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Campaign 09: Fact or Fiction

Left photo (cc) asterix611, Right Photo (cc) Azi Paybarah

They trade barbs and sling mud.

And believe it or not, sometimes they exaggerate.

We went through some of the accusations thrown by the city's mayoral candidates, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Comptroller Bill Thompson, to find out the fact -- and fiction -- behind the rhetoric.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. more accusations you hear on the campaign trail, and Gotham Gazette will look into them between now and Election Day.


Claim: The Bloomberg campaign says, as school board president, Thompson presided over low performance and waste. Meanwhile under the mayor's tenure, test scores are up, school violence is down and $350 million has been cut from bureaucracy and put in the classroom.

FACTS: The mayor is definitely right about one thing: Test scores are climbing, according to the Department of Education, and fast. Between 2002 and 2009, the number of fourth grade students who met or exceeded state standards in math went from about 52 percent to 84.9 percent, according to statistics provided by the city's education department. In 2002, less than 30 percent of eighth graders met state standards in reading. In 2009, 57 percent made the grade. Whether the rise is because of easier tests, the mayor's changes to the school system or something else entirely remains unclear.

The statistics also improved under Thompson's tenure as president of the Board of Education -- granted far more slowly. From 1999 to 2001, the years the city used the state exam while Thompson was president of the Board of Education, the percentage of fourth graders who met state math standards went from 49.6 to 51.8 percent. For reading, fourth graders who met state standards increased from 32.7 percent to 43.9 percent. According to the city's Department of Education, the percentage of eighth graders who met reading standards dropped from 1999 to 2001 -- from 35.2 percent to 33 percent.

Keep in mind: Thompson did not control the schools as school board chief -- he shared that with the mayor, the chancellor and the other board members -- making it difficult to attribute student success or failure to his actions. From 1996 to 2001, the years Thompson was president, high school graduation rates went from 48 percent to 51 percent.

During Bloomberg's tenure, graduation rates have climbed from 51 percent to 66 percent, according to the Department of Education.

Left photo (c) BillThompson2009


Claim: Thompson says his record as president of the Board of Education led to mayoral control.

FACTS: According to at least one colleague at the Board of Education under Thompson's reign, his actions did help move the city's school system toward mayoral control. "His efforts were precursors to mayoral control. He played a leading role in governance changes," Sandra Lerner, a former board member from the Bronx, told Gotham Gazette earlier this year. While in the post, Thompson advocated for mandatory school uniforms and a chancellor's district for low performing schools. He was thought of as a conciliator. At the same time, in 1996, just before he took over the board presidency, Thompson told the New York Times he opposed giving then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani control over the school system. He has since said he supports mayoral control.


Left photo (c) socram718

Claim: Bloomberg says in a third term, he will bring New Yorkers the subway and bus service they deserve.

FACTS: Bloomberg says now that he wants to crack down on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But if his record is any indication of his commitment to the authority, voters might have reason for skepticism. During his eight years in office, according to a report by the Independent Budget Office, the city's financial contribution to the transportation authority has remained relatively stagnant -- even while the city had serious surpluses.

In addition, every transit proposal the mayor released in August -- a plan that calls for free crosstown buses and an express F line -- would need approval from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's board where the mayor has only four of 14 votes. Some of these ideas, like countdown clocks in stations, are already being implemented by the authority. Others would be next to impossible to implement in the next four years. For one, the F line express train Bloomberg has called for cannot even be considered until rehabilitation of that line is completed. According to an authority spokesperson, that rehab is scheduled for completion in 2014 -- after the end of a potential third term for Bloomberg.

The authority, according to a spokesman, has not done any cost estimates on the mayor's proposals. But earlier this year, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority got a state bailout because of its dire fiscal straits. The mayor's campaign office says his transportation plan identifies $247 million in savings for the authority.


Claim: Thompson says under the Bloomberg administration the city has seen record high numbers of homeless individuals.

FACTS: Though the mayor said in the city's first general election mayoral debate that the city's homeless situation is "better" than when he first came to office, the numbers say otherwise. According to a new report from the Coalition for the Homeless, a citywide advocacy group, 39,000 individuals and 10,000 families are in city shelters every night -- a 45 percent increase from when the mayor first took office.


Claim: Mike Bloomberg has brought crime to record lows in NYC.

FACTS: The Giuliani administration gets a major part of the credit for reducing the city's rampant crime rate of the 1980s. For instance, the largest drop in crime, according to annual statistics from the police department, was between 1990 and 1995, when the number of major crimes dropped from 527,257 to 312,332. Nonetheless, the Bloomberg administration has continued that trend even during the recession. Under the mayor's watch, major crime, including rapes, homicides and burglaries, have declined from 162,064 in 2001 to 117,840 in 2008, according to the police department, making New York City the country's safest large city.


