Mayor’s Little Helpers

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The great surprise in the recent New York City mayoral election was that Michael Bloomberg, the incumbent, nearly lost to himself. This wasn’t expected, as he had spent tens of millions of dollars of his own money, hiring the smartest campaign advisers available, and had even established a second line (officially called the Independence Party) for those Democrats congenitally unable to push the Republican lever, which he already owned.

For two terms Bloomberg had been a strong mayor, instituting changes that might have stymied a weaker leader, such as establishing a telephone help line (“311”), changing the public school system, building outdoor cafes in city streets, and banning smoking from nearly all public spaces (including some outdoors, S4ch as baseball stadia). So swathed in his own success had he become that most New Yorkers hardly noticed that he screwed up the building department and gave sweetheart deals to developers who didn’t need public charity, such as the New York Yankees. Nonetheless, no one ever accused the city’s richest man of taking a bribe he didn’t need.

Most New Yorkers approved of Bloomberg until, nearing the end of his second term in office, he changed a recently established statute forbidding a third term – changing it not for the future, but wholly to benefit his own immediate ambitions. This mad desire to continue as our mayor changed him into a more typical politician, pandering to certain interests, making deals to get more votes, etc.

H did not matter that the Democrats chose a veteran factotum, an amiable African-American named Bill Thompson, who was incidentally too reminiscent for comfort of David Dinkins, by common consent a weak and lousy mayor from two decades ago. Whenever Dinkins appeared on local television to support Thompson, he reminded voters of their common insufficiencies. Worse for Thompson, President Obama didn’t come to New York, though he twice campaigned in nearby New Jersey for Jon Corzine, an incumbent (who none the less lost). Nor did the current New York governor, David Patterson, likewise African-American mostly, campaign for Thompson. Instead of his name, the election machine might have read “No Bloomberg,” which is just as comprehensible in Spanish as English.

Though early polls had Bloomberg winning by as much as 20%, the final results were 51°!<J for Bloomberg, 48% for Thompson. The sum was nearly 200,000 fewer than Bloomberg got four years ago. Voters turned against him not only because of his chutzpah in overturning term limits, but because of campaign overkill – advertisements knocking poor Thompson (whom few cared about anyway), oversized glossy fliers in the mail, robot telephone calls, and so forth. On the afternoon of election day, when my doorbell rang I heard a young female voice asking if I’d already voted for Bloomberg. Enough already.

Those of us who went to public high schools in New York state some decades ago remember in Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge” a character named Henchard who was undone by his excessive ambition, the implication being that his unfortunate fate illustrated a universal truth. Since Michael Bloomberg grew up in Boston, he might not have learned that yet.

Some libertarians have made term limits into an issue worthy of legislation, as indeed it probably is. Critical historians have also noted that, even for successful mayors, third terms are rarely as good as their first or second. In the anti- Bloomberg vote was an expression of general critical sentiment. Can anyone think of any earlier election in which an incumbent nearly lost to himself?

Myself, I voted Libertarian, for a candidate less visible than Bill Thompson.

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