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Cracks in Billionaire Bloomberg -- Bill de Blasio's Campaign Is a Full-Frontal Assault on the Mayor's Legacy

For years Bloomberg's political power and cash helped prevent a sustained attack on his style. This time he's powerless.
 
 
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Over the weekend, New York City ayor Michael Bloomberg drew attention for allegedly suggesting that Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio was  running a “racist” campaign in his bid to succeed him. This wasn’t necessarily the most revealing thing he said in the interview, and it’s not even clear he meant to use that word.

But the flap did reveal a central truth.

Michael Bloomberg is not enjoying de Blasio’s campaign — and there’s a pretty good reason why: The Democrat’s campaign represents one of the first sustained, publicly damaging attacks on his mayoralty that the billionaire has not been able to silence using an arsenal of personal relationships, political leverage and lots of money. For Bloomberg’s political and policy legacies, de Blasio’s impassioned critique (and its dramatic political success) pose a formidable threat he has not faced before.

First, some context. When Bloomberg entered office in 2001, the default setting for running City Hall was that at any given moment, you were likely to be hated by a sizable portion of the city, no matter what you did. It simply wasn’t possible to run New York in a way that would avoid vocal criticism from editorial pages, unions, business elites, leaders of numerous ethnic and cultural communities, nonprofits, good government groups, other politicians, the city council, and the organization of the opposition party (let alone your own) all at the same time.

To some extent, Michael Bloomberg managed to change that — partly through laudable ways, partly through less laudable ones. But either way, the result was he was able — until now — to prevent a climate of noisy pushback that most New York mayors do not.

Since his first term, the editorial pages helped set the tone. Sure, the New York Post, Daily News and New York Times hardly agree on anything. But all have owners who admire the fellow media-owning executive Bloomberg. While each took issue with him occasionally, all three would not only effusively endorse his second term, but pave the way to overturn the law that helped him land a third one (and each endorsed his tacit choice for a successor, Christine Quinn, this year).

Politically, Bloomberg wasn’t going to have unions all eating out of his hands, but he did adeptly and understandably leverage his office’s power to keep several of them content (enough). For example, when the Hotel Trades Council wanted special permits to curb the proliferation of low-cost, anti-union hotels, Bloomberg’s administration  went to battle for them. The result was a powerful alliance that would help insulate him from anti-labor charges — and net him a key backer for his reelection.

Another potentially nettlesome critic might have been the city council speaker. Here again, he used the political leverage of the position skillfully, forging an alliance with Quinn and making clear that a partnership with him would serve her well and perhaps lead to an endorsement to succeed him (which seemed like a better deal at the time). Far from serving as a Bloomberg critic, the result was a cooperative relationship where, as Bloomberg explained in the controversial New York magazine interview, Quinn prevented many bills anathema to him from coming to the floor.

But it wasn’t always political leverage that the mayor used to avoid attacks on his mayoralty.

Back in 2006, I was the communications director for the New York State Democratic Party. While we rarely attacked Bloomberg that year — having served two terms, he’d never be up for reelection again,  we thought – one act went too far. In the middle of the close battle for control of the U.S. House (in which Democrats would regain power for the first time in 12 years), the NYC mayor endorsed and  cut a TV ad for Republican Chris Shays in a Democratic district that was a prime pickup opportunity (Shays would win that year but lose in 2008).

 
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