Claim: New Yorkers are crippled by fees under Bloomberg, according to the Thompson campaign.

FACTS: Between fiscal year 2005 and fiscal year 2009, the number of parking summonses issued went up by 12.4 percent (more than 10.6 million were handed out in fiscal year 2009). The number of violations issued by the city's Department of Environmental Protection, covering loud music past 11 p.m., went up by about 70 percent, according to the mayor's management report. Some say these increases represent the administration's policy to ticket to create revenue.

Elsewhere, water rates have skyrocketed by a little more than 93 percent -- attributed mostly to unpaid bills and years of lax enforcement by the city. And to close a budget gap, parking meter rates went to 75 cents for an hour from 50 cents this year (most meter rates have been unchanged since 1992).

Thompson, not surprisingly, blames Bloomberg. But during the city's last fiscal crisis in 2002, Thompson too encouraged the city ramp up its fee collections. According to testimony before the City Council in January of 2003, Thompson said, "I have instructed my staff to work aggressively to identify uncollected revenue that will help the city in these difficult fiscal times. It is particularly important that the Department of Finance, as the primary agent responsible for collecting fines and penalties due to the City, maximize its efforts."


Claim: Bloomberg's campaign says the city's pension funds underperform others, because Thompson has engaged in pay to play politics by accepting political contributions from those that do business with the city's pension funds.

FACTS: At a Crain's breakfast forum last week, Bloomberg said again there was no reason for pension managers in California to give to Thompson's campaign unless they expected something in return. According to the New York Times, Thompson has received more than $500,000 since 2001 from money managers associated with the city's pension system. At the same time, according to the Times, the city's pension funds have underperformed -- below the median of 4.5 percent in returns for four of the five public pension funds (under Thompson's predecessor, returns were more than 12 percent). The Daily News reported the comptroller received $158,000 in campaign contributions from those who do business with the pension funds.

The Bloomberg campaign has consistently alleged this amounts to pay to play politics. But none of these reports have made the direct connection that Thompson has received a quid pro quo -- campaign donations for pension contracts. At the same time, Bloomberg is obviously exempt from this particular type of criticism because he is self-financed. Thompson, though, has alleged Bloomberg silences critics through his philanthropic donations -- an allegation that also has not been proved.

No formal complaint has been filed by the Bloomberg campaign against Thompson alleging conflicts of interest.


Claim: Thompson says the Bloomberg years have been rife with "giving to developers and Wall Street" and the middle class is being squeezed out.

FACTS: In 2002, the city gave out $1.7 billion in tax benefits to the real estate industry. In 2009, according the city's Department of Finance, that number grew to $3.7 billion. Over the Bloomberg years, the controversial 421-a tax benefit alone grew from $130 million to $607 million. Sure, more people were building -- but certainly developers are benefiting.

These stats lead Thompson to charge massive development has battered the city's middle class, and a report from the Center for an Urban Future backs him up. Between 2004 and 2005, 12,955 New Yorkers with bachelor's degrees left the city. Between 2005 and 2006, 29,370 left. The report also notes that in 2006, the city lost 151,441 people to other U.S. cities.

On the other hand, according to the city's housing vacancy survey, the median income for renter households in 2007 was $36,200, a very slight increase from $36,000 in 2004.

Another Term Awaits

Photo from

The two term mayor, clad in his standard dark suit and red tie, and the affable turned go get 'em comptroller stood side by side last week beneath a fresco in the El Museo del Barrio's theater.

They were there for the first of two general election debates -- an hour-long glimpse for thousands of New Yorkers into a campaign that has been full speed ahead for months.

They covered term limits ("In the end, on Nov. 3 what really matters is a vote between two candidates," reasoned Mayor Michael Bloomberg). And they went over Comptroller Bill Thompson's alleged pay to play campaign contributions ("Mike," Thompson warned, "you know better than that.")

Politics was starring. Public policy was cast as this show's understudy.

Little discussion has centered on what these two candidates are pledging to do in the next four years. The Bloomberg campaign has put out 11 proposals -- an agenda that covers identify theft and tracking shoeprints to solve crimes. Thompson has released a few (far fewer) of his own -- proposing a moratorium on rezoning manufacturing areas, for one.

Fast-forward to January. What kind of agenda would our mayor implement to get New York City through a Grand Canyon-like recession, a damaged housing market and confront a climbing homeless population?

That all depends on whom you ask.

