N.Y.C. mayor now faces the hard part
Media titan will test whether private-sector acumen translates to messy world of politics.
NEW YORK — Michael Bloomberg became New York City's 108th mayor this week on a chilled sunny day just blocks from the gutted site of the World Trade Towers - a juxtaposition that was far more than symbolic.
The ascendancy of this financial titan to the pinnacle of urban political power in the United States will offer one of the purest tests yet of how much business acumen can help in governing a city in a time of crisis.
Throughout history, from Calvin Coolidge to Ross Perot, various politicians have pitched the virtues of applying the principles of business to the chaotic practice of politics.
Now, Mr. Bloomberg will have to summon all his know-how from the private sector to help see the city recover from the worst terrorist strike in US history and the toughest fiscal woes in three decades.
This is not to say that the Republican doesn't come to the job with some political skills. He did, after all, defeat a career politician, Mark Green, for the mayoral post - albeit by using a record $70 million of his own money. Yet his world, up to now, has largely been one of balance sheets and profit margins.
In his inaugural address, the new mayor reflected elements of both the worlds of business and politics: He spoke with a politician's determination and optimism, but kept his remarks to a business-brief 14 minutes.
Given his background, expectations are high here that he will be able to shepherd New York through the difficult financial times ahead. But there's also concern Bloomberg's brand of corporate and entrepreneurial acumen may not translate into the political skills needed to navigate the city's sensitive - and sometimes explosive - ethnic and political terrain.
"No one has a clue how he'll govern. During the campaign, he was protected by a wall of money and advisers," says Fred Siegel, a political analyst at the Cooper Union for Science and Art in Manhattan. "This is the least-examined new mayor in New York memory because of the combination of 9/11, anthrax, and the war."
Wrapped in a bright red scarf and dark coat, Bloomberg exhibited both his supreme confidence and discomfort with political speeches. He stuck closely to his script, beginning with a call for sacrifice, then urging all New Yorkers to draw on their enormous "energy, entrepreneurship, and talents."
"We will rebuild, renew, and remain the capital of the free world," he told a crowd in front of the steps of City Hall. "Throughout our history, New Yorkers have always made the sacrifices to build a better tomorrow - and there will be a better tomorrow."
The challenges that face the low-key and very private Bloomberg are daunting. He is taking the helm of a city transformed both by the stern, paternal hand of his operatic and now towering predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani, as well as by the sudden terror that rained down Sept. 11. It is at once a stronger, safer place than in recent memory, but one that is still recovering from what Bloomberg called "our darkest hour."
Under Mr. Giuliani's leadership, crime dropped a record 64 percent, graffiti disappeared from the subways, neighborhoods revived, and businesses thrived. New York, once called "ungovernable," became livable again.
Then came the attacks that tore a hole in the heart of the financial sector and exacerbated an economic slowdown that was already threatening the city's swaggering boom times. As a result, Bloomberg now must close a $4 billion deficit in his first year - that's 10 percent of the city's $40 billion budget. He must also shepherd the rebuilding of downtown - to many a now-sacred site - rehabilitate the chronically failing schools, and, at the same time, restore the confidence of the business community and the edgy middle class.
He pledged to do it all by creating "a new partnership," a nonpartisan one, that he will lead by example. And he started by promising to cut his own staff by 20 percent and challenging other city leaders to do the same.
That elicited a chuckle from the crowd, an indication that maybe more than "example" will be needed to satisfy and rein in the millions of the sometimes-conflicting demands of New Yorkers.
"There are a lot of question marks," says Lee Miringoff of the Marist Polling Institute in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "The chasm between running and governing is enormous."
But his supporters are confident that Bloomberg is a quick study and that his business and street smarts are transferable to running this unwieldy city. They point to his private-sector success in turning a generous severance bonus after being fired into an international financial information and media company.
"He took $10 million and converted it into $4 billion. I would say that makes him an alchemist," says former Mayor Ed Koch, who supported Bloomberg during the campaign. "He did it for himself. My hope now is that he'll do it for us."
Bloomberg will have to work any wonders in the shadow of his now highly popular predecessor, Giuliani. In the days leading up to the transfer of power, the two lauded each other at every opportunity, and often hugged and laughed together. During the inauguration speech, Bloomberg made it clear it was a highly personal, as well as political, transition: "Last night in Times Square when Rudy swore me in, he said to me, 'Don't fail our people.' Rudy, I will not."
Still, there's no question that comparisons will be made between the two. "He's certainly different from Mr. Ubiquitous," says New York political analyst Maurice Carroll. "Giuliani was always there, and this guy says he occasionally wants to take a vacation and be left alone."