Monday, January 03, 2011

Mortally Wounded?

We begin the New Year as we left the old one-speculating on how much the mayor has been wounded by the twin catastrophes that walloped his administration as 2010 drew to a close. Much of fallout from the City Time scandal, as well as the snow snafu, has yet to be fully felt-with investigations and recriminations to come. In our view, however, we may be witnessing the denouement of the Bloomberg narrative-with the resulting deconstruction of the Myth of Mike.

The deconstruction of the Myth of Mike will devolve from the unmasking of the illusion that Bloomberg was, owing in the first instance to his great wealth, an ubber-manager as well as a fiscal maven. He was able to propagate this fantasy because of his initial outlay of record amounts of campaign cash that funded an effective disinformation effort-which was aided and abetted by tabloids whose owners viewed the mayor as a blood brother; and also someone who could save us from the usual Democratic political suspects who they loathe.

The role of the NY Times in all of this has yet to be fully explicated-but the fact that they have yet to comment on the CityTime scandal, and came up with a tardy and tepid editorial response to the snow screw up, is certainly suggestive of an attitude of pull the punches caution. Why this is so, we'll leave to the ferreting of the inimitable Wayne Barrett-but the end result was the creation of a Bloomberg aura that turned out to be, to put it mildly, somewhat less than authentic.

Of course, as is always true in politics, it helps to be lucky-and Bloomberg was certainly that. In the first place, he came in on the heels of a real catastrophe, one that he wasn't ever tasked with having to tackle. And, with a city looking for a return to normalcy, a bland Bloomberg was an anodyne. In addition, he replaced a larger than life chief executive who, while accomplishing some major sea changes in the political culture, had clearly worn out his welcome-and thus Bloomberg was seen in many quarters as a relief from the sturm und drang of Rudy Giuliani.

Also, in a brilliant stroke, Bloomberg made sure to co-opt the nuisance making Al Sharpton with a lucrative sinecure. But as important as all of the preceding may have been, the mayor was fortunate not to face any major crisis of leadership-such as the ones that sandbagged him in the close of last year.

This allowed Bloomberg to stealthily build a core of support from the usual machinations of the judicious exercise of political power -as well as from his unprecedented utilization of a political fortune to create a retinue of political retainers in the city's large not for profit sector. These were some very well regarded and high profile folks, and they helped to create the patina of Bloomberg's greatness. These compensated toadies could be counted on to come out of the woodwork in droves for some of the mayor's signature issues, like congestion pricing and mayoral control of the schools.

But, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein's observation about Oakland, there really wasn't, and isn't, any there, there. The mayor's one signature accomplishment-at least according to his hagiographers-is school governance. As far as the educational miracle is concerned, however, it is much like Oakland as well-with a huge increase of funding leading to rather modest gains in school achievement. All that awaits, is for someone to do the cost-benefit analysis-and not forget to add the forever costs of all those additional health and pension benefits that come with the big increase on school personnel.

And then we come to the mayor's claim to have brought about a degree of fiscal stability-and here, once again, there needs to be a cost-benefit analysis. Mike Bloomberg vastly increased the size and scope of municipal government; and raised taxes and fees to cover the increase-while at the same time raising the city's debt ceiling to dangerous levels. It is a government-much like that of the state-that we can no longer afford; but it is being run by a man who has always embraced large government as a good thing.

We mention all of this in order to set the stage for the larger discussion of how the mayor's current fall from grace can easily deteriorate further as the Bloomberg house of cards starts to fall apart with increased critical scrutiny. There is, as we have been persistently pointing out for the past nine years, so much that is ripe for re-evaluation. The current scandals will, in our view, trigger the re-evaluation.

But first, the recriminations over the snow balling will need to be fully aired-and the WSJ layed out the torrent of criticism that is being heaped on the mayor: "Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday his administration fulfilled a promise to plow every city street, but elected officials and others insisted some streets never saw a plow before the 7 a.m. deadline, marking another setback for the beleaguered mayor. Mr. Bloomberg, who on Friday completes the first year of his third four-year term as the chief executive of the nation's largest city, has been besieged by a number of embarrassing episodes in recent weeks, with some saying he's endangering his image as an expert manager."

We can begin to hear Paul Simon's, "Slip slidin' away," start ringing in our ears: "The mayor said the administration plans to conduct a full investigation into the city's response to the storm. That probe will include examining allegations that disgruntled members of the Department of Sanitation deliberately slowed the snow removal as a protest."

However, the days of allowing Bloomberg to grade his own tests are long gone-and there will be others with an eye on Gracie Mansion who will be conducting their own examination of the mayor's failure of leadership-beginning with where the hell he was when the storm surge was on the horizon. Already the media is deserting him-with the NY Post comparing his praise of Sanit chief Doherty to George Bush, Katrina, and emergency management head "Brownie."