For a breakdown of where these candidates stand on the city's most important issues, see our chart here.

The Economy

A few days after the first mayoral debate, Thompson appeared in front of another crowd -- a far less friendly one.

Standing on stage at a Crain's breakfast at the Grand Hyatt, Thompson went over what he would do to close the city's looming $5 billion budget gap. He would conduct "a top to bottom review" of unnecessary spending, look at the Department of Education's contracts, take aim at capital spending by the Department of Environmental Protection and look to Washington for additional revenues.

"Looking at the city of New York and looking at all of our agencies and creating greater savings there, eliminating what doesn't work, I think those things start to close the budget gap," said Thompson to muted applause.

Thompson, who as comptroller is responsible for auditing all of the city's agencies, declined to go into greater detail. He said the city should start by eliminating waste and then turn to layoffs or buyouts.

He did say the mayor's sales tax increase earlier this year was a mistake. Instead, the comptroller wants to increase taxes on those that make more than $500,000 annually by .6 percent and by 1 percent for those bringing in more than $1 million. A similar proposal was approved by the state legislature earlier this year, and some advocates say an increase by the city would be overkill.

"Raising taxes is counter productive and counter stimulative," said Carol Kellermann, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a conservative fiscal watchdog. "It's not a panacea. Other things are going to have to be done. You can't deal with this by raising taxes."

Like Bloomberg, Thompson has been trying to court small businesses by pledging to coordinate the city's inspection process (a proposal that was first floated by Council Speaker Christine Quinn) and make health insurance more accessible to the smaller employer (He cites projects like Brooklyn HealthWorks -- an affordable health insurance plan for small businesses -- which also has been praised by the Bloomberg administration). He wants to create a database of available commercial space less than 5,000 square feet, restrict chain stores in certain neighborhoods and offer a tax credit for businesses under the S Corporation tax -- a form of double taxation for small corporate shareholders.

Thompson has also said he would deny public subsidies to developments that do not pay their workers a living wage, and wants to invigorate the city's manufacturing industry by placing a moratorium on new rezonings there. Bloomberg has not signed onto a similar pledge.

The mayor has, however, committed to pursue a fifth pension tier reducing benefits for new employees -- a proposal Thompson has refused to support.

"It's great to support manufacturing," said the Manhattan Institute's Nicole Gelinas of Thompson's plan. But, she added, "If you're maintaining unsustainable public sector benefits, it doesn’t really matter what kind of business it is."

Under the Bloomberg administration both spending and pension costs have skyrocketed. In 2002, the city's budget was $41 billion and its pension contributions were less than $2 billion. Now the budget is flirting with $60 billion, and pension costs have more than tripled. Absent from the mayor's re-election campaign (and from Thompson's) is what he would do to control these day-to-day costs.

"Where is it going to come from?" asked Kellermann. "The mayor isn’t saying either. He's saying what not to do. That means you have to do some cuts."

Bloomberg has pledged to not raise taxes in the next year. He made a similar pledge in his 2001 election campaign, but later raised property taxes.

The centerpiece of the mayor's economic proposal is his "Five Borough Economic Opportunity Plan" -- a pledge to create or preserve 400,000 jobs. That plan compiles many of the proposals the Bloomberg administration has adopted throughout his second term -- touting job creation projections from rezonings in Harlem to Willets Point and from the city's capital projects.

Just last week the mayor's office announced it had placed New Yorkers in 6,802 jobs in the third quarter of 2009. They say they have secured 17,000 jobs in 2008.

Some advocates have questioned these calculations.

"Are you going to count Yankee stadium, if they were just moved across the street?" asked Bettina Damiani, project director at Good Jobs New York, an arm of the Fiscal Policy Institute. "The city's calculation of jobs gives me pause for concern."

As part of his recession-proof plan, Bloomberg has said he would work to diversify the economy, boost industries like biotechnology, film and tourism. Thompson too has signed onto this proposal.

Mayoral Control

For the most part, educators and experts say the city's Department of Education is in better shape than the city's fragmented former Board of Education.

Nonetheless, Thompson has made it part of his campaign to attack the mayor's school governance policies and commit to getting more oversight and parental involvement. In March, the comptroller released a proposal that would have replaced the Panel for Educational Policy with a nine-member school board. It also called for an independent body to audit test scores and graduation rates and ensure the department's contracts are fair and awarded competitively. As part of the renewal of mayoral control by the state legislature this summer, the comptroller and the Independent Budget Office won auditing and oversight power.

Since then, Thompson, who served as the president of the Board of Education from 1996 to 2001, has said as mayor he will promise to curtail no-bid contracts at the department, root out waste and stop teaching to the test -- which he compares to the George Bush era No Child Left Behind Act. Echoing education advocates, Thompson too has called for more parental involvement.

