New Yorkers who struggle each day to juggle work and child care would probably have been interested to learn that as part of his campaign for reelection, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently promised to double the number of pre-kindergarten and day care slots to serve more than 300,000 children.
Democratic challenger Fernando Ferrer has a similar proposal and promises to invest $550 million in pre-K programs for three- and four-year olds.
But voters never got a chance to compare the two plans.
The mayor’s child care announcement â€“ which even included an appearance by Rosie O’Donnell to help draw reporters â€“ occurred on the same day that Mayor Bloomberg decided to skip a debate at the Apollo Theater with Ferrer and Conservative Thomas Ognibene. It was also the day that the mayor announced that there was a “credible threat” that the subways could be bombed by terrorists, which turned out not to be true.
For the next week, the campaigns and the press focused on little else.
In the 2005 mayoral race, this kind of scenario seems to repeat itself over and over. Most often it is who is ahead in the latest poll or who endorsed whom that makes headlines, not what each candidate has proposed to do to make the city a better place to live.
“For many New Yorkers, it is not clear exactly how Fernando Ferrer and Michael Bloomberg differ on the issues,” said Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future, a think-tank that issued a report outlining some of the most crucial issues that must be addressed by the next mayor, such as how to give workers skills for future jobs, how to reduce homelessness, and how to dispose of the city’s tons of garbage.
Of course, there is plenty of blame to go around for the lack of serious debate in this year’s campaign.
Mayor Bloomberg has decided to attend only two debates scheduled for the week before the election, so there has been no direct exchange of ideas between the candidates.
And some political observers say that neither candidate has provided a distinct vision for the next four years.
“This has been a backward looking, retrospective race, as opposed to planning for the future,” said Douglas Muzzio of the Baruch School of Public Affairs.
Mayor Bloomberg has focused almost exclusively on what he has accomplished and has said very little about what he plans to do in the future. His television ads, which run nearly non-stop, tout his record and then instruct voters; “Now is not the time to go in a different direction; it's the time to continue with strong leadership."
“It’s politics,” said Andrew White of the New School Center for New York City Affairs. “He’s playing it safe and not venturing into areas that would be controversial.”
Ferrer has also struggled to outline how he would be different from Bloomberg, except to promise that he will focus more on the city’s poor and working class than the billionaire mayor.
“You’d think the Ferrer campaign would be floating all kinds of great ideas,” added White. “But I don’t see Ferrer getting across a message that makes it clear to voters what kind of mayor he would be.”
WHERE THE CANDIDATES AGREE
The Republican mayor and the Democratic challenger actually agree on many key issues.
Both Bloomberg and Ferrer agree that:
â€˘ The state must provide more funding for education.
â€˘ Students should not be promoted to the next grade if they can’t meet standards in reading and math.
â€˘ Subway stations need more security cameras to help prevent terrorist attacks.
â€˘ The city should transport garbage out of the city by boat and train rather by trucks.
â€˘ New subway lines must be built.
â€˘ Medicaid must be reformed.
Unlike national elections in which candidates may have strong philosophical differences, in local elections, what often separates one candidate from another is a matter of nuance, style, and approach â€“ which are harder for voters to discern.
"There is a certain amount of agreement [among the candidates] on many of the issues, but the difference is on the margins," said Bowles. "Of course, those margins matter."
KEY ISSUES WHERE THE CANDIDATES DIFFER
Education is arguably the number one issue of the campaign. In 2002, the mayor gained control of the public school system, with power to appoint the chancellor, allocate the education budget, and set school policies. When he took office, Bloomberg said voters should judge him on public education.
Bloomberg has put his emphasis on overhauling the structure of the education system, instituting a uniform curriculum, and holding back students in the third, fifth, and seventh grade if they do not score high enough on standardized tests. Bloomberg has also divided up larger schools to create 150 smaller ones.
Ferrer argues that test scores are not the best way to measure performance. He wants to significantly expand after-school and early childhood education programs to help increase graduation rates. Ferrer also argues he would abolish Bloomberg’s top-down approach of governing the schools.
