After 12 years as mayor, Michael Bloomberg is leaving office and leaving behind a city that is, in many respects, better than it was when he succeeded Rudy Giuliani. At the same time, there are some policies of the previous mayor that Mr. Bloomberg failed to undo, and as a result, the city is no better off. Indeed, given the time lost, it is arguably in a weaker position.
First and foremost, he did a great deal to detoxify the relationship between the NYPD and the various ethnic minorities that make up the city. Stop and frisk remains an odious policy of doubtful utility, but 12 years ago, things between the cops and the non-white residents of New York were somewhere between cold and Antarctic. Despite his love of turning the cops loose on peaceful protesters, Bloomberg has made the police a bit more responsible and responsive to community needs and desires. Naturally, he benefits most from the fact that he isn’t Rudy Giuliani.
Next, I give him credit for getting the cigarette smoke out of the bars and restaurants of New York. I realize that avid smokers are annoyed to no end about this, and I never really cared if someone lit up next to me while I was downing a pint. At least, that is, until they couldn’t. I don’t miss the cigarette and cigar smoke that used to permeate my clothes and hair when I went out at night.
While we’re on the subject of quality of life, he made Times Square a pedestrian zone, increased the number of bicycle lanes and tried to get a congestion charge through to reduce the number of cars in Manhattan. The Citibike program hasn’t expanded enough, but all of this makes the city easier to navigate.
Then, there is his fiscal responsibility. New York has run a surplus since he took office, and did so at a time when the city got hit by the aftermath of 9/11 and the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. Politically, I am pretty far to the left even by European standards, but I also believe that a social program you can’t pay for isn’t worth anything at all. Bloomberg gets credit for raising property taxes at a time when income and sales taxes couldn’t grow because of the economy’s condition.
Crime has plummeted under Bloomberg. Since 2001, car thefts are down 73 percent, burglaries 41 percent, assaults 17 percent, rapes 27 percent, and murders are down 35 percent. While a lot of these trends were in place before he took office (and before the stupid stop and frisk came to be), it isn’t all down to him. What he should get credit for is not fixing things that weren’t broken.
Related to that is his opposition to freely available guns. I have said before that I am something of an agnostic on guns. There are places where they are very useful. New York City, though, isn’t one of those places, and Bloomberg’s attempts to counter the gun-manufacturing lobby known as the National Rifle Association deserves at least two cheers.
His screwups? Let’s start with inequality. About 20% of New Yorkers live below the poverty line, and 25% can see the line from where they are. We have 50,000 homeless by most estimates. We also have more billionaires than anywhere else in the world. Compare the top 20% by income to the bottom 20% and the disparity is similar to that of many African nations. Bloomberg’s pro-business, pro-wealth views did nothing to alleviate any of this, and without a large, fat, happy middle class, society starts to get pretty ugly.
He took over the public schools, and then, he didn’t seem to know what to do with them. His charter schools took millions upon millions from the taxpayer, but study after study shows that they don’t educate any better than public schools. In many cases, they don’t do the job as well. As a father of three who has experienced both public and private schools in New York, I think I can say that most parents simply want a solid neighborhood school where the bright kids get the extra opportunities their talents need, the bunch in the middle get good, caring instruction and those at the bottom have the support they need to become responsible adults. Bloomberg gets a failing grade here.
And like most of his recent predecessors, Mayor Bloomberg conflated New York City with the Island of Manhattan. A title of a recent report from the Public Advocate’s Office (one Bill de Blasio, by the way) says enough: “Borough Bias: How the Bloomberg Administration Drains Outer Borough Businesses.” I don’t know if he could find the Rockaways on a map, but they haven’t recovered from Hurricane Sandy, which hit over a year ago. The locals there feel abandoned by City Hall. The outer borough green taxis are nice (I’ve taken precisely two since they came into being), but they don’t really balance out the rest.
Finally, I can’t forgive him for the sneaky way he arranged a third term for himself and many on the city council. Three times since 1993, New Yorkers have passed initiatives that have limited New York mayors and other elected city officials to two terms of four years each. In 2008, Bloomberg and his pals on the city council reversed one such referendum. In 2010, 76% of New York voters reinstated it. The trouble is that in between, Bloomberg won a third term.
If the courts want to strike something down because it violates the city charter or constitution, that’s one thing. As I see it, no vote of the city council should be able to overturn a referendum approved by the people — democracy forbids it. I think the means by which he got four more years after his first eight was an affront to self-government and an insult to New Yorkers. It is consistent, however, with his “father knows best” approach to government.
In the end, he gets something in the range of a C+ to B-, and he won’t be missed very much.