It is the NY Daily News, though, that has done an exhaustive job at catalouging the failures-a reality that will continue to unfold in sharp contrast to the mayor's out of touch praise of the DSNY head. What will be seen as especially unforgiving, is the contrast between snow removal in Manhattan and that of the other boroughs: "In the blizzard of 2010, some boroughs were more equal than others. Mayor Bloomberg scoffed at claims that city snowplows favored Manhattan - where he lives - over the outer boroughs. "I care about all parts of this city," he said. But a Daily News review of Department of Sanitation records shows a stark disparity in the time it took to clear Manhattan streets and the time it took to plow out much of Brooklyn and Queens. The records show south Brooklyn neighborhoods - Carroll Gardens, Bay Ridge, Midwood, Flatbush, Mill Basin, Coney Island and Flatlands - were left largely untouched long after Manhattan was plowed nearly top to bottom."

And the rage of those neglected will be very slow to dissipate-and will enable the criticism of the mayor's CityTime scandal to gain real traction. Keep in mind that this was in the middle of the holiday season, and the storm really screwed up the plans of a multitude of New Yorkers: "We have to get back to a normal schedule," said Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty. It can't come soon enough for outer borough residents still struggling with ice-covered streets, snowed-in cars and pent-up anger. "This is unacceptable," said Alan Baum, whose mother, Daisy, remained stranded on a Jamaica street coated with several inches of snow and growing mounds of garbage. "This is not the first time New York City had a snowstorm. You could say this is Bloomberg's Katrina."

But it isn't inconvenience alone that will roil the investigatory waters-as the Post highlights: "Two of this week's snow-linked tragedies occurred just a block apart. The parents of 3-month-old Addison Reynoso say the boy is brain dead because minutes were lost Wednesday afternoon in getting emergency help to their home on 39th Avenue in Corona, Queens. Two days earlier and one block away, Yvonne Freeman, 75, suffered fatal respiratory distress after waiting three hours for EMTs to fight their way through the snow. State Sen. José Peralta, who represents the district, yesterday called for an "exhaustive and honest review" and said "swift and forceful action must be taken against those who failed our city in a time of need."

As we know, however, the fish stinks from the head. The effort by the Post to lay much of the blame on the sanitation workers-accused of a work slowdown by the paper-will be part of the unfolding investigation; but there's no one who doesn't think that this wouldn't have occurred if Rudy was in charge. Bloomberg likes to delegate, and in a corporate model, this can work really well. But when crisis hits, delegation needs to give way to strong, hands on, leadership-clearly absent last week.

Michael Godwin nails the problem: "To understand how King Mike could deny the snow truth that all New Yorkers could see, you first must understand his golden bubble. It's not just the weekend trips to warmer climes, or the routine comforts of a multibillionaire with homes here and there. It's that he surrounds himself with yes men and women. They don't dare bring him bad news. They know he doesn't want to hear it. We can call them cowards, and they are, but that misses the point. The corruption of power multiplies over time, and few inconvenient facts penetrate the walls of his bubble these days..."

According to Goodwin, he needs to get his head back in the job-but is not optimistic that he will: "The mayor himself is the problem, and it won't be fixed until he decides to fix it. To save the city and his reputation, he's got to get his head back into the job. So far, there is zero evidence he will. His performance last week was distressingly shoddy. The failure to competently manage the Sanitation Department was only the tip of the blizzard."

The larger failure lies within the man himself: "The greater failure was to understand and manage public expectations. His reaction to the criticism was a microcosm of the worst moments of his tenure. The tone-deaf elitist, the haughty rich guy who oozes contempt for anybody who challenges him -- all of it captured on the X-ray cameras of television. "I regret everything in the world," he snapped at one press conference, secure in his screw-you attitude. He insisted the sanitation commissioner was "the best sanitation commissioner the city has ever had."

Goodwin goes on to make our point here-that the current snowfu is the beginning of the Bloomberg end: "So New York burns while he fiddles. The signs of imperiousness are everywhere. The CityTime scandal, an $80 million rip-off, was just another day at the office for him. Bike lanes proliferate even though nobody except a few zealots want them. Commissioners in health and transportation brazenly fudge facts to sell his pet projects. Land-use rules are manipulated to justify sweetheart deals to favored contractors, such as the whopping homeless shelter on West 25th Street."

Everything now becomes grist for the critics mill. The mayor is claiming that this snow crisis is, "character building." Which reminds us of the old maxim about sports: it doesn't build character, it reveals it. The people of New York have had a truly revelatory moment over this past week-a really personal epiphany. It will, in our view, lead to a stark re-evaluation of the man who leads this city.

We'll give Goodwin the last word: "He bought the third term not because he wanted it, but because it was the best job on the market. He wanted to run for president but didn't have the courage to try. Now he and New York are stuck with each other, but we're not really in it together. Emotionally and mentally, he has checked out. The job is beneath him now."