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Mayoral Candidates Vie for Food Cred

For those living near one of New York City’s 54 Greenmarkets or with access to one of the 800-plus school and community gardens or dozen-plus urban farms, you can hardly swing a reusable tote without knocking over some kind of “local” food. But most of what New Yorkers eat doesn’t come from nearby. According to a 2008 study of the city’s food supply, even if the entire state’s agricultural products flowed only to our concrete jungle, it would meet just 55 percent of its total food needs.

With more than 1 million food-insecure New Yorkers and a $30 billion food economy, food matters in this election.

Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio both stand out from the pack on the local food question, and their different approaches point to the general distinctions in their would-be mayoral styles. While Quinn’s tends to be top-down, with achievements in tracking food and proposals for better procurement, de Blasio offers a more bottom-up alternative, pushing local agriculture, urban gardens, and even dropping the word “foodshed.”

Meanwhile, John “Gristedes” Catsimatidis, the self-proclaimed “most experienced” candidate on food issues, summed up his plan at the first-ever Mayor’s Forum on the Future of Food in New York City: “It comes down to getting product cheaper.” (So why do his stores tend to carry expensive, low-quality produce from far away? If his campaign had answered my e-mails, maybe I could tell you.) Dani Lever, spokeswoman for Bill Thompson, who did not attend the forum, says only that Thompson would “expand tax credits to make it easier for supermarkets to operate in neighborhoods that do not have access to quality, nutritious foods.” And, perhaps surprisingly—cucumbers, zucchinis, sausages? Come on, Carlos Danger!—Anthony Weiner was largely at a loss, swinging every question back to SNAP and health insurance.

As City Council Speaker, Quinn’s achievements include creating FoodWorks, the city’s first comprehensive food plan, upping the number of food stamp-accepting Greenmarkets from six to 51, and passing Local Law 50 in 2011, a bill establishing preferential treatment for farmers bidding on city contracts. Quinn sees the city’s purchasing power as key to changing its food system. According to her campaign, “Working within the legal procurement boundaries, her administration will continue to make it easier for local farms to get contracts with the city.” Quinn would like to see 20 percent of the city’s food locally sourced.

What Quinn may lack in passion she more than makes up for in academic rigor. Her 90-page FoodWorks plan includes steps for upping local agricultural production, localizing processing, improving distribution, changing consumption habits, and tackling the oft-forgotten post-consumption links in the city’s food chain. Benzi Ronen, founder of online farmers’ market Farmigo, says that what the city needs is more covered, weatherproofed “community spaces” to “really encourage more food entrepreneurs.” With her support for food startups, it’s easy to imagine Quinn assigning her brain trust the task of finding these spaces and figuring out the best ways to use them.

De Blasio’s food cred goes as far back as at least 2009, when he introduced City Council Resolution 2049, aka FoodprintNYC, “to create greater access to local, fresh, healthy food, especially in low-income communities as well as city-run institutions.” Citing both environmental and economic benefits, de Blasio wants to bring local goods to Hunts Point Produce Market—where two-thirds of produce enters the city—and integrate them into government contracts as “part of an overall effort to wean us off produce grown 3,000 miles away.” Food justice fits snugly in de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” campaign theme. “As mayor,” he promises, “my No. 1 priority will be addressing our city’s crisis of inequality, which manifests itself in myriad ways, including access to healthy, local nutritious foods.”

More than any other candidate, de Blasio recognizes that the availability of locally grown food is tied up with economics—an especially important understanding when it comes to urban gardening, trends in which, according to Mara Gittleman of Farming Concrete, closely track economic circumstances. “There is a stark geographic pattern of community gardens in NYC,” she told me. “They mostly exist in neighborhoods that burnt down in the 1970s and ’80s, since these neighborhoods have a disproportionate number of vacant lots.” In more moneyed neighborhoods, urban agriculture is “less of a community effort because people have their own space.” Different neighborhoods require their own unique solutions, and de Blasio’s on-the-ground credentials and man-of-the-people reputation make him well suited for finding them.

Catsimatidis, Weiner, and Thompson are less encouraging. Catsimatidis sees his stores as a testament to his abilities instead of an Achilles heel. Food barely seems to register as an issue at all for Weiner or Thompson. Weiner seems to think the answer to “why local food?” is “universal healthcare,” and Thompson has even less to say on the topic.

A de Blasio or Quinn win should excite locavore New Yorkers. Though their methodologies diverge, both see increased access to local food as an important facet in governing our city.

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Your Post-Debate Mayoral Race Power Rankings

It has been a long, tumultuous democratic primary in New York City. Candidates have leapfrogged each other in the polls so many times it’s hard to keep track who’s in first place these days. We’re here to help.

