A better New York City? 6 smart takes on Michael Bloomberg's legacy

After 12 years, New Yorkers are voting to replace their billionaire mayor

It looks like three terms as New York City's mayor is enough for Michael Bloomberg.

On Tuesday, voters will head to the polls in the Democratic primary election, the winner of which is widely expected to become Bloomberg's successor. The race has taken on the feel of a Bloomberg referendum, with front-runner Bill de Blasio blasting Bloomberg for currying favor with moneyed interests at the expense of the city's lower and middle classes.

However, there's no denying that the next mayor will have huge shoes to fill. Say what you will about Bloomberg, but he leaves a formidable legacy that includes: A steady drop in crime, accompanied controversially by staunch support for the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policies; a thriving economy, despite the city suffering its worst financial crisis since the great crash of 1929; a national push to bolster gun control, spearheaded by his group Mayors Against Illegal Guns; and public health efforts that were both praised (the smoking ban) and mocked (a ban on Big Gulps).

Bloomberg himself defended his record in a combative, widely discussed interview with New York:

People don’t remember — when [former Mayor Rudy] Giuliani was going out and I was coming in, it was supposed to be the end of the world. Nobody knew what a billionaire would do. They thought I would destroy the city. That did not happen. [New York]

Liberal primary voters aside, he gets pretty good marks from New Yorkers overall, according to a recent New York Times poll, which shows that a vast majority of respondents said he did either an excellent, good, or fair job:

Bloomberg also leaves the mayor's office $22.5 billion richer than when he first arrived. Has the city he is leaving behind been as fortunate? Here are six takes on the legacy of Michael Bloomberg:

The "baffling, visionary, obstinate, and brilliant" Bloomberg will leave behind a public health legacy that will extend far beyond New York City, writes Jim Dwyer at The New York Times:

Commentators jeered about "Mommy Mayor" and the "Nanny State." Mr. Bloomberg pushed past the catcalls and got a bill through the City Council that in addition to the ban, included money for cessation programs and steep taxes on cigarettes. The smoking rate for adults declined by a third, and for young people by half.

Since New York City passed its law, 500 other cities in the United States and 35 states enacted smoke-free legislation. In March 2004, a national smoking ban in public places was adopted by the Republic of Ireland, making it the first country in Europe to have one; anyone who had frequented Irish pubs fogged with smoke might have thought they would be the last places on earth to stub out cigarettes. [New York Times]

In Slate, Matthew Yglesias wonders why Bloomberg's "nanny state" didn't extend to Wall Street:

In some sense, yes, consumers should have done the research on trans fats and reached the conclusion that it would be better to avoid them and then waited for the process of market competition to give them more options free of the stuff. But in the real world Bloomberg-the-paternalist knows that it doesn't work that way and sometimes what makes sense is to act collectively on behalf of the research-based conclusion.

But when it comes to high finance, the emotional side of Bloomberg's elitism takes precedence over the intellectual side. When the question is gigantic sodas, Bloomberg sees exploited marks and decides to rescue them from themselves. But when the question is financial products, Bloomberg sides with the con artists and says the marks are only suffering because they're not smart enough. [Slate]

Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times, argues that Bloomberg's tenure as mayor makes a "pretty good argument for noblesse oblige":

At least as important as his wealth and managerial acumen, Bloomberg brought to City Hall a largeness of ambition that makes the candidates for his job (and, frankly, many of his predecessors) loom small by comparison. It's not just a matter of ego; Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani had plenty of that. It's a mind-set. Before he became associated with Wall Street, Bloomberg studied to be an engineer. Engineering is not just a set of skills. It favors innovative solutions over incremental fixes, calculation over consensus.

Bloomberg's initiatives were not always well sold, but they were never small ball. No one since Robert Moses has so dramatically changed the face of the city. [New York Times]

Bloomberg's "socially liberal, fiscally pro-business" policies might have attracted 250,000 new residents to New York City, writes New York's Chris Smith, but at what cost?

Nearly 40 percent of the city's landmass will have been rezoned by the end of Bloomberg's reign — probably his most significant legacy, especially considering the new construction the zoning changes enabled. The particulars vary by neighborhood, but the driving idea has been unvarying: Development equals economic growth.

Yet success drives up rents and strains the finances of longtime middle-class residents. Nearly one third of New York's renters now spend more than half their monthly income on shelter… As the proportion of millionaires climbs, so does the share of New Yorkers living at or near the poverty line. [New York]

The New Yorker's Ken Auletta wonders if Bloomberg passed the buck by implementing "short-term budget fixes by imposing long-term problems," which the mayor denies:

Bloomberg's last budget also contains some daunting costs, left for the next mayor to resolve. Pensions and other benefits add an average 72 percent to most city employees' salaries; in the case of policemen and firemen, the expense of these benefits exceeds the workers' pay... In next year's budget, the cost of pensions and other benefits will exceed 23 billion dollars, more than the city spends to deliver all municipal services, including police, fire, sanitation, welfare, and education. [The New Yorker]

Ultimately, however, New Yorkers will come to miss their billionaire mayor, writes Michael Wolff in The Guardian:

Many people who were bitterly and reasonably opposed to Bloomberg's extension of his own term limits, now, given the options, might vote for several more.

City life began changing before Michael Bloomberg, and then, under him, morphed ever quicker. Cities, so long in decline, are now economic engines and wealth magnates. Where big city politics has traditionally produced a political class that is a breed apart from the brains and talent that is a modern city's true product, Bloomberg's term has helped upend that divide. [The Guardian]


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