Before We Look Ahead, a Look Back on Bloomberg

Mayor's first two terms marked by an amalgam of successes, failures and controversies

By Gabe Pressman
|  Saturday, Jan 2, 2010  |  Updated 10:31 AM EDT
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Bloomberg's first eight years in office were marked by an amalgam of successes, failures and controversies.

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Mayor Bloomberg promised that a new decade would bring a new beginning. He pledged to lead a nationwide coalition for immigration reform. As he was inaugurated for a third term, he called on New Yorkers to make "the greatest city in the world even greater."

The 108th mayor of New York was looking ahead. But, on this day that represents a milestone in New York's 345-year history, it may be useful to look back -- to see how this mayor has performed up to now.

In his first eight years as mayor, it's clear that Bloomberg scored impressive achievements but suffered major defeats, too.

When he first took office in 2002, the ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoking. This picture was deeply embedded in the consciousness of all New Yorkers. The new mayor's appointment of Raymond Kelly as police commissioner helped allay the anxiety of many New Yorkers. On the basis of past experience, Kelly was recognized as a man who knew the job and would do it well.

The latest statistics certainly confirm that belief, showing that the NYPD, despite budget cuts, has continued to reduce crime year after year.

Bloomberg, a multi-billionaire businessman, proved adept at managing the city’s fiscal affairs both in the early years of his administration and, later, after economic calamity struck the nation.

His ban on smoking in restaurants and public places was a model for America. The man he appointed health commissioner, Thomas Frieden, carried out this initiative brilliantly and was ultimately appointed by President Obama to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On the negative side, Bloomberg lost a battle to build a $2 billion West Side Stadium, which was designed to attract the 2012 Olympics and the Jets. He failed to resolve the conflicts and complex issues of rebuilding Ground Zero, delaying completion of a transit hub, a memorial and new office towers. He was strongly criticized for giving monetary benefits, at the city’s expense, to the Yankees and the Mets to build new stadiums.

He won mayoral control of a centralized school system for 1.1 million children. The action was designed to improve education -- and the mayor has cited better scores in math and reading tests as evidence that mayoral control, his most cherished accomplishment, is working.

But the issue is controversial. It turns out there is a big contrast between federal and state test scores and some educational experts charge that too many teachers and principals are teaching to the state tests, which New York City uses. Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the state Board of Regents, told me she was skeptical about the state tests and thought "the bar has to be raised."

The mayor won a dubious victory when he prodded the city council into overthrowing term limits, enabling him to run for a third term. This action, accomplished through helping council members with pet projects and other largess, negated two referendums in which the people voted to hold mayors to two terms. The mayor himself, before the 2009 election, said any attempt to overthrow term limits would be a disgrace. He reversed himself big time.

The term limits issue turned off many New Yorkers. The mayor, who had hoped to win by a landslide, was elected by less than five percentage points in November.

He spent more than $100 million to win his third term. His Democratic opponent, Bill Thompson, could raise only a small fraction of that amount.

Did he win this election by a fair and square campaign or did he buy City Hall? This question lingers as an unpleasant prelude to the next four years.

Mayor Bloomberg, a great philanthropist, has given hundreds of millions of dollars to charity over the years. That’s the good side of this 21st century phenomenon. The bad side is what’s perceived to be his arrogance, his inability to admit mistakes, his sometimes ill-disguised contempt for reporters and others who ask tough questions.

He will have to answer embarrassing questions, too, from two newcomers to citywide office, Comptroller John Liu and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. They will be scrutinizing his administration closely -- as they made clear in their speeches today -- and how he deals with these two officials will be watched closely by the public. 

It will be a new ball game at City Hall. Third terms have often been difficult for past mayors. 

Michael Bloomberg may be facing his most severe political test.

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