In the final major speech of his 12-year tenure, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg outlined a long-term vision for the nation’s cities, offering his brand of technocratic leadership as a model for urban America. But Bloomberg’s effort to present his mayoralty as a guide for others to follow is at odds with the views of many of his constituents—especially those who are struggling.
“In this century, no city has had greater impact on the country and the world than New York City,” Bloomberg told a friendly audience Wednesday at the Economic Club of New York. “We’ve been able to lead the urban renaissance that is now underway throughout the globe.”
Answering a question about how to combat growing inequality nationwide and help the poor and middle class, Bloomberg appeared to downplay the issue, responding in part: “The poor have a lot of things that the poor wouldn’t have anywhere else.” He mentioned air conditioning and cars.
The speech is part of a victory lap Bloomberg has embarked on to burnish his legacy as he prepares to step down. The mayor also has launched a slick website to highlight his accomplishments.
Bloomberg leaves office beloved by Wall Street. “Thank you again for the last 12 years,” one Goldman Sachs executive told him after his remarks concluded.
And he has genuine achievements to tout. His mayoralty helped stabilize the financial sector after the trauma of 9/11, when some feared the industry could move en masse to New Jersey. Crime is down 20% since he took office, and high-school graduation rates have risen by 40%. The city also has become a leader in efforts to address climate change.
Bloomberg argued that his administration laid the groundwork to make New York successful generations into the future, through more flexible zoning rules and investments in infrastructure, among other policies.
“We’re leaving the next administration a very strong hand to play,” Bloomberg said.
But that message doesn’t jibe with the experiences of many of the city’s non-wealthy residents. Sixty-four percent of respondents to a November poll said they wanted the next mayor to move the city in a different direction. That was just before voters overwhelmingly elected as Bloomberg’s successor, Bill De Blasio, who ran on an explicit pledge to address New York’s growing inequality gap by raising taxes on the rich to pay for improved public services.
“The growing inequality we see, the crisis in affordability we face, it has been decades in the making,” De Blasio said in his victory speech on election night. “But its slow creep upon this city cannot weaken our resolve, and it won’t.”
More than 50,000 New Yorkers, including 20,000 children, live in city homeless shelters–many more than in 2002 when Bloomberg took office. The issue was the focus of renewed attention last week thanks to a lengthy and searing New York Times report about one Brooklyn girl’s odyssey through the city’s homeless services system.
“This kid was dealt a bad hand,” Bloomberg told reporters Tuesday in response to the Times story. “I don’t know quite why. That’s just the way God works sometimes. Some of us are lucky, and some of us are not.”
As he has before, Bloomberg raised concerns about the long-term fiscal impact of pension and health-care costs, calling the issue “one of the biggest threats facing cities.” He added: “Simply put, our pension and healthcare system must be modernized to be sustained.”
DeBlasio will soon face tricky negotiations with labor unions over new contracts.
Bloomberg has gained a national profile as an outspoken gun control advocate, financing a PAC that has run ads in support of pro-gun-control candidates around the country.
He ran for office in 2001 as a Republican, before becoming an Independent before his 2005 re-election bid. In 2008, Bloomberg pushed through an end to term limits in order to be able to run for a third term, angering many voters.