Billionaires Behaving Badly: Michael Bloomberg
We know, we know -- he's been a wonderful mayor. Tolerant. Generous. Decisive. So why is he on this list?
Michael Bloomberg never fails to disappoint critics for want of more griping material. The highest appointed public servant in New York City, with an $18 billion fortune, is the 23rd wealthiest person in the world and rounds out the top ten list of billionaires in the United States. Mayor Mike is so wealthy, in fact, that taking up residence at the city’s mayoral estate, Gracie Mansion, would have been slumming it; opting instead to stay put at his far more habitable $30 million, 12,500 square-foot 19th century townhouse collection just a stone’s throw from Central Park on Manhattan’s Upper East Side,
But Bloomberg’s absurd net worth, and the fact that it has proliferated over four-fold since he’s taken office (which seems to fly in the face of the point of public service), isn’t the source of the chagrin felt by a public that once threw its support around Hizzoner. Nor are his polarizing anti-car initiatives like an $8 congestion charge on drivers from the lesser four boroughs needing to enter Manhattan, shrinking the city’s few hard-fought parking spaces by displacing them with bicycle lanes, closing a nearly seven-mile stretch of the city’s streets to cars, and turning Broadway at Times Square and Herald Square into pedestrian-only zones. It's not the hefty increases in sales and income taxes his administration approved in 2003. And it’s not his one-upmanship of the 2003 smoking ban that further alienates his cigarette-sucking constituency by moving prohibition outdoors to public parks and beaches.
It’s not even the conflict of interest inherent in owning the news and being the subject of it. Having taken his initial fortune made as a trader at Salomon Brothers to create a financial services information firm that caters to Wall Street and which expanded into a veritable media empire, Bloomberg’s financial data and news outfit, Bloomberg LP, does business with nearly every major company in the very city over which he presides. Fostering the symbiotic relationship between government and Wall Street, the mayor has continued to perpetuate a city economy whose bread is buttered with those reviled Wall Street bonuses.
But no, it’s not that either. The real bone of contention about Michael Bloomberg among the New York City populace took shape in October 2008 when he devised a plot to subvert the democratic process in order to continue his reign of power. Although he’d planned to use his mayoral post as a platform to launch himself to the White House, he dropped his presidential bid as John McCain was edging closer to the GOP nomination. Rather than run for governor or perhaps state senator, Bloomberg decided to eschew New York City’s pesky term limits law that binds mayorships to two four-year terms -- and that was twice confirmed by voter referendum -- and simply keep himself in his current office.
Using the looming Wall Street collapse as an excuse, Bloomberg would be doing the city of New York a disservice by leaving office, or so went the argument. With his experience as a trader and self-described “record of independent leadership” as mayor, he’d be the lighthouse in the storm to weather Wall Street through the financial crisis. With media tycoons like Rupert Murdoch, Mort Zuckerman and Richard Parsons as well as powerful investment and real estate moguls gunning for his reelection, Bloomberg was well poised with mega-millionaire support to begin his contentious term limits fight.
Going against the wishes of the citizenry who demanded the issue be submitted to them by public vote, Bloomberg claimed that 13 months before the November 2009 mayoral election wasn’t enough time to conduct a voter referendum. Instead he entrusted the matter to the City Council who could pass the resolution with only a simple majority. Extending term limits, as Bloomberg proposed, would conveniently affect not only his job but Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s as well as nearly three dozen other council officers whose own two-year terms were coming to a close.
Seeing their due process and civil rights violated, New Yorkers vociferously objected to Bloomberg and the City Council overturning the term limits law without public approval. "This is a scam and a charade," broker’s assistant Annette Keehner told Reuters. "This is an agreement between billionaires and they cannot do this without a third referendum. It would be a slap in the face to voters," said Brooklyn writer Michael Bouldin.
The City Council voted 29 to 22 in favor of amending the term limits law. Only twelve of the 35 council members whose reelections were at stake went against their own self-interest and issued ‘no’ votes. However, some attest that even the votes that gave the appearance of reflecting the will of the people were selfishly cast in order to create openings for themselves in higher office.
Bloomberg's enormous philanthropic donations -- he was the fourth biggest donor to U.S. causes last year, and in 2008 he was the biggest -- have also been criticized as just another method by which the mayor maintains his political standing. An article in the New Yorker said it best:
Good works are a good thing. When it comes to political power, though, Bloomberg’s giving has been a powerful strategic asset to Bloomberg’s getting. Five hundred-plus of the twelve hundred-plus recipients of the Mayor’s personal largesse are based in the city. The world of nonprofits and charity dinners and patronage of the arts includes a large swath of the city’s power élite. One may note that the Mayor had the support, tacit or open, of that élite when he contrived to overturn the law ... that would have barred him from a third term.
The City Council ruling was a major victory for Bloomberg who could then begin campaigning for his third term with a record $108 million of personal fortune against a then-unnamed Democratic Party opponent, who turned out to be the shallow-pocketed city comptroller and Working Families candidate Bill Thompson.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
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