How the mighty have fallen. New York voters demonstrated clearly on Election Day that they want to move the city in a new direction. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s assertion that the disparities of wealth in this city were out of hand proved more potent than any of the experts expected as New Yorkers made plain that they were ready for a new direction. Even while he’s still in office, Mayor Bloomberg’s power and influence seems to be dissolving, along with some of his most beloved policy initiatives and ideas — stop-and-frisk, a massive development plan for Midtown East, letter grades for public schools.
Yet de Blasio is likely to find his time in office defined by Bloomberg, who remains the one towering political figure in this town. After three terms, he is leaving office bloodied but unbowed, a transformative mayor matched only by one other in the modern era.
Leaving aside Robert Wagner, a nimble lightweight with little to say about the period of slow decline he presided over, and Ed Koch, who was a spent force by the end of his third term, when Democrats unceremoniously ended his mayoralty by booting him for David Dinkins, the only real precedent for Bloomberg is the greatest leader in their city’s history and the man every new resident of City Hall (de Blasio included) cites as his model — Fiorello LaGuardia.
On the surface, there are few who resemble LaGuardia less than Bloomberg. The two men — the latter a Wall Street billionaire and one of the richest men in the world, the former a lifelong public servant who died owning only a mortgaged house in the Bronx and $5,800 in war bonds — held vastly different world views.
Yet both were effective outsiders in times of crisis, political loners, leaders with acerbic, impolitic personalities that New Yorkers often cherished for their frankness — and were ultimately exhausted by.
Before wearing out their welcome, though, each of them reshaped the city more than anyone thought possible.
Above all, neither man could long abide an organization — at least one that he was not in charge of. Whereas Bloomberg was the city’s first successfully self-financed mayor and joined (or at least rented) and left parties as his political needs dictated, La Guardia presided over an uneasy, “fusion” coalition of progressive Republicans, liberal Democrats, good-government types and independent Socialists. Yet it was precisely by distancing themselves from formal party structures, during eras when distrust in political elites was at or near all-time highs, that they positioned themselves to rule.
The crisis La Guardia inherited was deeper and more profound than the terror attack that brought Bloomberg to power, but he had more help in facing it. The Great Depression visited intense, personal suffering on millions of the city’s residents.
But beyond that, it exposed how utterly unequipped Tammany Hall, the city’s dominant political machine, was to run a modern city. Bankrupt and incompetent, Tammany had largely turned New York over to the banks and the mob. The new West Side Highway could not be used because the city had run out of money to build exit and entrance ramps. The 17 masonry piers of the Triborough Bridge stood like neglected monoliths out in the East River — there was no money to connect them with anything. Nothing was done for the homeless and hungry, often living in vast hobo camps around the city.
New York — then an exponentially larger part of the nation’s economy than it is even today — had to be saved. La Guardia gave the state and federal governments something that made it politically enticing for them to do so. That was an honest, capable, coalition government that wouldn’t leech taxpayer dollars into some clubhouse sinkhole.
He balanced the budget, wrestled the city back from the banks, turned the Tammany spoils system into an honest civil service, and fought the mob and the machine bosses to a standstill. In his master builder, Robert Moses, he could offer a personally honest public servant, one capable of getting big, impressive things done quickly.
New York became the model New Deal city, garnering the lion’s share of federal aid. With Moses, La Guardia used it to build modern New York, finishing the Triborough and the West Side Highway, building the city’s airports; adding endless miles of road and countless schools, hospitals, subway and traffic tunnels, parks, playgrounds, pools, beaches and zoos; its first (and best) public housing and even its first public radio station.
“He made New York a modern city, an honest city, a humane city,” his biographer, Thomas Kessner, would write, and in so doing, “changed the history of American cities forever.”
The New York that Bloomberg inherited was one infinitely richer and less dysfunctional than the city Tammany turned over to La Guardia — but it was on its own. Where Fiorello could rely on his partnerships with one of our greatest Presidents and with two of the best governors in the state’s history, Bloomberg had only a rudderless Washington and the roiling mess up in Albany.
