POLITICS NOVEMBER 17, 2011
Michael Bloomberg isn’t having a very good week. The New York mayor is being pilloried for his decision to chase the Occupy Wall Street protesters out of Zuccotti Park in a heavy-handed, pre-dawn raid. And the press conference at which he tried to defend his decision was a weasely dance around his motivations.
But Bloomberg isn’t just having a bad week. He’s having a bad third term. His politics and his demeanor appear to be wearing thin in New York. And we can understand why.
For one thing, there have been his tone-deaf statements about the economic situation, and his tendency to make excuses for bankers. “It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis,” he recently said. “It was, plain and simple, Congress who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp.”
Then there was Bloomberg’s attitude toward the December 2010 blizzard that blanketed the city, interrupting all kinds of crucial services. All but ignoring on-the-ground conditions, Bloomberg declared the city was “going fine. Broadway shows were full last night.” Never mind if the heat was off in the outer boroughs—the neon lights were shining bright on Broadway.
But the worst, and probably most consequential, moment of Bloomberg’s third term was his selection of Cathleen Black to head the city’s schools. The choice appeared to be driven almost entirely by faith in Black’s power as CEO, since she had shown no discernible expertise in education prior to her appointment. Not surprisingly, her short tenure was a disaster.
And it wasn’t just disastrous for New York. Black’s appointment struck a broader p.r. blow against the education reform movement—which (to oversimplify) generally calls for limiting the power of teachers’ unions, holding public school teachers to high standards, and experimenting with innovations such as charter schools. Bloomberg is broadly aligned with that movement, and his choice of someone as unqualified as Black gave the impression that education reformers didn’t know anything about how education actually works. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth: Reformers have injected important ideas into the education debate and have served as a much-needed counterweight to the teachers’ unions. Unfortunately, Bloomberg’s appointment of Black badly undermined this valuable movement. (True to form, Bloomberg treated her dismissal as a matter of business, “cutting his losses on an investment that was very evidently going nowhere,” wrote David Halbfinger in The New York Times.)
Bloomberg was a good mayor during his first years in office. But the way he went about rewriting the city’s laws in order to secure a third term for himself was shameful and arrogant. Now, two years later, he is demonstrating the drawbacks of letting one person hold onto too much power for too long.