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New York City Warms Up to Its Billionaire Mayor

Republican Bloomberg, spending freely to win Tuesday's vote, polls far ahead of the Democrat.

November 06, 2005|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Less than two years ago, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was struggling to win New Yorkers' approval. Most voters did not like the job he was doing. Nearly 60% polled said they wouldn't want to have Thanksgiving dinner with him.

Today, the billionaire Republican enjoys solid approval ratings from voters in both parties and is expected to thrash his Democratic opponent, Fernando Ferrer, in Tuesday's mayoral election.

"I think it takes people a while to get used to your style," Bloomberg, 63, said at a recent Harlem campaign event. "People also think that the city is going in the right direction. We're not out of the woods yet, but our economy is definitely improving. Maybe that's the reason."

The mayor's willingness to freely spend his own money is another possible explanation for his political turnaround.

Bloomberg has spent $63.8 million, all his own money, and is on track to hit $75 million before the campaign is over. The Ferrer campaign has spent $6.6 million, according to his most recent filing.

As Ferrer shook hands at a Harlem subway stop Tuesday, he insisted he was still in the race. But his dream of forging a winning coalition of blacks, Latinos, white liberals and others appears to be just that.

Despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1 here, the most recent surveys show Bloomberg leading Ferrer by as much as 64% to 30%.

"Our campaign is working hard to address the issues facing all New Yorkers," said the former Bronx Borough president and the first Latino to win the Democratic mayoral nomination. "The difference is, I'm not spending $63 million."

New Yorkers have seen a blizzard of prime-time television ads lauding Bloomberg's record in fighting crime, boosting public schools and building housing. Ferrer's ads appear mainly on cable TV.

The mayor also has bought radio ads in Chinese, Spanish, Korean and many other languages to reach the city's ethnically diverse electorate. On Tuesday, he plans to deploy thousands of get-out-the-vote volunteers, an operation expected to dwarf Ferrer's foot soldiers.

Dollars alone, however, cannot explain the mayor's political gains. Bloomberg is running on a record that includes a 20% drop in violent crime, rising test scores in public schools, new affordable housing and job growth.

"The political graveyards of this country are littered with the tombstones of candidates who spent a fortune on their campaigns but lost," political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said. "Bloomberg has come on strong because he made a difference in the life of New York. He did so by setting a pragmatic, civilized tone at City Hall."

If there was one event that solidified Bloomberg's image as a leader, political experts say, it was when he warned of a terrorist threat against the New York subway system several weeks ago. The mayor came across as being in control, and his poll numbers shot up dramatically.

Ferrer, who had been trying to focus attention on traditional Democratic issues, such as poverty, was eclipsed.

"People are less worried about symbols and party labels now, and Bloomberg understands this," said Ronnie Eldridge, a veteran activist who has urged other Democrats to support the Republican mayor. "We need results, not rhetoric, at City Hall."

From the start, Bloomberg's campaign has focused on winning over Democrats. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, 50% of the city's registered Democrats said they backed the mayor.

"Fiorello LaGuardia, the great Republican mayor of New York, used to say there was no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage," political consultant Joseph Mercurio said. "That's a good illustration of Bloomberg's success."

New Yorkers traditionally have warmed to mayors with brash, outgoing styles. Those who brought a mixture of charisma and theatrics to the job -- including Rudolph W. Giuliani, Edward I. Koch and John V. Lindsay -- won their reelection bids. Mayors David N. Dinkins and Abraham D. Beame, largely viewed as colorless politicians, were sent packing after one term.

For his first two years in office, Bloomberg seemed destined for that category.

Many saw the mayor, who built a successful media company before entering politics, as stiff and distant -- a man incapable of understanding average New Yorkers. He flew off in his private jet to Europe and Bermuda; he often sounded argumentative and imperious during exchanges with the media.

A New England native, Bloomberg's nasal accent grated in New York. He was booed at ballgames and other events.

"Bloomberg realized he had to fight back against that image, but he tried to do it by getting things done," said Maurice Carroll, who runs the Quinnipiac Polling Institute. "Even if New Yorkers didn't like him personally, they couldn't help but notice his record."

During the mayor's first term, crime fell 20%.

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