Op-Ed: How Bloomberg Tarnished His Legacy

Everett Pelzman, ’15

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an innovative leader at times in his first two terms (and occasionally in his third), wrecked his legacy with unadvisable public policy in his third term. Bloomberg failed to anticipate that his legacy would in fact be construed from the dialogue surrounding the 2013 mayoral elections.

Michael Bloomberg emerged a victor in the city’s 2001 elections, an unlikely candidate with a background in business. The media mogul, worth more than any man in New York State (today at an estimated $21 billion), comfortably fit into the lifestyle at City Hall and Gracie Mansion (although opting to reside at much more sleek E. 79th St. brownstone). He dedicated himself to clean streets and building partnerships with non-profits, often using his personal wealth. Under his leadership, the city was flooded with new businesses and commercial enterprises, eager to work beside one of their own.

But Bloomberg’s tenure took a subtle but emphatic turn when he petitioned the City Council to extend term limits he himself had written. After the Council approved his offer, Bloomberg went on to win a third term over City Comptroller Bill Thompson, but by a narrow margin. Bloomberg, the Independent, could no longer depend on the votes and public support to carry his proposals through the New York City Council. But, given his previous successes, he assumed a mandate from the voters, and proceeded to reimagine an ideal city without listening to public outcry.

Bloomberg, who earlier in his administration had wrested control of the Department of Education from the State of New York, began a letter-grading system for New York City schools. These letter grades measured isolated qualities in the schools and lacked the input of many educators. Some complained that the grades shifted the focus away from learning at public high schools. Often, Bloomberg would use the letter grades to close down schools, leaving teachers and students floating in the system with few options.

But the letter grades were Bloomberg’s vision, and, on the tails of his earlier successes, he marched forward. This would have a disastrous effect on his legacy. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s first education-related promise after retaining the voters’ mandate was to eliminate Bloomberg’s letter grades and end the mass school closings that have become an annual tradition.

Bloomberg also isolated many black and Hispanic communities in the outer-boroughs with a relentless “Stop and Frisk” program that gained new attention in the years after his second reelection. Politically speaking, Bloomberg’s legacy on the NYPD could have been salvaged, if he had listened to the renewed calls for reform in 2009, new Commissioner Bill Bratton notes. Bratton says that if Bloomberg and Ray Kelly had listened to their own police officers describing the effect of the program on community-police relations, the dialogue in 2013 might have been different. But Bloomberg would not listen to reform, and eventually faced the repercussions when the city was faced with a lawsuit during the mayoral election itself. Bratton, who himself began a version of Stop and Frisk, insists that he will remain transparent with the new Mayor, who has promised to end an era of racial profiling in which over 87% of the stops are on black and Hispanic men, a demographic that makes up barely a quarter of our city’s population. 

Bloomberg’s success prompted him to overreach and ignore the will of the people. He assumed a mandate given his previous successes, but this only resulted in a disaster for his legacy, shaped by the 2013 election cycle. 

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