Wednesday, October 28, 2009


"Let's Get Back to Business As Usual!"


I like New York City politics because they have a direct bearing on my life. To some extent, people are apathetic about political races because they know the outcome will not impact their lives. This is true even on the presidential level.

But local elections can have serious effects on people's everyday lives. In big cities like New York, local government is not some marginal authority that meets in a middle school auditorium once a month. Rather, "local government" in New York City is bigger than many American States. New York is home to over 8 million people. "Local government"--namely, the city council and the Mayor's Office--hold power over them. That government's policies impact everyday life in a tangible way, from property taxes to parking fines to police protection to water services to zoning to libraries to schools and the fire department. When a new Mayor takes power, it signals a real shift--and people feel the difference.

This year, New Yorkers must choose between Republican incumbent Michael Bloomberg and Democratic city comptroller William Thompson. Bloomberg is a well-known billionaire from Massachusetts who runs a blue chip stock reporting index. During his time in office, Bloomberg's personal net worth increased threefold, from $5 billion in 2002 to $15 billion in 2009. Thompson is a lifelong New Yorker with humble roots in the city service and a comparatively minuscule income. He is also black.

Most newspapers have merely dismissed Thompson. Polls show him trailing Bloomberg by 18 points or more. Most people simply assume Bloomberg will steamroll anyone who stands in his way. After all, he can afford to deluge the airwaves 24-7 with campaign ads and dominate the public debate. Life in the city has been relatively comfortable under Bloomberg's rule. Crime remained stagnant, business opportunities flourished and there have been no major social disturbances. As was true under Bloomberg's predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, the cost of living in New York has ballooned even more. Sky-high rents have made housing in Manhattan virtually inaccessible for anyone who makes less than $200,000 per year.

Yet no one really understands Bloomberg. He is neither inspiring nor divisive. He manages the city as he would a bank. He is a bloodless technocrat. He does not alienate people with controversial speeches; he merely goes about his business. He attracts businesses to New York, though this does not necessarily translate into jobs. He is indifferent to the public schools, but he approved multimillion dollar subsidies for the new Yankee Stadium. In short, Bloomberg serves a certain "type" of New Yorker. And in many cases these "New Yorkers" do not even live in the city--they just visit and spend money here. You know, on Broadway shows, tour buses and the like.

Bloomberg has been great for business. But what about everyone else? In last night's mayoral debate, Thompson drew attention to New York's widening social inequality. He asked how the mayor could continue to ignore the struggling middle and lower classes that cannot cope with both a shrinking economy and astronomical rents. The mayor has no real answer. After all, the middle and lower classes are not his priority. He has more important people to worry about, like out-of-town investors, tourists and franchise businesses.

How can the press and the people ignore Thompson's concerns? There is a palpable tension between the "prosperous" New York and the "struggling" New York. You can see it on the street. People know they have no chance to live in Manhattan anymore. So they flee to the outer boroughs in an effort to stave off relentless expenses. They can't find decent jobs. School achievement levels are flat; Bloomberg spent city money elsewhere.

In essence, Bloomberg has split New York in two. One New York is wealthy and carefree. The other is desperate and invisible. The wealthy New York holds all the power; it can project a confident image. Yet the desperate New York has no voice. Thompson wants to address this disparity.

But apparently no one cares about these serious social divisions. Bloomberg stands ready to pulverize his populist opponent. In my view, this is a sad result. After all, why does government exist if not to serve everyone in society, not just those with overwhelming economic strength? There are so many powerless constituencies in New York City. They number in the millions, but they can do nothing to challenge the status quo. Sadly, Bloomberg has achieved virtually unassailable dominance because he has pleased the "right people." They hold all the economic power; and they are very happy with the way things are now.

I think this is an unfortunate--and ultimately, unsustainable--situation. It will continue until enough people both feel and see how bad it really is. That moment, however, is not today.

Barring some unforeseen electoral catastrophe, Bloomberg will crush his socially-conscious adversary. With unlimited funds, powerful friends and general apathy on his side, how can he lose?

At least Bloomberg is not a mean-spirited asshole like Rudy Giuliani. I suppose that's the one saving grace in this whole mess. Although power will always prevail, it's at least some relief when the King is not a vindictive, venomous tyrant. Bloomberg is not a tyrant. He is just an aloof corporate manager.

I just wonder how long his winning streak can go on now that the country's economy has collapsed.


SteveW said...

Detroit runs on a distinctly different model. That one doesn't work either, perhaps worse. Why won't the desperate millions go vote if they think the other guy is better?

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