Despite Bloomberg's lead, New Yorkers have misgivings

Michael Bloomberg has set a record by spending more personal funds than anyone in U.S. history on bids for public office.
Michael Bloomberg has set a record by spending more personal funds than anyone in U.S. history on bids for public office. (Mary Altaffer/associated Press)
By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009

NEW YORK -- As Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg campaigns for reelection, some of his steadiest supporters include people like Freddy Batista: a man with mixed feelings.

"I don't like Bloomberg, but I think the city needs him," said Batista, 30, a heavyset sales clerk wearing a Yankees cap. He explained that he finds the mayor cranky and distant, but that he trusts him to fix the ailing economy.

Recent polls have found Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman and political independent, leading by double digits over his Democratic rival, the little-known and underfunded William C. Thompson, the city's comptroller.

Yet New Yorkers both for and against the mayor describe conflicting emotions about his record spending on his campaign -- likely more than $100 million by Tuesday, which is Election Day -- and the way he pushed through legal changes to allow him to run for a third term.

"Not everybody loves the mayor, but they have confidence in his business sense and his ability to manage the city through an economic downturn," said Kathryn S. Wylde, a strong supporter of Bloomberg and the president and chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, a business-backed civic group.

"It's a toxic combination of excessive spending and bypassing the public. I think they reinforce each other as a red flag about the state of New York's democracy," said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group, who nonetheless said he recognizes the mayor's achievements.

What is not in question is how much the city has changed since Bloomberg took office.

When Bloomberg was sworn in as mayor in January 2002, the ashes of the World Trade Center had barely cooled. As the economy picked up, the mayor gave the city a steady hand and seemed to quell tensions left over from the era of his contentious predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani (R).

Crime was down, and Bloomberg wanted to clean up the grit, too -- instituting a rule against smoking in restaurants, forcing food outlets to display calorie counts, creating bike lanes and banning cars from parts of chaotic Times Square. Bold moves, some said -- measures that might have been difficult for a politician who needed to raise campaign funds from various special interests. Bloomberg also dramatically altered the physical city, changing zoning rules for a fifth of its land on the premise that development is key to jobs and growth.

"The business community has the greatest confidence in his understanding of the economic forces affecting the city and how to deal with them in the best interests of the city," Wylde said.

But the boom seemed to squeeze out people who could not pay the rents. Over the course of Bloomberg's tenure, the face of Manhattan changed: It became young, white, unmarried, highly educated, highly skilled and -- most critically -- highly paid.

Near the height of the boom, New York City had a smaller share of middle-income families than any other major metropolitan area in the country, according to a study by the Brookings Institution.

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