New York mayor plays host, but also tough negotiator

As GOP arrives, Bloomberg is putting fiscal discipline before politics in contract fight with fire and police unions.

As he digs into a Republican Mud Pie - a gooey, chocolate confection dreamed up by the pastry chefs at the Marriott Marquis to honor the incoming GOPers - Mayor Michael Bloomberg is clearly relishing his role as the consummate host.

And after giving his considered opinion on the honorary desert - "Mmmm...." - he voices the kind of forward-looking optimism that made him a multibillionaire and now a politician on the rebound.

"Keep in mind, at the end of next week we start working on getting [both political] conventions here four years later," he says, prompting cheers from workers in the company cafeteria of the Times Square hotel.

Not quite four years since becoming a Republican, and almost three years since terrorists blew a hole in the heart of New York's financial district, the once neophyte politician has emerged as a plain-spoken pragmatist, unafraid to make unpopular decisions even as he's become increasingly comfortable in his public role. He now appears to genuinely enjoy pressing the flesh.

But as he welcomes nearly 50,000 conventioneers and media, along with more than a quarter of a million demonstrators to New York for the week, Mayor Bloomberg is facing two critical issues that could turn out to be the defining moments of his administration. The most obvious is how well New York handles the convention and protests. If the city shines, it will help its bid for the 2012 Olympics, a top priority for Bloomberg.

Then there are the unresolved police and fire union negotiations. President Bush and his advisers, who chose New York in part because of its 9/11 backdrop, aren't happy about being picketed by New York's finest and firemen in blue.

But Bloomberg, who has a looming budget deficit to contend, is refusing to budge - putting fiscal discipline over political considerations.

"So there's a lot at stake for him," says Fred Siegel of the Progressive Policy Institute who's just completed a book on former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. "It's a conjunction of defining moments."

But Bloomberg, with his legendary self-confidence, doesn't appear worried at all. Last week, just as he was arriving to tour the Farley Post Office Building that houses the press for the convention, a group of demonstrators blocked the adjacent avenue and dropped their trousers, along with everything else. When asked about it, his response was what New Yorkers have come to learn as typically Bloombergesque - dry and a touch sardonic.

"It's New York; of course we have seven naked people on 8th Avenue," he said. "What's the question?"

In the early days of his administration, the Mayor was far less at ease with the press and speaking publicly. The stiffness that marked his early forays onto the campaign trail is now gone.

"It probably is not an easy transition from being a zillionaire who heads a company to mayor," says Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "It's a different kind of job. We're a democracy. If you want to be mayor, you got to ask people to vote for you."

Mr. Carroll says the mayor is "making a genuine effort." And polls show it's having an impact.

In July of 2003, after Bloomberg instituted an 18 percent property tax hike and banned smoking in bars, his popularity plummeted. His approval rating then hovered at a dismal 31 percent.

Bloomberg didn't waver. He made it clear he'd done what he had to do for the city's fiscal health as well as the physical well-being of bartenders and waitresses across the city. At the same time, he did start getting out more, showing up at more parades and in the neighborhoods. His approval rating has now bounced back to 44 percent.

People who have known him for some time contend that it's not Bloomberg that's changed. What's different is that New Yorkers are getting to know him better.

"It's always fun to hear him because he's always very much Mike," says Tom Neff, his former business partner who's known the mayor for 20 years. "The Mike I hear is the Mike I know."

But Bloomberg still has plenty of detractors. Many working-class New Yorkers still doubt the billionaire businessman can ever really understand what it means to live paycheck to paycheck. Then there are the heads of the police and fire unions who are indignant that the mayor is insisting they take pay raises in line with those given to other city employees.

"As far as police officers who are working hard to protect New York City he's turned a deaf ear to their plight," says Albert O'Leary, a spokesman for the New York City Patrolman's Benevolent Association. "We're among the lowest-paid big-city police officers in the nation, and this mayor refuses to make any offer other than packages that include significant give backs or loss of benefits."

As Bloomberg tries to draw a line with the unions, political analysts like Mr. Siegel contend that "he's yet to confront New York's underlying fiscal problems which are unsustainable pension and health costs."

But while Bloomberg juggles the myriad of conflicting issues that abound on this island city of more than 8 million diverse and usually quite opinionated people, he appears - more than ever - to be in his element. "I don't think I've changed," he says. "I've got the greatest job in the world."

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