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N.Y. Mayor-Elect Finds City on a Financial Cliff

Election: Michael Bloomberg follows a popular predecessor and inherits a daunting $4-billion deficit.

November 08, 2001|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Although he spent $50 million on TV ads telling New Yorkers to support him for mayor, businessman Michael Bloomberg rarely told voters why he wanted the job. That changed on election night.

As the Republican media mogul faced cheering supporters, he said he was moved by the presence of former Mayor Ed Koch and Gov. Hugh Carey on the dais. They had saved the city from fiscal ruin in the 1970s, Bloomberg said, "and now I want to do that too."

He'll have his work cut out for him as the popular Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani leaves office in seven weeks and New York wrestles with the greatest financial crisis in its history.

Hours after an intense mayoral race ended, New Yorkers woke up Wednesday to a new leader who couldn't be more different from Giuliani: Bloomberg, 59, is the richest unmarried man in New York, worth $4 billion. And what he lacks in basic political experience he makes up for in business smarts.

The successful owner of Bloomberg L.P.--a financial news company with 8,000 employees--Bloomberg is the latest in a growing number of American executives who have bankrolled their own campaigns. This was one of the reasons why he won a stunning upset victory over Democrat Mark Green.

Few would have predicted it weeks ago, because Democrats hold a 5 to 1 registration edge over Republicans here, and Bloomberg himself never seemed to gain traction with voters. He seemed awkward and uncomfortable on the campaign trail, finding it hard to make small talk with voters and struggling with impromptu comments on the stump. Many attribute his victory to a wave of last-minute TV spots in which Giuliani endorsed him.

Still, Bloomberg's core message to New Yorkers--"I'm a leader, not a politician"--seemed to resonate. His business acumen was "exactly what voters wanted in their next mayor, instead of traditional City Hall skills," said John Mollenkopf, a political analyst and social historian at City University of New York.

Like former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, Bloomberg is taking office in the aftermath of a great urban trauma. But the Big Apple's mayor-elect faces even more daunting challenges. Because he is a political unknown, observers can only guess how he'll deal with a host of problems--including a $4-billion deficit, contentious labor negotiations, rising unemployment and how to rebuild lower Manhattan after the World Trade Center attacks.

"I think he'll reach out to various communities and surprise everyone with his skill," said political consultant Joseph Mercurio, who was not aligned with either side in the race. He predicts Bloomberg will display "a rapid learning curve." But others say that the mayor-elect, whose short fuse and contempt for critics is legendary, may be temperamentally unsuited for what some call America's second toughest job.

"He's used to getting his way behind closed doors, not negotiating with labor leaders and other politicians," says New York political science professor Fred Siegel. "I'm hopeful he'll surprise us and grow in the job in a big way. But on a personal level, as a New Yorker, I'm concerned."

Some say Bloomberg has always been a determined, can-do manager who inspires people to do their best--just the kind of leadership New York needs, says Sheldon Fine, an attorney and lifelong friend. Political enemies will underestimate him "at their peril," he said, "because once Mike sets his mind on a goal, he pursues it full time, with total energy."

Yet others point to a darker side of Bloomberg, which surfaced in the campaign, involving three sexual discrimination lawsuits filed against him by women who previously worked for his media company. All alleged that he presided over a workplace that did not respect women.

Bloomberg has denied all the allegations. One case was settled by him without any admission of liability, a second was withdrawn, and the third was dismissed and denied on appeal, spokesmen said.

Bloomberg also committed a series of verbal gaffes on the campaign trail, saying that sanitation workers had more dangerous jobs than police officers and firefighters, and suggesting that the Lord's Prayer was not a Christian prayer.

But none of this seemed to matter in an election where the city's future was on the line. Few voters said they were bothered by Bloomberg's personal behavior, according to a flurry of public opinion polls in recent weeks.

Neither were they concerned that he had switched registration from the Democratic to the Republican Party to enter the mayoral race. Bloomberg's victory showed that there is a future for GOP candidates in New York politics who combine Giuliani's tough stance on law and order and fiscal restraint with progressive positions on issues such as abortion, gun control and gay rights. In the end, Bloomberg's campaign did a better job of promising to unify New Yorkers than Green's, and that won over many undecided voters.

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