NEW YORK — Before a polite and curious audience at the Gramercy Park Republican Club, billionaire businessman Mike Bloomberg is making his pitch to be mayor of the Big Apple, one of the most powerful political positions in the country.
In a crisp gray suit with a red-apple lapel pin, Mr. Bloomberg explained that the mayor's job - like that of any corporate tycoon - is to inspire and lead people. And that means, sometimes, telling them they can't always get what they want.
"You have to look people in the eye and say, 'I know you want everything, but you can't have it all,' " he told the crowd.
You could almost see his political consultant cringe.
Undaunted by his lack of experience, and buoyed to immediate legitimacy by the personal fortune, Bloomberg is banking on one of the most enduring myths in modern American politics to catapult him to victory: that a businessman can automatically do anything a politician can - and better.
That was what propelled Ross Perot into the presidential contenders' ring in 1992 and helped businessman-turned-politician Richard Riordan win the top job in Los Angeles. It's an idea that political historian Robert Mutch says can be traced to the progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century. But, he adds, it's also one that doesn't always translate into reality.
"There are many different talents," says Mr. Mutch. "It is no more true that someone who's met a payroll is going to be better at the helm of some government than to assume that a politician would be equally good at running a business."
Still, that notion is very much at the heart of Bloomberg's bid to succeed Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who was a slightly more seasoned political newcomer when he won his second bid for the mayor's job in 1992.
Back then, the city was in crisis, with spiraling crime rates and budget deficits. It's at such times that outsiders and businessmen tend to do best in the political world.
"When things are going really badly, they can say, 'I'm an outsider, I can shake things up, I can fix things,' " says Philip Klinker, a professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. "When things are going relatively well, people look for a continuation of that status quo."
Bloomberg, an unabashed fan of Mr. Giuliani's success in turning the city around, insists that, as an outsider, he's the best choice to continue and improve the status quo.
He routinely trumpets that he came to New York with "debts and a dream," then succeeded both on Wall Street and as an entrepreneur who built a financial-information empire. He contends he's the only candidate who has "already created thousands of private-sector jobs and balanced billion-dollar budgets."
"The skills are transferable," he said on a recent subway ride. "In business, you're trying to maximize profits. In government, you're trying to maximize services." One way to do that, he says, is leading by example. More accustomed to traveling in private limos, the long-shot mayoral hopeful recently pledged that if elected, he would take one form of public transportation every day - either the subway, a bus, or a taxi.
But Bloomberg's businesslike, straight-shooting approach has already raised some hackles, particularly Republican ones. A lifelong Democrat and unabashed liberal, he is running as a Republican because four seasoned Democratic pols are vying for the Democratic nomination, and the "opportunity to run as a Democrat was just not there."
That prompted WNYC's Brian Lehrer to ask this week: "So, are you saying you're a lifelong Democrat who joined the Republican Party to bypass the Democratic primary?"
No, Bloomberg calmly replied; it was just the most rational way to reach voters.
But for many lifelong Republicans, particularly politically active ones like David Berkowitz, Bloomberg has to do better than that. "The fact that he's come over to the Republican Party with his money to take the election means he's going to have to prove himself," said Mr. Berkowitz, after hearing Bloomberg's pitch at Gramercy. "But I do think private-sector efficiency is needed [in government]."
Bloomberg's opponents have also latched onto his big expenditures. He's already doled out more than $8 million of his own money, more than all the other candidates combined. But Bloomberg shrugs off such criticism, invoking the names of Rockefeller and Kennedy.
Indeed, he says he takes his "hat off" to anyone who wants to spend his or her own money to make the world a better place.
That tack seems to work with voters. The American electorate has never gotten "exercised" about people dipping into their own deep pockets for a political run, according to Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
"They almost prefer it to politicians spending interest-group money," he says. "They know they are no payoffs involved."
Like other scholars, Mr. Sabato also points out that the skills involved in governing are very different from those needed to run a business. For one, a politician doesn't have the ability to choose his constituents as a businessperson can choose and target clients.
Bloomberg believes he understands that difference and can make the shift. "I may not be a very good politician, I may not say what people want to hear," he says. "But I think if I work 24 hours a day, seven days a week after I get elected, and if I'm honest and open ... people will see somebody who's different and really cares."
Others are withholding judgment. "It's totally different. There are automatic inefficiencies in government that wouldn't be tolerated by business, but they're a fundamental part of the services government provides," says Sabato. "There's a steep learning curve, and some of them make it, and others don't."
Profile: Mike Bloomberg
Was born in the blue-collar town of Medford, Mass. His mother, Charlotte, still lives there. His father, the late William Henry, was the bookkeeper at a local dairy.
Parked cars and took out loans to finance his education at Johns Hopkins University. He earned an MBA from Harvard.
Was hired by Salomon Brothers in 1966 and was named a partner in the firm six years later. But after a 1981 merger, Salomon let him go - with a $10 million payoff.
Built from scratch a billion-dollar media empire that includes Bloomberg News, Bloomberg Radio, Bloomberg Television, and Bloomberg.com.
Wrote "Bloomberg by Bloomberg," which was published in 1997.
Is divorced. He has two daughters, Emma and Georgina.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor