Bloomberg is challenging President Obama and Congress to take action on gun control now.
(Photo: John Moore, Getty Images)
NEW YORK - Michael Bloomberg's 12-year run as mayor of New York City is beginning to wind down, but his national campaign for stricter gun control is ramping up in the wake of the Newtown grade school shootings.
Bloomberg is challenging President Obama and Congress to take action now. He wants a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips and an end to gun-show purchases without background checks. If the legislation isn't simple and effective, he said Tuesday on MSNBC, "I'm going to try to make - and get as many people as I can to make - a big fuss."
A Bloomberg fuss can be pretty big - just ask New Yorkers who thought there would always be an elected school board, that they'd always be able to smoke in bars and that they could drink sodas to their heart's content. Now the mayor runs the schools, no one can light up in a park, let alone a tavern, and this fall, the city banned the sale of large-sized sugary drinks at movie theaters and restaurants.
As Bloomberg puts his personality, energy, gravitas and money behind gun control, public policy and philanthropy, the nation will hear a whole lot more from him when his term ends next year. New Yorkers must fill a gaping leadership hole as the city confronts overdue union contracts, complex debt issues and economic damage inflicted by Superstorm Sandy.
A billionaire businessman-turned-politico, Bloomberg has all the necessary tools for pushing gun control: a record, an organization and more-or-less unlimited cash. He's unhampered by party affiliation - or by any doubts he might not always be right - and unimpressed by the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association, which he says is overrated.
Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which Bloomberg started in 2006 with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, has signed up more than 700 mayors; it lobbies for gun-control legislation, including banning gun sales to people on terrorist watch lists. The same year, Bloomberg organized a sting operation in Southern states against firearms dealers who sold guns to customers who couldn't pass background checks. In September, he set up a super PAC, Independence USA, with almost $10 million. The group targeted races in the November election based at least partly on candidates' positions on gun legislation - it went four-for-eight - and will try to influence the 2014 elections.
Since Friday's massacre in Newtown, Conn., Bloomberg has made multiple TV appearances, including on Meet the Press, joined family members of victims from Virginia Tech and other shootings at a City Hall news conference, and written a column in USA TODAY - all to promote new gun laws.
"There is no looking away from the murdered children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School," he wrote in the column, which outlines steps he wants taken to regulate guns. "We cannot let this moment pass. We cannot fail our children again."
Wednesday, Bloomberg praised the task force formed by Obama to develop gun violence policy. He reiterated his call for the president to take immediate executive action, including ordering all federal agencies to send data to the national gun background check database and ordering increased prosecution of people who try to buy guns illegally.
Bloomberg, who is blunt under ordinary circumstances, has appeared close to anger in his comments since 20 children and seven adults were gunned down in Newtown.
"This is one of the issues that he cares deeply about. When he cares deeply about an issue, he's all in," says John Feinblatt, Bloomberg's policy adviser for criminal justice and the head of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. (The mayor declined to be interviewed.) Bloomberg "is going to do what it takes" to achieve stricter gun regulation. "He is going to make sure its voice is heard. He is joining arms, literally, with survivors."
Bloomberg feels he has public opinion on his side - beyond the immediate outcry from the horrors of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Polling by the mayors group shows "widespread support for sensible gun legislation," Feinblatt says, including 79% of National Rifle Association members who favor background checks for all gun purchases. "Where the schism has always been is Washington. Washington and the gun lobby thinks one way, America thinks the other way. What we're seeing now for the first time is cracks in the armor in Washington."
Gun rights spokesman Dave Workman says Bloomberg's money and profile will get him publicity for his cause, but his positions on "firearms prohibition" won't go far.
"He's got a bit of traction down on Capitol Hill because he's got a boatload of money, and money will buy a certain amount of influence, and it will buy publicity," says Workman, communication director for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, a group based in Bellevue, Wash. "There are a lot of people on Capitol Hill who support firearms owners because they are firearms owners. That crosses party lines. I don't know how well Bloomberg's positions are going to play with them."
Bloomberg, 70, has said that after he leaves office he plans to occupy himself with his foundation, which - with $2.7 billion in its endowment - is among the nation's top 25 wealthiest. It focuses on public health, arts, education, environment and government innovation. Last week, he signed on to an organization focused on tackling federal debt.
Post-Bloomberg New York
That doesn't mean gun control will get short shrift, Feinblatt says: "Unlike Congress, the mayor is capable of doing more than one thing at a time."
As Bloomberg closes out the third term he won only after changing the law to allow it, he will leave his successor a set of problems specific - but critical - to New York City.
A post-Bloomberg era brings both uncertainty and opportunity, depending on who's looking at the horizon, as well as a chance for New Yorkers who felt ignored or overruled by the mayor - from public school parents to development opponents - to raise their voices in the void.