Seth Blum, a public school teacher running on the Education Party line, argues that both the front-runners are missing the real issues. He would let teachers develop the curriculum, reduce standardized tests, and hold weekly town hall meetings to address parents concerns.
Conservative candidate Thomas Ognibene says mayoral control of schools has just added more bureaucracy. He would put principals in charge of each school’s budget.
During the Koch administration, when the city undertook a major effort to build 100,000 apartments in ten years, much of the new housing was constructed in buildings that the city took over from owners who had defaulted on their taxes. Today, much of the city’s “in rem” housing is gone, and vacant tracts of land are rare. At the same time, New York City is experiencing a real estate boom, with the cost of housing skyrocketing.
City officials are now working with private developers to build affordable housing. Some argue that the city should demand more from developers who want to build taller buildings or take advantage of tax breaks. Others argue that mandating affordable housing will drive up rents and actually hurt the city.
In addition, the city’s traditional ways of preserving affordable housing - rent regulations, Mitchell-Lama developments, and federal section 8 vouchers â€“ are threatened.
In 2003, Michael Bloomberg proposed a plan to build 65,000 new homes over five years. So far, about 17,000 are completed and another 9,000 are currently planned. The mayor has rezoned neighborhoods across the city to allow more housing to be developed and offers developers tax incentives to build affordable housing.
Last week, the mayor added to his existing proposals by calling on banks and foundations to provide up to $200 million for affordable housing, which the city hopes will result in 30,000 new units of low- and moderate-income housing over ten years.
Bloomberg’s position on the Urstadt Law - which gives the state control of the rent regulations - has changed over time. In the past, he said he supported the repeal. However, he now says that the law should not be repealed because the city cannot afford to administer the rent regulation system that the state currently administers.
Fernando Ferrer argues that the mayor’s housing plan does not focus enough on low- and moderate-income New Yorkers. Ferrer has proposed building 167,000 new homes over a ten-year period. He wants to mandate that 30 percent of new housing be set aside as affordable and use tax incentives to reserve an additional 20 percent.
Ferrer supports the repeal of the Urstadt Law and will fight in Albany to earn the city’s right to control its own rent regulations.
Green Party candidate Anthony Gronowicz promises to freeze rent increases for rent-controlled apartments.
Jimmy McMillian, a little-known candidate who recently appeared on the Board of Election’s list for the general election, is making his views known by running on the "Rent Is Too Damn High” party line.
Crime is down nearly 20 percent since 2001, and the murder rate is at a 40-year low. Experts disagree on exactly why this is the case, but no one wants to see the city’s crime rate go back to what it was in the 1970s and 1980s.
Terrorism also remains a crucial issue, as the recent threat of a subway bombing illustrated. The next mayor will have to make decisions on how best to keep the city safe from another attack.
Bloomberg has reduced the number of police officers by 2,800 since he took office. While crime is down, the police are being asked to do more counterterrorism work. A new contract for police also cut the starting salary to $25,1000.
Ferrer promises to hire 1,900 more officers and assign at least half of them to patrol the subway system. Ferrer also says he would renegotiate a better contract with the police union.
Conservative candidate Thomas Ognibene says the Bloomberg administration has abandoned its enforcement of quality of life crimes and should return to the priorities of the Giuliani administration.
The future of the city’s job market is uncertain. Manufacturing jobs â€“ once the backbone of the economy â€“ are dwindling. Wall Street is still the economic engine of the city, but many believe New York will need to rely less on it in the future. The future of the World Trade Center is still uncertain.
Some argue that city officials must lower taxes and offer incentives for companies to stay. Others argue that because most businesses in the city have fewer than 60 employees, the city must work to reduce costs for small businesses.
During his first term in office, Bloomberg has sought to create jobs by attracting large events like the Republican National Convention, giving tax credits to large corporations to encourage them to build new headquarters in Manhattan, and boosting tourism. He also sought to build a football stadium on the West Side of Manhattan, which he said would create thousands of new jobs.
