Mayor Michael Bloomberg has won his third term by a slim five-point margin. Many of his voters pulled the lever with resentment, annoyed at his successful push to overturn term limits and at the absence of a credible alternative. If Comptroller Bill Thompson had run a slightly organized campaign or if he had received national Democratic Party help getting out the vote, he could have won. Bloomberg’s close shave should be a warning to the city’s supposedly pragmatic business, political, nonprofit, education, and media elite: they cannot always count on the masses to be so terrified of crime and economic stagnation that they’ll sacrifice a functional democracy to avoid it. If elite New York doesn’t wean itself off its dependence on one man, those pesky voters eventually will—though they’ll be forced to pick from a weak pool of candidates.
Bloomberg has been a good mayor in some respects: he’s brought crime down below the low levels that Rudy Giuliani left him, and he’s brought trees to impoverished neighborhoods. But in other ways, the mayor has an unimpressive record. Spending is up 31 percent above inflation in the past eight years, a rise similar to what we would probably have seen if Bloomberg’s first Democratic opponent, Mark Green, had won. The mayor has coddled the labor unions, even giving out generous raises after Lehman Brothers’s collapse and before his latest reelection. And he chose not to spend the Wall Street bubble windfall on upgrading mass transit, a service badly needed by the middle class. Yes, the 311 city-services hotline is nice, but when you call to complain about, say, constant illegal after-hours construction, nothing happens. Complaints seem to go down a black hole, perhaps because the city’s building and other construction-related departments remain shot through with corruption, as two multiple-fatality crane accidents and other investigations have revealed.
The real problem is that Bloomberg has enjoyed an eight-year vacation (a few exceptions aside) from tempered, reasonable criticism and competition. The city’s unsustainable spending path, for example, will one day endanger New York’s public-safety gains and its already fragile infrastructure, because the money will be earmarked for pensions and health benefits. Yet too many of New York’s purported thought leaders think that the mayor is the only person who can oversee the city budget. They also think that he’s the only person who stands between New York and 2,100 murders a year, though the last two decades should have taught us that policing and prosecution do not require the oversight of one incandescent genius—only common sense, competence, and political accountability. There won’t be a reasonable alternative to the mayor as long as everyone remains convinced that Bloomberg is the only option.
Now, Bloomberg may face a just-as-unhelpful backlash in the other direction. He presides over an uncertain economy, a huge deficit, and growing unemployment. Many of his prominent supporters, moreover, likely feel defensive after having benefited personally or institutionally from the mayor’s personal wealth; they may want to go out of their way to bash Bloomberg gratuitously to prove their independence. Meanwhile, Bloomberg himself may feel contemptuous of people who were so easily relieved of all skepticism about his performance.
Over the next four years, the mayor and the city will be better served if people remember that Michael Bloomberg is neither an irreplaceable wizard nor an evil villain. He’s simply a more or less competent mayor who has benefited for a long time from an unprecedented economic boom and who needs firm reminders to care about the unsexy but vital guts of city management, like budgets and corruption. Such pressure has an effect, though, only if the mayor faces the prospect of credible competition, something that the elites have helped prevent.