Monday, November 17, 2008

Mayor's Dangerous Slippery Slope

As we have been happily willing to point out, the deconstruction of Mike Bloomberg's mythic image as the non partisan steward of the public good-something that began in earnest with the term limits power grab-will now continue spiraling downward as the city's budget turmoil forces its attention on masses of average New Yorkers. In this vein, the NY Times' Michael Barbaro presented us on Saturday, as a public service, with another installment of, "How the Mayor Turns:"A year before the next mayoral election, Michael R. Bloomberg appears to have settled on his campaign message: higher property taxes, smaller school budgets, shuttered dental clinics, more parking fees and a new surcharge on plastic shopping bags. And by the way, he advises ordinary New Yorkers, buy fewer dresses and put off that new car."

The mayor believes that this Bloomberg brand of stern, uncompromising honesty, is just why the city needs him for an additional term: "It is a seemingly toxic sales pitch at a moment when the city’s economic engine, Wall Street, is imploding, thousands of jobs are disappearing and New Yorkers are on edge. But in persuading the City Council to revise its term limits law so he could seek a third term, Mr. Bloomberg cast himself as an economic white knight who is uniquely capable of leading the city through a steep downturn. And he is acting swiftly to fulfill that promise."

With a white knight like this, who could be frightened of a really malevolent leader? What Bloomberg's doing is taking a page out of his 2002 playbook-you know, grim candor mixed with higher taxes and fees-and believing that it can be utilized to successfully convince New Yorkers to retain its empathy challenged CEO: "Yet the severity of what he must do, the short time he has to accomplish it and his frequent lack of delicacy could threaten his popularity at a time when he needs it most. Already, New Yorkers are dialing up the city’s 311 information hot line and their council members’ offices to fume about higher property taxes."

And remember that in 2002, he had three years to turn the situation around-doing so with Wall Street cash that poured in as the financial sector took off-something that's just not happening in 2008. In effect, the Wall Street windfall masked the impact of Bloomberg taxes, levies that did long term damage to so many small businesses and neighborhood retailers (the disappearing supermarket is representative of the impact that the Bloomberg program had).

What the current crisis-and Bloomberg's knee jerk response-does, is to expose just how thin the mayor's government playbook really is. Imagine continuing to support programs subsidizing unwed mothers-costing close to half a billion dollars-while homeowners get stiffed on their property tax rebates.

Once this kind of Lindsay-like approach becomes clear to the voters, the mayor's grip on the popular will will slip way beyond his grasp. As Adam Lisberg pointed out yesterday in the NY Daily News: "And some of his opponents say the mayor - even with his billions - may be more vulnerable to a challenge next year than conventional wisdom holds. "A lot of people are starting to think there's more than one outcome here," one Council member said, pointing to Obama-mania, the surge in new black voter registrations and a term limits backlash. "That means they'll stop acting like there's only one outcome here."

And, as the Times tells us, it has already begun in earnest: "He is going after the middle class to cover the budget, and it bothers me a lot,” said Mordy Roman, the owner of a liquor store in Brooklyn. “In hard times I don’t see this going over very well with people.” And the fight over school governance hasn't even started yet.

On top of the cuts, there's the stoppage of the $400 rebate; certainly a drop in the bucket compared to other extravagances in the municipal budget, this mayoral move is really beginning to gall the folks: "So far, however, the mayor’s economic decisiveness is not exactly winning over New Yorkers. Just days after engineering the change to term limits last week, Mr. Bloomberg infuriated thousands of homeowners by stopping the city from mailing out an annual $400 property tax rebate, which many families rely on to buy holiday gifts or pay winter heating bills. The move would save the city $250 million — a fraction of the city’s $60 billion annual budget, but the mayor said it was a prudent step."

