New Yorkers revile, but listen to, their mayor

His approval ratings are down, but analysts say he's effectively communicated the challenges the city faces.

Kathy Confesor rolls her eyes as she wipes the pink linoleum counter at the Court Square Diner in Queens.

"The mayor? Nobody's happy about him," she says. "Taxes are going up, everything's getting more expensive, and it's not going to get any better anytime soon."

But don't tell that to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In a sign of a clear disconnect with some voters, he's pretty optimistic. After his first year in office wrestling with billion-dollar deficits, record tax hikes, and painful budget cuts, he seems completely undaunted by the fallout: plummeting poll ratings and catcalls from police cadets after he talked of layoffs.

"Listen, you can't worry about that," he told reporters fresh from his dissing this week at the Madison Square Garden Police Academy graduation. "You have to do what's right."

That is exactly what the mayor believes he is continuing to do. And with his legendary confidence and low-key style, Mr. Bloomberg has scored some stunning policy coups amid the fiscal pain - many of which he touted during Thursday's State of the City address:

• He's wrested the schools from the dysfunctional Board of Education, a goal that's eluded the city's past two mayors.

• He's put in place the first major initiative in more than a decade to build affordable housing.

• He has negotiated an end to a 20-year legal fight over the city's handling of the homeless.

• He's implemented one of the toughest smoking bans in the country.

• And crime has continued to plummet on his watch, despite a reduced force after 9/11.

Indeed, Bloomberg has been credited with shepherding the city through torturous fiscal times in the still-painful recovery from 9/11. And doing it all with some innovative ideas and plenty of plain talk.

"He's doing superbly," says former Mayor Ed Koch. "Anyone who's mayor at a time when you have to increase taxes and reduce the workforce would get negative ratings because people just simply don't want to pay the dues required to balance the budget."

Several years into office, Mayor Koch's ratings took a dive, as did those for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. In fact, just before Mr. Giuliani's handling of 9/11 endowed him with a kind of national political sainthood, his approval ratings were pretty dismal.

Now, some analysts contend that Bloomberg's tanking poll numbers - a 31 percent approval rating in the latest New York Times survey - actually mask something successful that has eluded a number of mayors: an ability to tell people the truth and have them believe him.

In the mid-1970s, with the city on the verge of bankruptcy, Mayor Abe Beame kept warning New Yorkers that fiscal disaster was imminent, but nobody believed him until the bankers were at City Hall. Bloomberg, on the other hand, has successfully convinced 89 percent of the people that the city's fiscal crisis is real and has to be dealt with.

"Whether or not Bloomberg's made them love him, they do listen to him," says Maurice Carroll of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute. "While that may not reflect a lot of affection, to be listened to is a sign of respect, and it's certainly a plus."

Back at the Court Square Diner, John, a retired cop, is sitting down to a late-afternoon BLT and coffee. He's not happy with the mayor either, but he's sympathetic to Bloomberg's situation: "He's doing what he has to do, but it's not going to increase his popularity."

Alberto Gil, who has come for coffee with a friend, agrees that these are tough times, and he doesn't think Bloomberg is a bad guy. But he's furious about the ban on smoking in all restaurants and bars. "He should let people smoke in bars. He's trying to impose too much control," he says.

Talk of the smoking ban, the doubled fines for parking tickets, and higher taxes echoed repeatedly during the afternoon as the cash register clinked and coffee was passed over the counter. Not once did anyone mention Bloomberg's attention to building affordable housing, or his historic takeover of the schools - the thing on which he says his mayoralty should ultimately be judged.

"There's a disconnect between his policies and the coalition that elected him," says Fred Siegel, a New York analyst and senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. "He was elected by the Giuliani Democrats in Queens and Staten Island, and he's governing on behalf of [the more affluent] Upper East Side."

Take taxes. People on the Upper East Side are generally more able to absorb the 18.5 percent property-tax hike. Or as waitress Confesor puts it: "They don't have to live from week to week like the rest of us."

Mr. Siegel and other critics fault Bloomberg for raising taxes before squeezing more waste out of the city's bureaucracy. Many even mocked the mayor in the fall, when he said he thought New York was already a pretty efficient city.

Bloomberg was unmoved. He was adamant that he'd rather raise taxes than cut too deeply into city services and thus affect the quality of life.

But a month ago, it became apparent the deficit would be even bigger than Bloomberg had anticipated, and he asked city departments for yet another round of cuts. That prompted some critics to accuse him of playing politics, of waiting until after the reelection of a fellow Republican, Gov. George Pataki, to start meting out the real budget pain.

"People are annoyed at him. They want to know why it took him so long to start cutting the budget," says Joseph Mercurio, a national political consultant based in New York.

But overall, Bloomberg takes these criticisms in stride. When asked if his negative ratings were really a reflection of the city's economic woes, he responded with his trademark dry wit.

"One can only hope," he said with a smile. "I'll certainly tell my daughters that's what it is."

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