His first task as mayor, though, he has said would be to fire Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

On the campaign trail, the mayor has defended his oversight of the school system, consolidating his control in one simple statement: "If you believe that the school system was better when Bill Thompson ran it, you should vote for him."

Throughout his tenure, Bloomberg has touted higher graduation rates, reduction in school crime and better state test scores. Just last week, Klein appeared before the city's business leaders to present data showing the city's scores are improving more rapidly than elsewhere in the state.

In a third term, the mayor wants to double the number of charter schools, which would mean nearly 10 percent of all students would attend one. He has also pledged to get an additional 120,000 New Yorkers to graduate from our community colleges in the next decade.

Advocates and Thompson have long questioned the accuracy of the schools' performance. For the most part, though, they do not deny there has been improvement in city schools under Bloomberg.

"What Bloomberg and Klein have done pretty successfully, they have increased public confidence in the school system," said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University. "It's not a good idea for someone to run for mayor to undermine that and try to tear it down."

As for who's winning on education, Noguera said, "The edge goes to Bloomberg right now."

Housing and Development

In the past eight years, luxury condominiums have sprouted along the East River and the number of affordable apartments has declined by about 200,000.

Bloomberg defends his revision of the city skyline and streetscape, saying more than 100 rezonings have protected the current character of communities. The luxury high-rise development, he added, creates jobs and needed housing.

"Those rezonings give us a future," Bloomberg said at the first mayoral debate.

Thompson says they have made the city "uglier," crediting Bloomberg's development agenda -- and the towering condominium buildings that go with it -- with making New York more unaffordable and pushing out the middle class. As mayor, Thompson said he would review all of the city's rezonings, starting with Hudson Yards.

Throughout his tenure at City Hall, Bloomberg has touted his New Housing Marketplace Plan -- a commitment to create or preserve 165,000 affordable apartments. The administration says it is more than halfway there.

Thompson's housing agenda has been mostly sans specifics, except for his commitment to lobby the state legislature to repeal the Urstadt law, which would give the city home rule over rent control, and vacancy decontrol.

Bloomberg has not signed on to either of these proposals.

For their part, some housing advocates are in Thompson's corner for now, even if his plan to create affordable housing is short of details.

"His approach toward housing would be dramatically better than Bloomberg," said Mario Mazzoni, the Metropolitan Council on Housing's lead organizer. "Bloomberg doesn’t consider there to be a problem."

Health and Environment

Eight years ago you could light up in a bar and devour 2,000 calories in one sitting without guilt.

None of Bloomberg's policies have caught the nation's eye more than his pursuit of making New Yorkers and the environment around them more healthy. He banned trans fats and posted calories counts, cut out smoking and attempted (albeit unsuccessfully) to make every taxi a hybrid. He failed at getting congestion pricing in Albany approved, but he has started rolling out scores of the other 127 initiatives in PlaNYC 2030 -- his environmental agenda released on Earth Day 2007.

Bloomberg has spearheaded initiatives to get fresh fruits and vegetables in local bodegas and overseen the city's new solid waste plan, which moves the city's garbage around on barges and trains instead of noxious diesel trucks.

And in a third term, the mayor will attempt to ban smoking in public parks.

"The role of government is to lengthen and improve peoples' lives," said Bloomberg. "Nobody makes you not buy the Big Mac... at least people have that information."

Thompson, on the other hand, has not put out any proposals on the environment or health issues. In debates, the comptroller has said his administration would focus on health disparities and try to make preventative medicine more accessible.

Social Services

Bloomberg has probably seen the most criticism on his management of the city's social services, especially its homeless population.

After committing to reducing the homeless population by two-thirds in five years, the city is now seeing the largest homeless population in modern history. The year Bloomberg took office approximately 80,000 individual New Yorkers were shuttled into and out of shelters annually. Now that number is 120,000, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

"Simply put, under Mayor Bloomberg more New Yorkers have been homeless than under any mayor," said Patrick Markee, the senior policy analyst for the coalition. "There is no question that his policies have failed."

Despite these numbers, the mayor has not admitted defeat. At last week's debate, Bloomberg said, "Today nobody sleeps on benches. Today we don't bus kids around in the middle of the night... We've made the system better."

Under Bloomberg, the city has given homeless individuals one-way plane tickets to reunite with their families, and it has implemented harsher regulations at shelters, like curfew restrictions, which make it easier to evict homeless families. A staple of the Bloomberg policy was to no longer give homeless persons priority for emergency housing vouchers.

