Try a Large, Friendly Dog
By Henry J. Stern
January 20, 2003
Columnists are discussing the dissonance between Mayor Bloomberg's achievements and his low poll ratings. The reasons for this are not recondite; allow me to offer a few.
First is the massive increase in the property tax. Nobody likes to pay higher taxes, even if they (whatever the pronoun is) pass them on to other people, their dear tenants.
Second is the bill restricting smoking. Nobody likes to be told what they can't do, even if it lengthens their lives and protects the health of innocent waiters and bartenders whose job it is to serve them. But notice how Council Speaker Gifford Miller has avoided political blame, even though it was the Council that passed the bill by an overwhelming vote.
Third is the fact that the mayor is a billionaire. Nobody likes to be ruled by someone who is obviously far more skilled than they are at capitalist society's greatest task and measure: making a lot of money and spending it with flair.
Fourth is his mild public appearance. People want Superman, not Clark Kent, competent reporter that he is. There is not the glamour or excitement in the mayor’s persona that, in our celebrity-driven society, many people value so highly. He does not look like Lindsay, amuse and instruct like Koch, or fight fiercely and take no prisoners, like Giuliani.
Nonetheless, he is doing a good job as mayor. He won control over the schools, not because of any great skill on his part, but simply because he was not Giuliani, and also because he did for the teachers some of what Pataki did for the health workers. His appointment of Joel Klein as chancellor assures radical change in the school system. Whether children will read, write and add better remains to be seen, but at least everything is being done that can be done, and a lot of low output administrators are losing their sinecures.
I reviewed the mayor's first year in more detail in an epic 1776- word saga two weeks ago. When we factor in the negative polls, they do not detract from his many achievements. It will, however, complicate his task of governing if politicians and the media perceive and describe him as unpopular or ineffective.
Mayor Koch says, with his usual brevity and clarity, "You can't be what you are not." But, if you're good, you can show people what you really are and they will like you. It shouldn't take a Dick Morris or Karl Rove to make the mayor more popular. It will take advisers whom he listens to as equals rather than employees. And it will require his doing things and going places which may not be comfortable, convenient or pleasant for him.
This monarch is elected, however, and he is a nominal Republican in a Democratic city. Since we were awarded their convention, decency demands that he remain in the elephant party. But even if he behaves like a tax and spend Democrat, he will find that most people on the left will prefer the genuine donkey to the artificial, even if the imitation is a diamond and the real thing less than a zircon. And the people on the right will see him as a traitor to their class, as well as his own. After all, he ran as a Republican.
The Mayor also faces the problem that, from time to time, the voters want a new act, especially if hard times are associated with the old one (cf. Mayors Beame and Dinkins.) If he wants to stay for Act II, and we hope he does, the Mayor will have to show the voters that, even though he cannot really be thought of as one of them, he likes and respects them enough for them to want him to stick around.
Otherwise, it’s back to his day job at Bloomberg Tower (59th and Lex), which should be finished by the end of 2005. That outcome would be a loss for us as well as for him.
Henry J. Stern is the director of NYCivic.