square table on a platform running the length of the room, to show off the triumph. The room is designed to democratize the business of governing; no one, not even the mayor, gets his own office. Instead, everyone sits at stations at long banks of desks, like daises at a phone-a-thon. Bloomberg spends most of his time here, bouncing around the room, looking over his subordinates’ shoulders and pressing them about data. Bloomberg is a freak for facts, and his administration is premised on the idea that if you run the right regressions on nearly anything, you can figure out how to help the most people the best. “Every time I see him, he says, ‘How are the numbers?'” says Shaun Donovan, the mayor’s housing commissioner. There’s a frenetic and excited energy about the room, because at any moment the big man might challenge you. “It’s your agency,” he’ll tell subordinates. “Don’t screw it up.” When the mayor has more pressing business to attend to, his aides have to wander down into the bullpen and pull him away.
Even after nearly five years as mayor, Bloomberg can still sound shockingly out of touch, as if the lives of the poor are a matter of anthropology. I asked him what it was like to walk through working-class neighborhoods in the outer boroughs during his first campaign. “I was, I don’t want to say surprised, but struck,” he said. “They work in jobs that many of us might not rush to say that’s where we work or that’s what we did, but they are proud of those jobs.” The mayor still seems most comfortable with people when they are abstracted, as statistics. Three years into his term, The New York Times considered it news that the mayor “can now kiss babies and flick a thumbs-up without explicit instructions from his press secretary.”
When Bloomberg has failed, it has been from an insular bullheadedness, a political naiveté that failed to comprehend that ideas that looked great on the bullpen’s spreadsheets might not seem so great to ordinary people outside City Hall. Bloomberg lobbied hard for a long-shot project to bring the Olympics to New York, eventually losing out to London, when most city politicians would have given up. He also spent years pushing a vast, city-funded football stadium for a rusting, city-owned rail yard on Manhattan’s West Side, one that his economists told him would spur an economic renaissance in that neighborhood. But he overestimated his political clout, and the owners of nearby Madison Square Garden — who didn’t want the competition — joined with local residents and real-estate developers to kill the stadium plan. In a typical Bloomberg flourish, his opponents hadn’t just blocked his pet project — they had “let down America.”
But Bloomberg has been equally stubborn in his successes. His signature initiative was his decision to ban smoking in public places, an idea that, the bullpen’s spreadsheets assured him, would keep thousands of New Yorkers from dying of heart disease. The restaurant and hotel industry — powerful players in New York — hated the idea, because they thought it would cost them business. When Vanity Fair’s editor, Graydon Carter, a celebrity from Bloomberg’s own social circle, protested the “imperial” law by smoking in his office, the city sent cops to the magazine’s headquarters to write a ticket. The bill passed, and deaths from heart disease in the city dropped by 1,200 in the first year — “which is almost exactly what the statistics predicted,” the mayor says, looking pleased with himself.
Bloomberg’s most successful initiatives are often like this — moves everybody thought would be good ideas but that had been considered politically impossible. He first ran for office saying that he wanted to reform the city’s schools, seeking to break up the city’s Board of Education and hold individual schools responsible for results — a move opposed by the powerful teachers’ union. As the first mayor in years not to need the union’s support, Bloomberg won this fight, too, and test scores across the city have increased by as much as nineteen points.
By the 1990s, New York had become a den of murders and chaos, a gory gang screenplay come to life, and Rudy Giuliani became a national hero by using innovative policing techniques to seal off ghettos, helping to cut the city’s murder rate from 2,200 per year to its present level of less than 600, which is lower than it was in 1965. Bloomberg’s great ambition has been to better Giuliani by not just beating the ghetto back but by Manhattanizing it, bringing businesses and middle-class neighborhoods to places long ago abandoned as hopeless, and trying to rebuild the city from the bottom up. The mayor has completely revamped the city’s property tax code, enacting the largest tax hike in New York’s history and turning the city’s $6 billion deficit into a record $3.6 billion surplus. He has presided over what has become the largest affordable-housing initiative in the nation’s history, cutting deals with developers to convert rotting industrial parks into high-end apartments, with a portion of the units reserved for middle-class families. And he has spent more on parks in the outer boroughs than anyone since the New Deal.
