NYT: Bloomberg, a Success in New York, Is a Wild Card for the Nation
June 24, 2007
Bloomberg, a Success in New York, Is a Wild Card for the Nation
By DIANE CARDWELL
He no longer brags about his dating exploits or shows off his
impolitic side. He has largely reined in his temper with reporters and
loosened his manner with voters. But Michael R. Bloomberg, New York's
once-improbable mayor, would still be a highly unlikely presidential
A zealot for privacy, he slips away to Bermuda on weekends to practice
his golf game. Divorced with a steady companion, he frequently
indulges a louche sense of humor, joking at a dinner one night that if
Salma Hayek joined him at the official mayor's residence, he might
actually live there. And he still likes to end his evenings with a
nightcap out, leading to the occasional public admission of having had
perhaps a merlot or two too many.
New Yorkers may have become accustomed to the eccentricities of the
billionaire information mogul who took an unorthodox path to public
service. But, as he has thrust himself more fully into national
politics, even Mr. Bloomberg has questioned whether the rest of the
country is ready for him.
"He's still himself," said Douglas A. Muzzio, a professor at the
Baruch School of Public Affairs. "His dislike of and unwillingness to
engage in traditional politics provides both the raison d'être for his
candidacy and the unlikelihood of winning."
And yet, since his election in 2001, he has become more adept at the
political game he had so assiduously shunned, gaining increasing
prominence as a symbol of centrist, nonpartisan leadership.
His recent defection from the Republican Party set off speculation
about his possible presidential ambitions. Some analysts dismissed the
move as a tactic to retain influence as he approaches 2009, when term
limits will force him from office.
But Mr. Bloomberg has been underestimated before few political
experts believed he could win City Hall, for instance and his
don't-sweat-the-small-stuff manner can mask what associates say is an
intense focus and determination.
"He's completely goal-oriented," said Steven Rattner, a Democratic
donor who is close to the mayor. "He picked up golf, and now he's
determined to catch Tiger Woods. He decided he wanted to learn Spanish
and carves out the time for lessons, no matter how busy he is."
That focus has its roots in his middle-class upbringing in Medford,
Mass., helping him climb from the lower rungs of Wall Street to the
top of his own multibillion-dollar enterprise and then the thin-air
precincts of New York's high society. That, in turn, helped his
"People don't take it seriously; they think it's something to amuse
yourself with, but it's where the power is," said David Patrick
Columbia, who chronicles the haute life on his Web site,
newyorksocialdiary.com. "Everybody wanted him at their dinner tables,
and by the time he was ready to run for office, all of those important
and influential people thought he ran a good business, he could run a
With his popularity soaring, many New Yorkers would now seem to agree.
But that was not always the case. Associates say Mr. Bloomberg would
be the first to admit he did not so much win the election as his
opponent, Mark Green, lost it, though the novice politician was also
helped by the endorsement of former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, as well
as his near-limitless ability to finance his own campaign.
After his surprising win, however, Mr. Bloomberg wasted no time
getting to work. Even before taking office, associates say, he began
calling business leaders, urging them to stay and to move back
downtown in a city still wrenched by the human and economic toll of
9/11. He attacked looming deficits with an 18.5 percent property tax
increase and pursued his own interest in improving public health by
pushing through an unpopular smoking ban.
"He came in with a businessman's mind-set," said Edward Skyler, a
deputy mayor who followed Mr. Bloomberg from his company to the
mayoral campaign, then to City Hall. "Basically his mentality was:
`Let's do it and get it over with. It's not going to get any better by
waiting.' He knew what was ahead of him."
That willingness to take on difficult problems like a troubled school
system, housing that is beyond the reach of many residents and
entrenched poverty, and an ability to promote his pursuits to the
public, have earned him widespread support among voters. Some experts
say it is unclear whether his administration is making significant or
long-lasting strides in these areas, but others applaud at least the
At the same time, Mr. Bloomberg's unwillingness to engage in the
symbolic acts many constituents find meaningful and what some see as
an inability to project empathy with the travails of ordinary New
Yorkers have led to accusations that he is out of touch.
But colleagues describe a hard-working boss who would rather be on the
telephone or in meetings with deputies and commissioners doing the
business of the city than at ribbon-cuttings and news conferences.
Those who have worked with him over the years say that although he
lets his staff pursue projects in their own way and does not
micromanage, he is deeply engaged in the details of their work,
rewriting and editing speeches and policy papers himself.
"He delegates but really requires accountability," said Patricia E.
Harris, his closest deputy.
Current and former associates say that Mr. Bloomberg is demanding,
expecting those around him to be able to defend their proposals from
all angles and at any time. He can also be short-tempered and
impatient, they say, though his anger is generally brief.
They also describe a manager who pays attention to their lives, asking
about their children and spouses.
Friends and associates say he is extremely loyal. Merryl H. Tisch, a
philanthropist and vice chancellor of the state Board of Regents who
has known Mr. Bloomberg for decades, said that she saw him the evening
he returned from his recent trip to California, during which he had
announced his split with the Republican party. He was at a reception
in honor of her longtime building superintendent, who had died about a
year ago. The man, Ms. Tisch said, had also helped look after Mr.
Bloomberg's town house a few doors down from her building, and Mr.
Bloomberg had spoken at the man's funeral, and stayed for the entire
"It's not like he's doing it because he's running," she said. "He's
doing it because that's the Michael who did it last week like this,
who did it 10 years ago like this, who did it 20 years ago like this.
There's a natural sense of grace to him."
It is clear that Mr. Bloomberg enjoys his Manhattan life, from his
Upper East side town house to his sparkling social circle. Even before
becoming mayor, he was an unabashed enthusiast for New York.
With his companion, Diana L. Taylor, the former state banking
superintendent, he still spends many evenings traipsing through the
benefit circuit as well as visiting community and political
organizations throughout the city, or having lively conversation with
friends over dinner with lots of red wine.
Still, as his profile rises nationally, these same qualities many New
Yorkers embrace about Mr. Bloomberg may make him seem faintly exotic
to middle-American voters.
"I still think we're a country that has a certain distrust of things
that happen in cities," said Fred P. Hochberg, dean of Milano The New
School for Management and Urban Policy, in discussing what Mr.
Bloomberg would have to overcome. He added that the nation had not
elected an unmarried president since the 19th century, "because voters
tend to look for a parental figure in their executive leaders, there
is an official residence and we think about families living there."
James Barron contributed reporting.