Here are your mayoral race power rankings, based on candidates’ performances in Wednesday night’s debate, as we trudge toward primary day.

1. Christine Quinn
Quinn had clear command of the room from the start, welcomed by a thunderous round of applause so long and loud it drowned out introductions for John Liu, Sal Albanese, and Anthony Weiner. She gave long answers too, scoffing in the face of the little red light that blinks to tell candidates they are over time, and no one–not the moderator, the panelists, or the other candidates–dared to call her on it. The speaker also demonstrated an adroit skill for playing the other candidates off of each other–tag-teaming Bill de Blasio with Bill Thompson, then teaming up with de Blasio against Weiner when Weiner tried to implicate the public advocate in Quinn’s slush fund scandal–and managing, all the while, to appear somehow above the fray. The sense that Quinn controlled the debate was compounded by the fact the Daily News announced its endorsement of the Speaker immediately after the debate.

2. Bill de Blasio
De Blasio towered head and shoulders above the competition in this debate. Literally, if not figuratively–the guy’s 6-foot-5, about a foot taller than anyone else on stage. Whether it was his height–making dwarves of all of them–or his impressive showing the polls the last few weeks, it was clear that the other candidates had pegged de Blasio as the man to beat. When they were given the chance to ask questions of one another, almost every candidate seized the opportunity to poke de Blasio–including Quinn, who used her question to ask Thompson if he was “satisfied” with the answer de Blasio had just given him, giving Thompson another chance to beat up on de Blasio while she kept her hands clean. De Blasio took the other candidates’ fire, though, and he didn’t cede any ground.

3. Errol Louis
The moderator didn’t hesitate to put the mayoral hopefuls in their places when they talked out of turn. He issued stern warnings to Erick Salgado, Liu, and the audience itself–earning the ardent affection of at least one woman online.

4. The Audience
First it was the applause for Quinn, then heckling so loud it momentarily drowned out a question from NY1’s Grace Rauh, and then cheering so loud that Louis had to reprimand them–the live audience really threw its weight around on Wednesday night. Bonus point awarded to the guy in the back who yelled out “DANJA!” when Anthony Weiner copped to texting while driving.

5. Bill Thompson
Thompson came out guns blazing, demanding de Blasio remove an advertisement portraying himself as the only anti-stop-and-frisk candidate and demanding he “stop lying to the people of New York.” He hammered a proposal of de Blasio’s as “a tax in search of an idea.” He also revealed himself as the city’s unlikeliest Eminem fan when he asked, “Will the real Bill de Blasio please stand up?” (… please stand up, please stand up.)

6. John Liu
The comptroller’s shining moment came when he delivered his closing remarks in both English and Spanish, showing shades of El Bloomblito.

The parody Twitter account responded in kind.

7. Anthony Weiner
Weiner had lots of serious ideas he wanted to discuss at Wednesday’s debate–instituting a single-payer healthcare system, protecting the middle class, and … other stuff too. But, as it became painfully apparent to the erstwhile frontrunner, no one wanted to hear about his ideas. Audience members couldn’t even keep a straight face when Weiner, asked a question about hurricane preparedness, said New York wasn’t ready for “a stiff wind.” There were even louder laughs when, during a lightening Q&A round, he copped to texting while driving–tee hee hee, oh, yes, we know how much you enjoy the text messaging–and again when he was the only candidate to say the city did not need more surveillance cameras.

Weiner did briefly win the audience over with his assertion that New Yorkers should not only be allowed to enjoy a beer on their own stoop–they should be allowed to enjoy their beers in public parks and on beaches, too. That answer played well on Twitter.

8. Erick Salgado
Even Salgado admitted on Wednesday night that he had no shot at winning the election–he was really only in the race to influence the other the candidates. He was a winner in the audience’s heart though, with some of the most memorable quotes of the evening.

On undocumented immigrants: “I believe slavery has not been abolished. Slavery has been transferred to my people.”
What would he do if New York was hit by a natural disaster? “Pray.”
When he was veering off-topic and panelist David Chen tried to go to another candidate, “Why? I may have an accent but I can talk.”
Would he move into Gracie Mansion? Yes: “Me, my wife, and my six children!”
And, apropos of nothing: “I got stopped by the police this evening.”

9. Sal Albanese
Things are really bad when your most memorable moment of the evening is blurting out “So, do I get to talk at all?”

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The Teacher’s Candidate: The UFT Endorses Bill Thompson for Mayor

Made up of over 70,000 members, the United Federation of Teachers has demanded a voice in this upcoming mayoral election. President Michael Mulgrew told the Observer two weeks ago that he expected his union to sway the election; the reason why each Democratic candidate has gone above and beyond to court his attention. And, as of last night, it looks like one of the most powerful unions in city politics has made its decision: The UFT wants Bill Thompson as its mayor (Sorry, Anthony Weiner).