Once again, Thompson said he would give homeless individuals priority for Section 8 vouchers. He has said the city should focus on preventative measures and could use emergency vouchers to keep people in their homes.

As part of his campaign, Thompson has also said he would like to expand the number of senior centers and start to use these facilities for other programs, like for after school activities. The comptroller was a staunch opponent of the mayor's proposal to restructure the Department for the Aging, which would have consolidated the number of senior centers and Meals on Wheels programs. That proposal was eventually withdrawn.

While it did bring the ire of aging advocates, advocates say the administration is now more open to hearing their concerns and working with them.

Where They Stand

Forget about term limits or perfunctory personality quirks. Here is a brief breakdown of where Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Comptroller William Thompson stand on some of the city's most important issues.

Has taken his crusade to get illegal guns off New York City streets nationwide, touts his record at reducing crime even in a recession. Wants to create a footwear recognition database. Proposes using GPS to fight crime in public housing. Expanding surveillance camera initiative currently around Lower Manhattan to Midtown. Has said he will fire Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to bring in a new team. Supports stop and frisks of suspects but says policy is overused. Promises to maintain police department staffing levels. Supports higher salaries for starting police officers. Would focus on "Wall Street" crime as well as crime in public housing projects.
Put forward a five-borough economic opportunity plan, full of proposals he's touted throughout his second term; includes tax breaks for businesses, expanded hours at workforce centers and potential job creation from the city's capital budget and federal stimulus dollars. Has promised to not raise taxes in the next year and has lobbied for reducing pension benefits for new public employees. (Like Bloomberg) wants to streamline the application process for new businesses and give tax breaks to small and independent business owners. Wants to raise taxes on those making more than $500,000 a year and restrict chain stores in certain neighborhoods. Has refused to support the new pension tier for new employees, saying that needs to be negotiated with unions behind closed doors.
After winning mayoral control of schools in his first term, successfully spearheaded its extension in his second. Wants to double the number of charter schools in the next four years, which would make charter schools account for 10 percent of school seats. Has touted test scores and graduation rates as a measure of how much schools have improved. Wants an additional 120,000 New Yorkers to graduate from our community colleges by 2020. Vows to get the Department of Education back to basics, fire Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, stop teaching to the test and reduce class size instead of closing schools. Wants to expand the number of district family advocates and was successful in lobbying for fiscal oversight of the Department of Education by the comptroller's office.
Put forth the 127-initiative PlaNYC 2030 in 2007, which includes a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent. Opposes drilling in or near New York City’s watershed, and has analyzed capacity limitations at landfills used by the city. Has not released any specific proposals related to environmental policy.
Says role of government is to improve and lengthen lives. Under his tenure, has banned smoking in public places, implemented mandatory calorie counts on some restaurant menus and banned trans fats. Wants to ban smoking in public parks and beaches. Supports a national health plan with a public option. Touts his protest of hospital closings in Queens and his support of streamlining publicly funded health care programs, like Child Health Plus. Says his administration would focus on health disparities and preventative care as well as expanding access to health insurance, similar to Brooklyn HealthWorks, which was also supported by Bloomberg. Supports a health care plan with a public option.
Has rezoned over 100 communities during his tenure. Many have preserved neighborhoods, but waterfront communities have seen massive luxury development. Says development plan has been balanced. Has not voiced support for legislation to roll back vacancy decontrol or repeal the Urstadt Law. Has been very critical of the Bloomberg development agenda, and says his administration would reexamine those rezonings. Has lobbied for vacancy decontrol legislation and the repeal of Urstadt in Albany.
Social Services
Was unsuccessful in restructuring the Department for the Aging to consolidate services, has controversially paid for one-way plane tickets for homeless individuals to leave the city and reunite with families, did not meet his commitment to reduce homelessness by two-thirds. Says he has made the system for homeless individuals better. Was against the centralization of senior centers by the Bloomberg administration. Would allow senior centers to define core services, expand and would use these facilities for other community services, like after school programs. Wants to reopen the federal Section 8 voucher program, offer emergency housing vouchers to the homeless and work on preventative poverty programs.
Wants to reopen shuttered LIRR lines in Queens, expand bus rapid transit, have light rail pilot project in Northern Brooklyn and Western Queens as well as install gateless toll plazas, expand ferry service, institute a transit "smart card" and give the police full authority over transit security -- much of this needs to be adopted by the MTA, which is in dire fiscal straits. Unsuccessfully lobbied for congestion pricing. Against tolls on the East River bridges and advocates for the reinstatement of the commuter tax. To solve the MTA's fiscal crisis, he lobbied for a weight based registration fee for new vehicles.

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