Last week, the mayor vowed to shift his focus to create 250,000 new jobs by making the city more “business friendly.” He wants to establish a business hub at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, work to expand businesses in Queens and Harlem, and take a more active role in rebuilding the World Trade Center.
Ferrer has spent much of the campaign criticizing Bloomberg for his plan to build a $1.9 billion stadium. He wants to focus the city’s efforts on small business rather than giving large tax breaks to corporations. Ferrer proposes a temporary amnesty on fines, reducing regulations, and providing assistance to new business owners.
No politician likes to raise taxes, but there are different philosophies about when they have to be raised and how they impact the economy. Some argue raising taxes should be a last resort. Others argue that sometimes taxes must be raised in order to maintain basic services like police, fire, and education. Some argue that dedicating a tax increase to a specific area of need is a good way to invest in the city’s future.
Although he promised not to raise taxes in his 2001 campaign, the mayor raised several taxes several times. He raised property taxes by 18.5 percent in 2002, but in the last two years returned some of that money with $400 rebates to homeowners. He also raised cigarette taxes and instituted a temporary sales tax on clothing.
Ferrer wants to institute a Wall Street stock transfer tax to fund $4 billion in education. He proposed raising taxes on vacant residential properties next to occupied homes, which he predicted would generate $900 million to help fund affordable housing projects.
Conservative candidate Thomas Ognibene says he would repeal the property tax and the cigarette tax.
DEATH PENALTY, ABORTION, AND GAY MARRIAGE
The mayor has little power over these three social issues. However, he can advance his personal views by using his position as “bully pulpit,” and he can sign or veto legislation that pertains to how state or federal laws are implemented locally.
When it comes to these issues, what a candidate says he believes does not always translate into action.
Bloomberg is pro-choice and he has proposed spending $3 million for emergency contraception education and outreach. However, he vetoed a bill requiring hospitals to offer rape victims emergency contraception and a bill requiring pharmacies to post signs about emergency contraception, arguing that the regulations were too burdensome.
And although Bloomberg has said he personally supports gay marriage, he has refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. Bloomberg also vetoed the City Council's Equal Benefits Law, which requires contractors that offer benefits to the spouses of their employees to extend the same package to the domestic partners of workers.
Bloomberg opposes the death penalty.
Ferrer’s change in position on the death penalty has been widely covered. In 1997, he went from opposing the death penalty to supporting it. Now he says he supports a moratorium until flaws in the law can be addressed.
Ferrer has also changed his stance on reproductive rights. In 1997, Ferrer described late-term abortion as "barbaric." He recently said abortions should be "safe, legal and rare."
Ferrer has said he would be an advocate for gay marriage in the city.
DEALING WITH ALBANY AND WASHINGTON
Whoever is elected must work with officials in Albany and Washington to get things done. The mayor needs the state’s approval to raise taxes, with the exception of the property tax. The state also controls much of the city’s education funding, Medicaid policies, and rent regulations.
Mayors must maintain a complicated balance between cooperating with state and federal officials and criticizing them when the city is being shortchanged. How effective the mayor is at getting funding is crucial to the city’s well being.
Bloomberg has supported Republicans President George W. Bush and Governor George Pataki and has looked for their support in return.
Critics say his good will efforts have not paid off. New York still gets less per capita in federal anti-terrorism funding than most other states. And the Republican national convention has not generated much lasting good will toward New York in the Bush administration.
Governor George Pataki has offered Bloomberg support on key efforts like raising taxes to help balance the budget and the Olympic bid, but Pataki has faltered in other areas, most significantly in efforts to rebuild the World Trade Center and to provide billions more in state money for schools.
Ferrer argues that the mayor has not done enough to fight for the city’s fair share in Albany and Washington and is too quick to give in to state and federal officials.
He particularly criticizes Bloomberg for the state of the World Trade Center site, but he has not offered a significant vision for how things should be done differently. He also argues that when the MTA raised subway fares, the mayor and his representatives on the transportation authority’s board, did not oppose the hike even though the state and city comptroller’s said they were not justified.