There are probably two things many people tuning in to the Democratic presidential primary know about Mike Bloomberg’s mayoral record in New York City: He backed stop-and-frisk policing, and he tried to ban giant sodas. But Bloomberg’s record in New York is a lot more extensive — and complicated — than that.
Recently, critics have resurfaced videos and audio of him speaking about people of color in crass ways, pledging to defend banks, and making other remarks that aren’t appealing to a lot of Democrats. Bernie Sanders has accused Bloomberg of supporting “racist policies,” and he isn’t the only one. People are justifiably upset about all of this, and it’s worth questioning whether Bloomberg’s apology now that he’s running for the White House is more than a matter of political expediency than it is actual regret.
His experience running New York City is clearly central to his pitch. At the Democratic Debate in Charleston, he said, somewhat awkwardly, “I have been training for this job since I stepped on the pile that was still smoldering on 9/11. I know what to do. I’ve shown I know how to run a country. I’ve run the city which is almost the same size — bigger than most countries in the world.”
Figuring out what he did as the mayor of America’s largest city is useful for evaluating what he might be like as president, beyond what’s in a tweet or a sound bite.
Truthfully, a lot of Bloomberg’s mayoral record is boring. Digging into it for this story, I talked for a long time with one source about how New York City manages its trash, and multiple people brought up their experiences in specific snowstorms. Bloomberg’s 311 hotline — his first big initiative as mayor (an idea that originated in Baltimore) — was so successful that multiple cities across the nation copied it. And it’s worth remembering that when Bloomberg was elected mayor, he faced a unique challenge. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the future of New York was in question. People were afraid to visit the city, and people who lived and worked there were afraid to stay.
Was Bloomberg’s record perfect? Absolutely not. But he left much of the city better off than when he arrived.
“You may not like what he did, fine. I do, other people may not, but he did the job,” said Steven Strauss, a visiting professor at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School who advised the Bloomberg mayoral administration on economic policy.
Trying to sum up Bloomberg’s entire mayoral record is impossible. Yes, there’s Bloomberg the nanny and Bloomberg the cop, but there’s also Bloomberg the builder and Bloomberg the manager. He’s also a very rich man with a lot of political and philanthropic aspirations.
Also, a lot of New Yorkers hate their mayors as a matter of course. “He generally did not like when the press or the politics were factors in making a decision,” one former City Hall employee, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, told me. “He would basically anger everybody equally.”
Bloomberg the nanny
There’s a reason Bloomberg has a reputation as the embodiment of the nanny state: He has a pretty good idea of what he does and doesn’t think should be allowed, and he’s not afraid to compel people to go along.
In 2013, Gizmodo compiled a list of Bloomberg’s nanny-state initiatives, including creating bike lanes, banning trans fats in restaurants, requiring chain restaurants to list calorie counts, kicking cars out of Times Square, and, of course, the failed attempt to ban giant sodas. They’re annoying, yes, but they’re essentially designed to not-so-subtly nudge people into doing the right thing.
Perhaps objectively the best case of Bloomberg’s nanny tendencies is the smoking ban he imposed in restaurants and bars in New York City. While it was unpopular at the time, it has become widely implemented, and one of Bloomberg’s favorite talking points is that due to it and other health initiatives he implemented, New Yorkers’ life expectancy increased by three years.
“Every other Democrat is talking about health care, but Bloomberg did something, because he said health care is not just a matter of diseases coming to you, it’s also making sure people understood the risks they faced in their everyday lives,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at NYU who has advised Bloomberg and other New York politicians.
At the South Carolina debate, Bloomberg touted the smoking ban and the increased life expectancy in New York under his watch. But he also noted that not all of his nanny-state policies would accompany him to the White House — as in, probably no executive orders on trans fats. “I think what’s right for New York City isn’t necessarily right for all the other cities; otherwise, you would have a naked cowboy in every city,” he said.
The subtext of a lot of this is that Bloomberg didn’t seem to believe that people were capable of making the right decisions on their own — often, low-income people.
For example, Bloomberg insisted on fingerprinting food stamp recipients, even when the vast majority of the country and the rest of the state had abandoned the practice. He argued that if people weren’t fingerprinted, fraud would escalate, because people would be able to open multiple cases. But that’s usually not where food stamp fraud, which is rare, even happens — most of the time, it’s people trading benefits for cash. Bloomberg’s opponents on fingerprinting argued it stigmatized those in need and could deter them from collecting benefits, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo eventually ended the practice. The number of New Yorkers receiving food stamps increased between 2001 and 2013, but it’s unclear how much of that is attributable to Bloomberg’s policies and how much of it is because of broader problems in the economy.
Bloomberg also advocated fingerprinting people who live in public housing, and he ended the practice of families getting priority for federal housing vouchers, worrying that people might enter the shelter system to get vouchers faster. When in 2009 the Obama administration extended food stamp benefits for able-bodied adults, Bloomberg’s administration insisted it wasn’t obligated to extend benefits to people not enrolled in its welfare jobs program. In 2011, Esquire described poverty as Bloomberg’s “blind spot.”