As seen above, the endorsement was announced on Twitter. The official vote came from the UFT’s 3,400-member delegate assembly after the executive board made the recommendation for Thompson.

Thompson is no stranger to the UFT. Before assuming the comptroller position, the mayoral candidate was a high school teacher and the head of the pre-mayoral-control Board of Education. However, in 2008, the UFT endorsed Democratic state Senator Kevin Parker, not Thompson, who went on to become the nominee.

Thompson’s platform includes a moratorium on school closure and additional DOE funding for school supplies. But he hasn’t made a move on the UFT’s largest concern–receiving over $3 billion in back wages from City Hall that Mulgrew believes is owed to his union from seven years without a contract.

Also, akin to John Liu’s DC37 endorsement, the UFT support for Thompson seems a bit strange when one takes a look at poll numbers: the two most prominent labor chapters have endorsed the two candidates least likely to win. Of course, it’s only June; things can and will change.

Then again, the UFT has endorsed losing candidates the past three mayoral elections. So maybe Mulgrew isn’t onto something.

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Bill Thompson’s Job After Last Election Poses Trouble for 2013 Mayoral Run

Like most politicians, Bill Thompson is no stranger to the phrase “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” In 2009, then-Voice columnist Tom Robbins explored the connection between a $150 billion pension fund and Thompson’s mayoral campaign against Bloomberg. As comptroller, Thompson used his position to help powerful friends in need, gaining in return, as his finances showed at the time, massive donations to snag the City Hall spot. Of course, Thompson lost to Bloomberg by 4 percentage points that November but, now, four years later, it seems as if his new mayoral campaign faces yet another potential conflict of interest.

Other than former Congressman Anthony Weiner, Thompson is the only Democratic candidate running for office who is not currently in office–Christine Quinn is city council speaker, Liu is comptroller, de Blasio is public advocate. This explains Thompson’s 2012 tax returns, in which he raked in $727,671 from the private sector. The Post points out that he only gave $4,750 to charity last year, earning the label of “cheapo” from the newspaper, but, in terms of the bigger picture, that’s not necessarily the main concern here.

On Siebert, Brandford, Shank & Co.’s website, the municipal investment bank Downtown presents its interest in the world of government: “Unlike our competitors, our firm’s primary business is public finance.” The company is the largest minority-owned underwriter in the country. Its job is to buy public debt from City Hall and sell it to investors, with about 20 percent of its business coming from the Big Apple.

The task of delegating municipal underwriter contracts is placed in the hands of the mayor’s office and the comptroller. Once contracted, the underwriting companies collect fees worth millions of dollars from handling the city’s financial operations. Naturally, as the story goes, Thompson made SBS a senior underwriter for the city soon after his re-election as comptroller in 2006, a spot that brought great fortunes to the small, 10-year-old company that stood as the sole minority-owned company to achieve such a position. Last year, the company made upward of $3.5 million from dealing with the city.

But here’s the problem: In April of 2010, after refusing to run for a third term as comptroller, Thompson took a position as senior managing director at SBS. His bio provides praise for Thompson’s public-to-private leap: “Mr. Thompson’s extensive experience in successfully managing the finances of one of the nation’s largest cities has afforded him unique insight into the needs of local municipal issuers.” No mention of the work done on behalf of the company by the former comptroller while in office, though.

At the time of the hiring announcement, Thompson swore not to conduct any business involving New York City, abiding by an ethics rule that demands a comptroller must step away from private finance roles for a year. But, according to a records request by New York World‘s Nathaniel Herz, that wasn’t exactly the case: In an application by the MTA in late 2010, Thompson is listed as sharing “overall responsibility” alongside the company’s partners for underwriting the transportation agency–an entity that is not exactly city-owned but highly influenced by City Hall. The payoff? Siebert, Brandford, Shank & Co. were awarded some $2 million in fees. So about those ethics …

One could argue that Thompson’s senior role at the company immediately after resigning from being comptroller is an efficient use of his skills: If anyone knows how city’s finances work and which ones are most valuable to investors, it is Thompson, right? But then, of course, there is the symptom of modern government known as the revolving door of politics, where the loyalties of politicians are blurred between the people and potential profiteers–a similar problem the Quinn campaign faces with her ties to the real estate industry.

Either way, Thompson stayed for almost two years at the company before resigning in March of 2012 to focus on his second mayoral campaign. Currently, he’s registered as a lobbyist in New York state.

With all this talk about a Weiner comeback and Quinn as the frontrunner, the former Democratic nominee for mayor has mostly remained in the shadows so far this election cycle, even though he’s been quietly raking in millions for himself. His campaign finance records show that no one connected to SBS has donated to his campaign.