Bloomberg's constituents may well miss his financial generosity, his insistence on measurable results for city programs and his ability to ignore politics as usual. They may not be sad to say goodbye to his acerbity, his indifference to public opinion, his weekend disappearances to Bermuda, and his determination to make New Yorkers healthier whether they want to be or not.
"This is a fairly fickle town, and 12 years is a lot for New Yorkers. They're ready for the next person, whoever it may be," says Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future. "A lot of people think Bloomberg has been a good mayor. A lot of people think he may be one of the best. That doesn't mean there aren't huge challenges that await the next mayor or a lot of unfinished business."
The next mayor will have to deal with the unknown impact from Superstorm Sandy on city tax revenue; pension fund contributions and debt service costs that eat up an increasing percentage of the city budget; and negotiations with about 300,000 city employees, including teachers, sanitation workers and cops - none of whom has a contract.
Bloomberg's successor must obtain renewal of mayoral control of the school system, to be reviewed by the state Legislature in 2015, halfway through the next mayor's term. Parents of children in city schools have angrily complained that Bloomberg's aggressive education changes have shut them out.
"There's only room for improvement there," says James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a labor-backed think-tank. "Things have degenerated to not a very healthy point right now."
None of the future candidates is a billionaire or even from the world of business. They all come from branches of city government, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a close ally of Bloomberg; former city comptroller William Thompson; current Comptroller John Liu; and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. The potential Republican field - in the heavily Democratic city - includes former Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrion Jr. and Joe Lhota, head of the regional public transit authority. None of these carries the kind of high-profile brand name Bloomberg brought to the office - or his ability to bypass the city's public financing for elections. (Bloomberg spent a total of nearly $250 million on his three races.)
Constituencies that flourished under Bloomberg look at the future beyond his term with some trepidation, wondering whether the next mayor will be as much on their side. Kathy Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York, a business association, has described the "consternation" of her members at the departure of the pro-development, pro-business mayor.
Bloomberg and business "speak the same language," Wylde said in an interview. "They basically trust that he's somebody who ... believes in the marketplace."
Arts and cultural institutions have enjoyed Bloomberg's financial support and enthusiasm. "We'll deeply, deeply miss him." says choreographer Elizabeth Streb, who met the mayor at the groundbreaking for a contemporary art museum, at which she performed by having dirt poured over her while dancers crashed through glass windows.
"He got it. Dirt, glass, construction - he so got it," she said. "Most mayors in America wouldn't relate conceptually to a 60-something woman dumping dirt on her head ... but he came up with his little red shovel and was happy as a lark." Streb bought the Brooklyn warehouse where her trapeze troupe is based with the help of a million-dollar grant from the city.
Just as Mayor Rudy Giuliani's tenure led New Yorkers to believe urban crime could be controlled, voters in a post-Bloomberg city will expect a well-managed, even innovative city government. "He brought in a different ethos. He came in with the mindset that city government is going to start making decisions with data ... and (hiring) people who are really professional and smart," says Maria Doulis of the Citizens Budget Commission, a watchdog group.
Bloomberg rezoned large swaths of the city and shepherded big developments such as the Atlantic Yards complex in Brooklyn, where the NBA's Nets play, and a science and technology campus for Cornell University. He banned cars from Times Square and trans-fats from food. He gave letter grades to restaurants for cleanliness and to public schools for academic success. In the post-Bloomberg city, bicyclists will still have miles of designated bike lanes and tourists will still walk through pedestrian plazas on Broadway.
'He didn't have to listen'
For all those who enjoyed Bloomberg's ability to ignore political interests because he didn't need their money, there are also those who look forward to a mayor who has to listen to someone other than himself. Bloomberg's disinclination to do that brought outrage when he appointed Cathie Black, a magazine publishing executive, to be school chancellor - he fired her three months later - and when he resisted canceling the New York Marathon scheduled to be run five days after Sandy before bowing to public pressure.
"There's a difference between listening to them and being beholden to them, and listening to them isn't a bad thing," says Doug Muzzio, public affairs professor at Baruch College in Manhattan. Bloomberg's "greatest strength ... in some ways is his weakness. He didn't have to listen."
The city has found that it's very handy to have a very rich mayor. Although he declined to move from his own luxurious townhouse into Gracie Mansion, the mayor's residence, he underwrote most of a $7 million renovation of the historic building. When he took over fundraising for the World Trade Center Memorial, he gave $10 million. Bloomberg's foundation has given to hundreds of non-profit groups in the city.
Sometimes his philanthropy is in the service of his policies - as with the gun-control group he funds. As part of an initiative he kicked off last year to help education and job prospects for young minority men, he kicked in $30 million of the $130 million cost and got another billionaire, George Soros, to match his donation.
That largesse doesn't sit well with everyone.
"Something is fundamentally wrong if we depend on the benevolence of a rich person to do things that are in the interests of society as a whole," Parrott says. "The age of kings and emperors is over."