“There were policies that actively kept federally funded food away from hungry people,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, a nonprofit group.
Bloomberg the cop
During the 2020 presidential primary, stop and frisk has probably been the most discussed part of Bloomberg’s mayoral record. Bloomberg apologized for the practice, which has been widely discredited and was struck down by a court in 2013, before announcing his White House bid, but he defended it for years.
As Vox’s German Lopez explained, when Bloomberg became mayor in 2002, crime was still a top concern among New Yorkers, and so he continued the “broken windows” philosophy embraced by his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, that policing low-level offenses reduces crime overall. He and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, expanded stop and frisk significantly. The policy disproportionately affected communities of color, namely, black and Latino men, and stops were often aggressive and humiliating. Per Lopez:
These stops were highly concentrated in minority communities: In 2011, for example, 53 percent of people stopped were black, and 34 percent were Latin, even though black and Latin people made up around 23 and 29 percent of the population, respectively. About 88 percent of the stops were of people that the New York Civil Liberties Union classified as innocent — meaning they led to no citations, summonses, arrests, or other police actions.
In 2013, federal court judge Shira Scheindlin struck down stop and frisk, finding that the NYPD had resorted to a “policy of indirect racial profiling” in the practice. “Their argument for stop and frisk was that whatever it took to, in their view, deter crime and protect crime victims was okay, but that isn’t the law,” she told me. “You have to operate within the Constitution.”
She noted that the “furtive movements” excuses officers used to stop people were “almost funny” — someone was walking too slow or too fast, looking over their shoulder or straight ahead, stuttering. Moreover, 1 percent of black people who were stopped had weapons or contraband, compared to 1.4 percent of white people stopped. “There was plenty of data, but they did ignore constant reports that showed racial bias,” Scheindlin said.
Crime did fall under Bloomberg’s tenure. But as police stops have fallen under Bill de Blasio, Bloomberg’s successor, crime in New York has not increased. And there is evidence to suggest that just having more police walking around reduces crime.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Scheindlin wrote that Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk record is “unforgivable” but also has to be taken on balance with the rest of his record, including job creation for low-income people, anti-poverty initiatives, and other programs.
Michael Tubbs, the 29-year-old mayor of Stockton, California, who is now backing Bloomberg’s campaign, told me that while stop and frisk was “terrible,” Bloomberg is hardly the only politician who has to answer for his record on criminal justice and race. He pointed to the 1994 crime bill, which Joe Biden helped author and Bernie Sanders backed, and noted that stop and frisk is not the whole story on the Bloomberg administration and criminal justice. The murder rate fell under Bloomberg, he launched the “young men’s initiative” to try to boost young men of color, and the Rikers Island jail population declined.
“Let’s look at the plans moving forward and the people he’s surrounding himself with,” Tubbs said. “None of us are stop-and-frisk people. None of us believes that law enforcement is the answer to everything.”
But it’s not just stop and frisk that is questionable. Bloomberg also oversaw a police department that enacted a years-long Muslim surveillance program, even while advocating to allow a mosque to be built near the World Trade Center site.
Bloomberg the builder
Bloomberg took office just months after two World Trade Center towers collapsed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There were grave doubts about New York City’s future, and the city’s budget was underwater.
“He took office as mayor at a time of great uncertainty about the future of New York,” said Eric Kober, former director of housing, economic, and infrastructure planning at the New York City Department of City Planning.
As mayor, Bloomberg undertook initiatives not only to recover from 9/11 but also to develop and build out vast swaths of the city. In his 2002 state of the city address, he called for rezoning Manhattan’s West Side, building up its waterfront shoreline, and said the city would compete to host the 2012 Olympics and the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2004. On some of those fronts, he failed — the 2012 Olympics went to London, and the Democrats held their convention in Boston — but on others, he succeeded. Bloomberg’s administration ultimately rezoned about 40 percent of New York, paving the way for new residential buildings in areas such as Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn and Long Island City in Queens, and more commercial activity in downtown Brooklyn.
Two of Bloomberg’s biggest development accomplishments are his renovation of the High Line, an elevated park, and the Hudson Yards project, a real estate development, both of which are on Manhattan’s West Side. When the state, which funds New York City’s subway system, couldn’t afford to extend the subway to the Hudson Yards project, Bloomberg maneuvered for the city to pay for it itself.
“It was the most complicated thing I ever worked on,” Kober, who worked in New York City planning for more than 30 years, said of the Hudson Yards project. “It was really a huge, complicated effort with a lot of different players, all of whom had to be kept happy, and an extraordinary achievement for the Bloomberg administration, which took the lead on it.”
But Hudson Yards and Bloomberg’s building efforts overall are not without critics. Tax breaks and other government assistance for Hudson Yards hit about $6 billion. Post-9/11, Goldman Sachs got hundreds of millions of dollars in state and city incentives to stick to its plans to build in lower Manhattan.