What he offered instead was . . . himself. Just as he self-financed his campaigns, Bloomberg built his own constituency as he went along, and he based it largely on his personal approach to politics. He was, above all, always the adult in the room, after decades dominated by histrionic, conflict-seeking mayors.
It was an appeal perfectly pitched to the city’s rising political class, relatively affluent voters who tended to be socially liberal and economically conservative — and who were bored and frustrated by the city’s ancient feuds. After pushing through an 18% hike in the property-tax rate that prevented devastating service cuts and reassured New Yorkers the city would remain viable in the shaky days after 9/11, he took on issues that concerned them: from tackling school reform to banning smoking in bars and trans fats in restaurant.
While he did not have the opportunity to transform the physical city as dramatically as La Guardia did, he rezoned much of it to spur new construction and developed intelligently along our underused waterfront, seeking to sew the city together with dozens of ferries and public bicycles.
Bloomberg ran an honest and relatively open administration, attracting talented, enthusiastic individuals to government, and a record 53 million tourists a year to the city. Under his direction, New York became wealthier, cleaner, healthier, safer, less corrupt and better-run than it had been in a long time — perhaps ever.
Where La Guardia redefined the city in partnership with Washington, Bloomberg did it in spite of Washington: making it a more effective, more magnetic and innovative place that we expect to function well.
The trouble with the self-made mayoralty is how to sustain it. By La Guardia’s third term, their mayor’s frenetic style had begun to wear out many New Yorkers, and the war made it impossible to pursue any further grand plans for the city. He chafed openly at not having some military role, or some other post he could pursue.
But no one was going to elect this irascible little man, this quintessential New Yorker to higher office — any more than they were going to make a short, sardonic, Jewish billionaire president in 2008. His ambitions stymied, La Guardia neglected to build the sort of permanent organization that might have protected his reforms. He dithered on anointing Newbold Morris, the plodding but loyal president of the City Council to succeed him, and as a result his Fusion coalition splintered and Tammany swept back into power.
So, too, has the third-term Bloomberg worn out his welcome. A series of peevish, silly comments have sanded down the mayor’s reputation for pragmatism and common sense. The city’s ever-rising cost of living and proposals for still more runaway developments, such as the gargantuan Midtown East and Willets Point proposals, have left even many of his supporters wondering if they can afford to remain in the city. Rich as New York is overall, its poverty rate remains at 22% — the same as it was in 1980.
Like La Guardia, Bloomberg will leave behind no formal organization and no heir, having never thrown his full weight behind his loyal City Council speaker, Christine Quinn (in part because his polling showed that if he had, it would have backfired at the ballot box).
La Guardia’s successor, William O’Dwyer, seemed almost like a cinematic imitation of the populist hero, staged by Tammany. This turned out to be sadly true. “Bill-O” was in fact a self-made immigrant, a beat cop who became a crusading district attorney, sending seven members of Murder, Inc., to the chair at Sing Sing.
But he was fatally compromised by his Tammany connections and overwhelmed by his new responsibilities, signing much of his authority over to a handful of unelected individuals — men such as William McCormack, the shady, ruthless figure who controlled the waterfront, and Moses, who now had so much power that one observer noted, “Macy’s could condemn Gimbels — if Robert Moses gave the word.” Mobsters poured back into the city, exerting more influence than they ever had in electoral politics.
But after La Guardia, the city was unwilling to return to the days when small groups of powerful and self-serving men could control it. New York exploded in corruption scandals that rocked the front pages and the screens of the nation’s new television sets, sending O’Dwyer scurrying into exile in Mexico and eventually sparking citizen revolts that finished off Tammany and even brought down Moses. The New York of the future proved to be the one that La Guardia had made.
To be sure, there’s no sign de Blasio is another O’Dwyer. While he’s a product of the city’s Democratic politics, the public advocate emerged from the primary scrum in no small part because he has been an honest, diligent public servant.
But he will be working in a city reshaped by his predecessor, and expected to maintain the gains of the last administration while coming up with effective, practical answers to the city’s problems — and to do it without a Bloomberg-sized fortune. From our mayors, we ask only the impossible.