THE MANY LIVES OF MICHAEL BLOOMBERG
By Eleanor Randolph
No one is more closely associated with New York City’s 21st-century renaissance than Michael Bloomberg. A self-made multibillionaire (current valuation: $56 billion), the Boston-born technocrat transformed the city in his 12 years as mayor. Crime plummeted, schools improved, racial tensions eased, the arts flourished, tourism boomed and city coffers swelled. Despite some personal flaws (crankiness, a tin ear), policy fiascoes (the West Side Stadium project) and his antidemocratic procedural end run to secure himself a third term, Bloomberg ranks by any fair reckoning as one of Gotham’s all-time greatest leaders. I say this having voted against him three times.
For all his accomplishments, though, Bloomberg seems to belong to a bygone era. Since he left office in 2014, Americans appear to have forgotten why he became a figure of historic importance in the first place.
The veteran political journalist Eleanor Randolph, who until 2016 wrote about the mayor as a member of the New York Times editorial board, has come to remind us. Her new biography, “The Many Lives of Michael Bloomberg,” is an excellent introduction not only to the man’s tenure as mayor but also to his rise as a Wall Street trader, technology innovator and media magnate (and, less remarkably, his post-mayoralty). Had he run for president this year, the book would have found a place on every political junkie’s shelf.
Brisk and engaging, “The Many Lives” is more journalistic than novelistic. Randolph prefers covering policy (she deals with transit, schools, public health, criminal justice and much more) to building suspense or exploring character. There is a short chapter on “The Bloomberg Women,” which briefly mentions his daughters, Emma and Georgina, from his 14-year marriage to Susan Brown, and introduces us to Diana Taylor, a financial executive he dated for much of his mayoralty. For most of the book, however, Bloomberg’s personal life remains offstage.
As for his political success, its most remarkable aspect may be how unexpected it was. Until the age of 59, he lacked any credentials for public office besides his entrepreneurial acumen. Randolph hustles through her subject’s climb from modest suburban origins to the renowned Salomon Brothers investment bank. Bloomberg got rich from selling stocks and bonds there (and from a $10 million payout when the company fired him), but he came into his real fortune after he left — when he saw that computers were going to revolutionize Wall Street.
In the 1970s, before ubiquitous desktop computers, a colleague told Bloomberg that a personal data terminal with up-to-the-minute market information would give him a competitive advantage in his trading. On leaving Salomon, Bloomberg found people to design such a contraption. It worked well, sold well and made him billions. Once the so-called Bloomberg terminals became essential in finance, he moved into the news media business, expanding his influence and boosting his name recognition.
Seeking new challenges, Bloomberg ran for mayor in 2001, to succeed Rudolph W. Giuliani. Back then Giuliani was alternately despised and admired for his authoritarian style. Although Bloomberg became a Republican to aid his election prospects (he would have lost in a Democratic primary), he differentiated himself from the right-wing incumbent. “I’m a liberal. I’m a liberal. I’m a liberal. I’m a LIBERAL,” he proclaimed at a press conference, alongside an embarrassed George Pataki, the Republican governor, who was endorsing him that day. In the general election Bloomberg ran against the public advocate Mark Green, whose grating manner had made him a punch line in New York politics. In the fearful post-9/11 climate, voters gave another Republican a shot.
This was, in essence, a fluke — much like the 2016 presidential race, when voters also defied pre-election polls to choose a maverick billionaire businessman without political experience. Like Donald Trump, Bloomberg had spent years in the obnoxiously macho culture of business and finance, which, as Randolph emphasizes, bred misogyny and arrogance. Also like Trump, he showed a misplaced confidence in the private sector’s virtues.
In truth, though, Bloomberg was Trump’s antithesis. Where Trump projects the stereotype of the rich man as hustler, Bloomberg’s values were noblesse oblige; he styled himself as one whose riches liberated him from petty favor-trading. His hallmark was a largely nonideological, pragmatic approach to problem-solving.
In the tradition of the original progressives — politicians like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson — Bloomberg placed expert knowledge and judgment over partisan loyalty. (He had no party to be loyal to, changing his affiliation from Democratic to Republican to independent and back to Democratic.) He hired academics and technocrats of various political hues, from his transit chief Janette Sadik-Khan, who introduced Citi Bikes and closed part of Times Square to cars, to his public health czar Thomas Frieden, who led the way to banning smoking in restaurants and distributing condoms in schools. His education policies were less sure-handed, with Bloomberg getting swept up into the early-21st-century vogue for charter schools. But Randolph defends him here, too, at least partly, arguing that he pared back the bureaucracy, expanded school choice and raised teachers’ salaries to retain able educators. Falling crime rates also persuaded families to stay in the city and keep their kids in public schools.
Randolph doesn’t hold back from discussing Bloomberg’s failures. One biggie was the West Side Stadium debacle. Many of Bloomberg’s infrastructure projects proved farsighted, like the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, the High Line park in Chelsea and the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island. But the ill-conceived scheme to erect a monstrous sports arena would have disrupted life up and down the West Side of Manhattan and handed a multibillion-dollar gift to the New York Jets. Only its defeat by the State Legislature in 2005 defused public anger. (Randolph is admirably candid about the hedging of the Times editorial board on the issue.)
Controversial, too, was the huge rise in what the police commissioner Ray Kelly called “street stops,” more commonly known as “stop and frisk.” Because the police targeted high-crime neighborhoods, these stops, which climbed from 97,296 in 2002 to 685,724 in 2011, disproportionately affected black and Hispanic residents. Bloomberg defended Kelly’s methods, which may indeed have helped reduce violent crime in minority communities, but in 2013 a district court judge found the application of the policy to be unconstitutional. Compared with the raw antagonism of the Giuliani years, racial conflict in the city subsided substantially under Bloomberg, yet his overly aggressive policing would remain a sore spot.
The other major disgrace was his suspension of mayoral term limits. In 1993, New Yorkers had restricted their mayors to two terms. But as 2009 approached, Bloomberg — who had called a previous bid to undo term limits “an outrage” — strong-armed the City Council to allow him a third term. The body voted yea, Randolph notes, “as the crowd booed and someone yelled ‘Shame on you.’” The power play highlighted what people disliked about Bloomberg: his higher regard for himself than for the people. In November 2009, despite two accomplished terms, Bloomberg barely beat the humdrum William Thompson, the city comptroller, by just 4.4 percent — a drop of more than 15 percent from 2005.
One critic who thundered against the power grab was an obscure Brooklyn city councilor named Bill de Blasio, who in 2013 rode the issue to the mayoralty himself. Now, of course, de Blasio is roundly disliked. His two appearances on the Democratic presidential debate stage have invoked in many a surge of nostalgia for Bloomberg.
But make no mistake: Bloomberg’s data-driven, pragmatic style of governance is increasingly falling out of favor, as both political parties, to varying degrees, embrace a rigidly moralized politics. Indeed, in today’s fiercely partisan climate, Bloomberg probably couldn’t get elected mayor. That this idiosyncratic and flawed but ultimately highly effective technocrat served for the 12 years between 2002 and 2014 was the strange result of a man being unexpectedly aligned with the historical times — or, we might say, something of a fluke.