Bloomberg’s development efforts, overall, were seen by some to benefit businesses and rich people while pushing out lower-income people and communities of color. “His rezonings across the city were overwhelmingly to the benefit of more well-off newcomers to New York City,” said Jonathan Westin, director of the advocacy group New York Communities for Change.
Curbed recently did a deep dive into Bloomberg’s housing record and found that the city’s affordable housing crisis in many ways became worse under his tenure, and while some of it was beyond his control, a lot of it wasn’t. The “affordable” housing his administration developed often wasn’t actually affordable, and across the city, rents went up.
“People couldn’t afford to live in the city that he made more expensive,” said Nelini Stamp, strategy director of the Working Families Party, which has endorsed Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential run.
“Bloomberg’s orientation was really not to maximize the number of affordable housing units but to provide a measure of economic integration and maximize the number of housing units overall,” Kober said.
Bloomberg the manager
Those who worked with Bloomberg at City Hall describe him as a savvy manager who put people he thought were the best in positions and let them run.
“He was a hands-on mayor,” Strauss said. “This wasn’t a part-time job, he wasn’t chairman of the board, he was at the meetings making decisions.”
His people were supposed to look at data. (Whether they were always looking at the data, or understanding the context around it, I’ll get to later.) “You couldn’t present him an idea, initiative, or review something that had been in the works without presenting the data behind it,” the former City Hall employee said. “He likes to say, ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.’”
Sometimes, Bloomberg’s management was successful. New Yorkers largely applauded his handling of the 2003 blackout. Other times, it was not. He was blamed for the city’s inefficient response to a major snowstorm in 2010, during which he said things were “going fine” in part because “Broadway shows were full,” seeming oblivious to the hardships many New Yorkers were facing.
When Bloomberg came into office, he was facing a major budget deficit in New York City and managed to turn it around. When he left office, the city had a $2.4 billion budget surplus.
He told New York magazine in 2005 that he enjoyed the complexity of dealing with the budget because “the more complex the job, the more satisfying it is if you do it correctly.” And doing it “correctly” often meant upsetting lots of people from all across the spectrum. After 9/11, Bloomberg begrudgingly raised property taxes and personal income taxes on the wealthy; he also hiked taxes after the recession. His trash plan incensed the Upper East Side. He also slashed the city’s payroll and bristled at wage hikes for city contractors.
“That’s the job of government, that’s the job of leadership, and it’s certainly the job of the executive: You have to get stuff done every day,” said Michael Nutter, who came to New York to meet Bloomberg before becoming mayor of Philadelphia and is now a surrogate for Bloomberg’s presidential campaign.
Bloomberg took control of the New York City school system as mayor, and what he did with it subsequently was controversial. His administration closed more than 100 underperforming schools and oversaw the expansion of charter schools in the city. He raised teacher pay but clashed with the teachers union. A letter signed by dozens of New York activists of color ahead of Super Tuesday hit Bloomberg’s actions on schools, arguing that he disregarded the demands “of thousands of black and brown parents, students, and families” that he invest in underperforming schools instead of shutting them down and saying he promoted a “test and punish regimen” in New York.
At the South Carolina debate, Bloomberg touted his record on education “When I came into office, zero New York City schools were in the top 25 of the state. When I left, 23 out of 25 were from New York City,” he said.
Bloomberg the billionaire businessman, mayor, and philanthropist
It’s impossible to delve into all the ins and outs of Bloomberg’s record as mayor without, frankly, writing a book. He fought against illegal guns and introduced PlaNYC, a green New York initiative that didn’t achieve all it set out to but was ahead of the curve. He kicked the Occupy Wall Street protesters out of the park. He sought to build up the city’s tech prowess. The list goes on.
“He really could and did strike a more independent streak, but at the end of the day, you are who you are,” said Eddie Bautista, executive director at the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance and former director of city legislative affairs under Bloomberg. “Naturally, there are going to be blind spots.”
The picture of Bloomberg’s record as mayor is a complicated one. He certainly seemed to have run the city with a “rising tide lifts all boats” theory and fit the fiscally conservative, socially liberal mold, though he wasn’t afraid to break it from time to time. He has openly said he wants every billionaire in the world to move to New York City in order to increase the tax base and boost the economy. As mayor, his administration also bought homeless people one-way tickets out of New York. After he cut the budgets of arts groups to try to balance the budget when he became mayor, he sent them personal checks.
And Bloomberg was looking at the data, but he sometimes focused too much on the data that fit his assumptions or didn’t take into account the human impact.
“There’s a tendency to be swayed by data, and even data needs to be contextualized,” Bautista said.
Berg was more cutting in his assessment. “The common perception that the city was all about data, data, data under Bloomberg I don’t think is factually true. It was about gut instinct and values.”
As we weigh Bloomberg’s mayoral record today, it’s also worth noting that he had his eye on the White House while he was still at City Hall, and he knew people might someday be paying attention.
At his 2006 staff holiday party, Bloomberg sported a mullet wig and bandana and sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” with lyrics about his presidential ambitions: “We’ll win, you’ll see, and beat the GOP and Democrats, unite the country, make more jobs, and banish all trans fat.”