Mike Bloomberg bestrides this city like a colossus. Mayor of New York since 2002 and the richest man in town, Bloomberg has run New York like a CEO, with no allegiance to any political party. Despite a law that limits mayors to two terms, Bloomberg wangled himself a third one in 2009, with the enthusiastic backing of the city’s three main papers.
Yet in his tenth year as mayor, Bloomberg’s approval rating has hit near-record lows. In the boom years, the mayor-as-tycoon seemed a natural thing. Now that New Yorkers regard billionaires with more distrust than envy, the mayor has far less room to manoeuvre. “Enough is enough,” exclaimed the activist Rev. Al Sharpton, once a strong ally of the mayor but now an increasingly vocal antagonist, at a rally last week: “Even though we live in the Big Apple, working class people can’t get a bite.”
Bloomberg had a jolting reminder of this new reality earlier this year, when he shocked the city by appointing his friend Cathie Black as schools chancellor, a media executive with minimal experience in education. Days into the job Black told a group of parents that the solution to schools overcrowding was “some birth control”, and it got worse from there. Teachers and citizens booed at town hall meetings, the media flayed her and, in less than three months she was gone, with Bloomberg left looking nepotistic.
“It was a classic case of third-term myopia,” says Chris Smith, contributing editor at New York. “He consulted almost no one. He fell in love with his own cleverness. It was a disaster.”
And Bloomberg’s political allies, once one step behind him, are beginning to appear out of the shadows. Increasingly, the woman to watch is Christine Quinn, speaker of the City Council, who has nearly unilateral control over the fate of city legislation. For Smith, there is no doubt that Quinn is running to succeed Bloomberg as mayor in 2013. If she wins she’ll become not just the first female and the first gay mayor of New York, but also, incredibly, the first Democrat in 20 years. But she has to walk a fine line: “She’s got to keep the unions on her side without antagonising the business community.”
Not so long ago that might not have been necessary – a Bloomberg imprimatur (and his allies’ cash) would have been all Quinn needed to succeed him. But with many in New York now exhausted with its mayor, will Quinn be able to prove she is the best woman for the job?