Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg took the podium for his inauguration address, the crowd may have been cold, but they were noticeably cheerful and optimistic.

And Bloomberg responded in kind, championing the city's decrease in crime, his ambitious plans for affordable housing and an unwavering focus on bettering education for the city's approximately 300,000 high school students.

"We've come a long way, and now we have a choice to make," Bloomberg said. "We could be content with what we have accomplished and preserve our gains, or we can take our beloved city even further forward -- and make the promise of opportunity real for every person in every community."

Some attendees were brought to tears by the ceremony.

That, though, was in 2006.

On Friday, the mayor rose to the podium perched on the edge of the City Hall steps to take the oath of office for a third term and begin his ninth year in office. A drastically different crowd and constituency greeted him this time around.

At the other side of the blue stage sat newly minted Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Comptroller John Liu, who many expect to be less conciliatory than their predecessors. Much of the excitement seemed to surround Liu, who was sworn in as the first Asian ever elected to citywide office in New York. To make matters worse for Bloomberg, his administration is still smarting from a much smaller margin of victory -- 5 percent in 2009 versus 20 percent in 2005 -- and the latest edition of the City Council is expected to challenge the mayor more than he would like.

Bloomberg tried to reach out: "I want to make a personal commitment to you -- and to every New Yorker. No matter where you live and work, no matter what your race or roots, no matter who you love, who you worship, or who you voted for, I pledge to be your mayor.”

Clad in a gray, pinstriped suit and bold purple tie, the mayor continued: "And I will not stop working for you -- I will not rest -- until every job seeker finds work, every high school student graduates, every child is safe from illegal guns, every family has an affordable home, and every New Yorker with a dream finds it within reach."

That is what he expects of his third term. But he offered little indication of how he plans to accomplish such an ambitious agenda. Meanwhile, some critics say they are still waiting for the mayor to achieve the promises of his first eight years. They note many of his 2009 campaign promises will be tough to accomplish in a floundering economy and say third terms, even for the strongest of New York's mayors and governors, have rarely turned out well.

His supporters, though, say this mayor will not fall victim to the dangers of a third term or the ever-threatening lame duck death sentence. These allies believe that Bloomberg -- despite the mounting odds -- will take on the new challenges of 2010 and beyond.

History Revisited

Flashback to Nov. 9, 2005. Bloomberg, flush with the promise of improving the school system, keeping crime down and taking on poverty in New York City, had just trounced his opponent to land a second term.

He said he would reduce the city's homeless population by two-thirds by 2009 and create thousands of units of affordable housing. More than a year later, he released an environmental initiative, PlaNYC 2030, which promised to reduce the city's carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030, when New York City could have a million more residents.

But on Nov. 4, 2009 it was a different story. Bloomberg's victory was not as inevitable as many observers believed thanks to voter animosity over the extension of term limits.

On inauguration day this year, there were more than 10,000 families in homeless shelters -- an all time high, according to statistics from the Department of Homeless Services. The foreclosure crisis is crippling neighborhoods in the outer boroughs, especially in minority areas like Jamaica and East New York. And the city's stock of affordable housing, say advocates, is actually going down. Despite some progress, many of the mayor's green initiatives have moved forward less rapidly than many expected, and the most high profile -- congestion pricing -- failed to win approval.

Some experts even question the main plank in the mayor's campaign platform: his economic prowess.

"Under the mayor over the past eight years, city spending is up 40 percent higher than inflation. We don’t have a better subway system. We don't have a better infrastructure," said Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute at a recent forum at Baruch College. "What did we get for our money? A lot of fraud in Medicaid. A lot of education spending that hasn’t made a tremendous amount of difference in objective non-state test scores."

Bloomberg's supporters beg to differ. They point to what they see as demonstrable improvement in the public schools system since the onset of mayoral control. The city has continued to see a decrease in crime (2009 saw the lowest number of murders since the 1960s), and efforts to make the city more safe and friendly for pedestrians have allowed New Yorkers and visitors to actually walk along Broadway in Times Square. Supporters argue the mayor is willing to take risks on larger policy issues, even if that means they don't always take.

"The mayor thinks big," said Bill Cunningham, a managing director at Dan Klores Communications and the communications director in Bloomberg's first term. "He got elected the first time by 3 percent, and it didn’t stop him from thinking big and planning big."

Despite his narrow margin this time around, Cunningham among others, expect more "big things" from Bloomberg. But what?

Promises for a Third

On Friday, some inauguration ceremony attendees said they did not see those "big things" from the mayor.

"He didn't set very high goals for himself in this speech," said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who in his own inauguration address pledged to give communities more of a voice in development and parents more of a say in education.

The mayor did promise to revitalize his administration by temporarily reassigning first deputy commissioners to other agencies -- a move that he called an "experiment" and a tool to "break down bureaucratic barriers." Some critics saw it as a gimmick.