The rapid development has led to accusations of cronyism, and a state judge ruled in June that Bloomberg’s administration gave a contract to a favored developer without competitive bidding. The mayor’s emphasis on business growth, critics say, has done little to help the one in five New Yorkers who lives in poverty. “Mike Bloomberg thinks everything’s going just great in this town,” said Fernando Ferrer, the mayor’s Democratic opponent in the last election. “For some it is, but for millions of others it isn’t. There are two New Yorks.”
But it has been difficult to argue with the effect: a booming economy all over the city and flashy commercial strips popping up in unlikely corners of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Bloomberg’s approval ratings, once mired in the George Bush territory of the low thirties, are now consistently above seventy percent, and when he trounced Ferrer last year, it was the largest margin for a Republican mayor in the city’s history. Douglas Muzzio, a professor of political science at the City University of New York and a longtime observer of the city’s politics, is only half-joking when he credits Bloomberg with creating a whole new category of American politician: “plutocrat as philosopher king.”
NOWHERE IS BLOOMBERG’S INDEPENDENT streak more evident than in the way he handles the dicey political territory of terrorism. Say the threat is dire, and you look like a fear-monger; say it’s overblown, and you look naive. Bloomberg, who has seen the intelligence reports and has dispatched NYPD officers to London, Afghanistan and the Middle East to investigate the jihadist threat, doesn’t hesitate. Americans, he tells me, are “too freaked out” about the threat of another attack. “There is a much greater risk from lifestyles that hurt you — smoking, walking across the street without looking both ways, not putting bars in the window if you’ve got kids and you live above the first floor, those kinds of things.” In recent months, as the mayor’s national profile has grown, he seems to be going out of his way to say the blunt and controversial thing. He recently sued fifteen gun dealers for selling weapons that ended up being used in hundreds of crimes, angering the powerful National Rifle Association and alienating many in the GOP. I ask him whether there is a single stance that his own party, moving ever rightward, has taken in the last few years that makes him proud to be a Republican. “Neither proud nor disgusted,” he says. The Democrats aren’t any better, he adds: “Take a look at one of the most contentious issues — guns. Howard Dean has been eight times endorsed by the NRA, and you’re going to tell me this is a Republican issue? I’m sorry, no, it’s an outrage.”
Bloomberg is in a unique position in American politics: Thanks to his wealth, no party or politician can force him to wait his turn if he decides to run for president. He often seems more comfortable with Democrats than with members of his own party. He is close with Sen. Hillary Clinton, but he’s closer with New York’s other senator, the hard-charging Democrat Chuck Schumer, with whom he sometimes speaks several times a day, and whose wife Bloomberg employs. If he decides to run, such alliances are unlikely to win him many friends in Republican territory. “It’s hard to imagine Bloomberg winning a single red state,” says Marshall Wittmann, a centrist political strategist and the former communications director for another GOP maverick, Sen. John McCain.
It’s true that Bloomberg might come off as too much of a wealthy, detached New York liberal to play in red America. But his biography, political handicappers point out, has the kind of scrappiness that plays well in the heartland: He started off far poorer than George Bush, John Kerry or Al Gore and ended up far richer than all of them combined. The hope for Bloomberg is that he might buy himself the same independence from national interests that he enjoys in New York, at a moment when polls show that a growing number of Americans long for an alternative to the two major parties. The hope, in other words, is that Bloomberg might prove to be a more competent and saner version of Ross Perot, the wealthy, plain-spoken candidate whose third-party campaign in 1992 made both the Democrats and the Republicans look like they were speaking in jargon.
That, after all, is the kind of ambition that $6 billion in the bank might buy.