We need to recall that the mayor's initial taxing foray drove his approval ratings, George Bush-like, into the twenties; and the overriding of the popular will on term limits has given the voters a very different take on the mayor's mien:

“People are starting to get really annoyed with him,” said Jayson Levitz, a homeowner in Queens, who had been waiting for his $400 rebate check. “He is so arrogant that he feels only he can handle this meltdown. But it does not take a brainiac to increase taxes.” Mr. Levitz, who said he voted for Mr. Bloomberg in 2001 because “the city needed a business person,” now hopes to see the mayor defeated. Jeanette Didio, a homeowner in Brooklyn who is currently unemployed, called the city’s hot line to plead for her rebate check, without which she cannot pay for a visit to the dentist, she said. “I don’t think this mayor realizes that there are people more needy than others,” she said. “I need that money.”

The mayor's minions plead nolo contendre: "Edward Skyler, deputy mayor for operations, said that with the city facing a budget shortfall of $4 billion over the next two years because of lower tax revenue, the mayor “has no easy options in front of him.” “We saved for a rainy day, but instead we are in monsoon season,” he said. “The depth of this emergency means there are no longer any sacred cows.”

Apparently excepting the $433 million for housing the unwed mothers. Big Ed doesn't understand just how little Mayor Mike has understood the need to devise economies and efficiencies in government; abjuring these measures for feel good lavishness on municipal labor and social spending. Now, given the current crisis, all he has left is to bring knives to a gun fight.

Still, the Bloombergistas mistakenly feel that the same old song will get all of us dancing again: "Mr. Bloomberg has played the role of the clear-eyed C.E.O. of New York City before: after the Sept. 11 attack, when as a new mayor he cut spending and sharply raised taxes. His political advisers are convinced that just as they did back then, voters will initially grouse but ultimately reward the mayor for tough, popularity-be-damned decisions in the middle of a crisis."

In our view, this is less likely to happen today-people are less willing to afford the mayor any benefits of doubt; and his arrogance will exacerbate the slow and steady decline of his popularity: "In 2002, Mr. Bloomberg, a billionaire former businessman, seemed perfectly poised to lead a recovery — he was the anti-politician and he did not need the job. Now, after a bruising battle for the chance to remain in office for a third term, some of those qualities seem tarnished, or at the very least, undercut."

All of this is underscored by Bloomberg's world view-“We are a high-tax city,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “We expect to get something for it.”-and his failure to really get the historical lessons of the 1970s: "Aides to Mr. Bloomberg said he was unperturbed by the political ramifications of his economic proposals, which he considers vital to steadying the city’s finances. Mr. Bloomberg has repeatedly refused, despite the unpopularity of taxes, to simply cut his way out of the current budget woes, a mistake he says was made in the 1970s, when crime soared and garbage was piled high on city streets."

Here he falsely conflates really essential services with the pork ridden bloatedness of his contemporary budget. Big Ed's response underscores the seriousness of the mayor's problem: "Some critics of the mayor have suggested that he is addicted to taxes, and has been shy about taking on daunting budget burdens, like union pay and benefits. But Mr. Skyler, the deputy mayor, said, “It’s hard to argue that a mayor who is proposing fewer police officers and the elimination of a property tax rebate is making decisions based on politics, rather than the best interest of the city.”

But it isn't hard to argue that the mayor's decision making-and his limited world view-demonstrates his trained incapacity to deal with the fundamental problems that the city faces. So he's acting apolitically, does that makes his political actions correct? In Skylar's Bloomberg-colored glasses, not responding to legitimate political forces, and acting as if they don't matter, is the sine qua non of statesmanship; when in reality, it only demonstrates to us tone deafness and leadership limitations.

Councilman Vinny Gentile, the original opponent of the mayor's first property tax hike gets the final word on this-one that we believe could become the mayor's epitaph: "Councilman Vincent J. Gentile, who represents Brooklyn, said that scores of residents had pleaded with him to fight the mayor’s tax proposals, especially the elimination of the $400 rebate, which he called “a lifeline” for the working class. “People are just holding on by their fingertips,” he said, adding that the Bloomberg administration “has a tin ear when it comes to the concerns of everyday New Yorkers.”