Turning his focus toward Washington, Bloomberg pledged to work for comprehensive immigration reform. Serving as MCs at the ceremony were students from a high school for recent immigrants -- a choice that highlighted the mayor's commitment to changing immigration laws. Bloomberg also ventured into national policy in 2006 by committing to take on illegal guns.

Seeming to make some concessions because of his slim victory in November, the mayor laced his address with humility. "I realize, too that the building behind me is yours -- and the job in front of me is to listen and to lead," the mayor said. "I will not shirk from the hard decisions that lie ahead. And by continuing to reach out to every community, by tackling the toughest issues with renewed energy and without fear of failure, we will deliver innovations that improve New Yorkers' lives and strengthen our communities."

He did not, however, say what those innovations might be.

Although the weather was warmer than many expected, reactions to the mayor's proposals were not as temperate.

"It's important that the platitudes that were stated today are carried through and that means reaching out to communities that he hasn't reached out to," said Corey Bearak, the president of the Queens Civic Congress.

The address's lack of specifics allowed advocates and experts to opine on what the mayor should concentrate on, from education to development. While environmentalists, like Marcia Bystryn of the League of Conservation Voters, urge the administration to take up issues related to solid waste removal and water quality, others close to the administration, like Councilmember Simcha Felder, predict Bloomberg will "somehow" get control over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

"What's really been missing has been jobs for middle class New Yorkers," said John Petro of the Drum Major Institute. "We see a lot of initiatives aimed at media and tech and biotechnology. Where are the initiatives that are actually going to create good jobs for New Yorkers?"

Tackling the Economy

The precarious state of the city's economy gave Bloomberg his rationale for seeking a third term. Now that he has achieved it, many think economy recovery will be the hallmark of the coming months.

And that was clear last month when Bloomberg sat before a standing room only crowd to discuss the city's sustainability. Bloomberg, who did, after all, run on the Republican line, looked comfortable even though the room was packed wall to wall with progressives.

Andrea Batista Schlesinger, who took a leave of absence from the event's sponsor, the Drum Major Institute, to join the mayor's third term campaign, sat at Bloomberg’s side on stage. She attempted to tweeze out what policies the mayor sees as necessary to make a sustainable city (the subject of a book just released by the institute).

The mayor sounded a familiar theme: how his administration has worked to diversify the economy. Google is in Manhattan with thousands of jobs, Bloomberg intoned, and a biotechnology park is about to flourish on the East Side.

"We are blessed with a great industry: banks, Wall Street (loosely defined)," Bloomberg said. "We don’t want to kill that golden goose. We just want to make sure we have the ability to survive when it's not doing well cause it will always go through cycles."

Insiders wonder how Bloomberg can make good on this, while keeping his promise to not raise taxes this year. According to the Independent Budget Office, that may be possible. The city faces an approximately $4 billion budget hole. But with federal stimulus funding and some unexpected tax revenue, the mayor could close that gap.

Despite that, the city almost certainly will cut back on spending. Late last year the mayor requested agencies cut 4 percent from their budgets this fiscal year and another 8 percent from next year's budget, spurring many to fear city services will be pared down for the New Yorkers who need help most.

Even if the city can avoid higher taxes and slashed services in the coming year, fiscal watchdogs see serious challenges ahead. Throughout his eight years in office, Bloomberg has given pay increases to the city's municipal employee unions, like the Police Benevolent Association and the United Federation of Teachers.

Now, said Charles Brecher of the Citizens Budget Commission, the city must try to rein in its labor costs. For one thing, Brecher said, the city needs to cut back its pension benefits for new employees through a fifth pension tier, which would reduce the city's gargantuan pension costs going forward.

The mayor has shown the ability to compromise with the city's unions in the past. Last summer, the mayor and the Municipal Labor Committee agreed to have city employees provide some co-payments for emergency room and ambulatory care. Previously the city has paid 100 percent of the costs. The move will save the city $400 million over two years.

Bloomberg has said he wants more concessions from unions, especially from the teachers' union, but he almost certainly will face resistance. The United Federation of Teachers is already balking at Bloomberg's directive to use state test scores to determine whether teachers get tenure (this from the same union that refused to take sides in this mayoral race).

Expectations for a Third

By far, many say the mayor's mounting challenge in a third term will be dealing with new political forces, including the ambitious new public advocate and comptroller and a more forceful City Council.

Many point to last month's defeat of the Kingsbridge Armory -- an administration supported project to build a shopping mall in the Bronx -- as one indication that the mayor could see more opposition in a third term.

"I think he'll do well in the third term," said Councilmember Gale Brewer following Friday's ceremony. "It will be a real balance with the City Council, which I think is needed."

Following his final vote in the City Council last month, Comptroller John Liu had his own predictions for what we could see in the next four years: "I look forward to working together with the mayor and the other electeds in this great city. But nobody gets a free ride."