Then again, it’s only May.

Update: A spokesperson for the Thompson campaign responded to the Voice with a few counterpoints on the candidate’s relationship with SBS.

First, the company was signed as an underwriter 37 times before Thompson took office in 2002. Second, John Liu’s office has far outpaced Thompson’s legacy, handing it some $10 billion in bonds over the past three years. Once again, the campaign reiterated the fact that Thompson pledged to recuse himself from city transactions after joining the company and that all underwriting deals are made public.

Update: The following is a statement issued to the Voice from the Bill Thompson campaign:

“Bill Thompson believes a public office is a public trust. He’s proud of his record – both in the public and private sectors – of increasing accountability and transparency in government. As Mayor, he will continue to honor the highest ethical standards and focus on moving our city forward.”

The Voice has reached out to SBS for comment on the hiring. We’re still waiting to hear back.

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Which NYC Mayoral Candidates Think Spying on American Muslims is Unconstitutional?

On Sunday afternoon, seven mayoral hopefuls gathered for a forum co-hosted by the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY) and the Islamic Center at New York University. Community organizers hailed it as an historic moment. Nearly three weeks after the Boston bombings–and in the heat of the debate on civil liberties that ensued–moderator Errol Louis posed the question to the candidates: By a show of hands, which of you think the current NYPD surveillance program is unconstitutional?

John C. Liu and Reverend Erick Salgado, both Democrats, raised their palms in front of a room of roughly 400 members of the Muslim, South Asian, and Arab American communities. “How could you think it’s okay to surveil or spy on someone just because they’re Muslim?” Liu asked.

“It is counterproductive to alienate communities, because if you do that, it means a less-safe city,” Salgado added.

Not every mayoral candidate was present–many, Louis pointed out, turned down the invitation. Noticeably absent were Republican candidates, with the near-exception of Adolfo Carrión, a former Democrat turned Independent hoping to run on the GOP ticket.

Still, all candidates present–including Sal Albanese, Bill de Blasio, Christine Quinn, and John Liu–stressed the need for a new and different kind of relationship between the NYPD and the Muslim community, emphasizing zero tolerance for racial profiling. After the AP discovered in 2011 that the NYPD had been sending “rakers” and “crawlers” into New York cafes and mosques to monitor activity of the American Muslim community over the past decade, community organizations and civil liberties groups raised hell–hosting rallies, boycotts, FOIL requests, and “Know Your Rights” workshops across the city. Several NYPD-monitored Muslims in New Jersey also filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that the surveillance program infringed on their civil liberties. That case, however, is still pending.

A report put out by CUNY’s CLEAR project in March qualitatively highlighted the Muslim community’s fear and mistrust of the administration and NYPD as a result of the program.

“Everybody I see in the mosque, if they act a little abnormal, I always wonder whether they’re an informant, or just a regular person,” a Muslim Sunday school teacher told CUNY researchers. “This is really sad: sometimes when we get converts, and they are finding all this interest in Islam, I start wondering if they’re an informant.”

Bill de Blasio laid out a three-point plan to address these concerns. “Just in this week, the mayor of this city gave a speech which I can only describe as fear-mongering, trying to resent the notion that if we respect people’s civil liberties, if we change the overuse of stop and frisk, that somehow it’s going to be a less-safe city,” he said. De Blasio went on to propose that the city implement a bill to prevent racial profiling, hire an inspector general for the NYPD, and find a replacement for current police commissioner Ray Kelly. De Blasio also criticized Christine Quinn for saying she would keep Kelly on board.

“I believe we can keep this the safest big city in the America and put policies in place that are going to bring the police and the communities back together,” Quinn replied, adding that she was for the inspector general bill. “But I do have concerns about giving the state court the potential to rule on issues of racial profiling. The federal court is involved in the Floyd case, as they should be. And I have concerns adding more courts into this will create confusing rulings where we already have court jurisdiction.”

In 2011, the White House released a paper outlining how the federal government might better community policing practices and partner with local organizations to prevent violent extremism. “Countering radicalization to violence is frequently best achieved by engaging and empowering individuals and groups at the local level to build resilience against violent extremism,” it read. “Rather than blame particular communities, it is essential that we find ways to help them protect themselves.”

“I think passing the banning of racial profiling is an important step for the community,” AAANY’s executive director Linda Sarsour told the Voice. “Right now, relations with the NYPD are not good. And if the NYPD tells you that they’re good, they’re only good with a few select members of our community.”

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Bloomberg and Thompson: The (Really) Odd Couple

This is an odd story about an even odder couple, and the surprising ties that bind them. It’s a tale of intrigue about a mayoral contest that left New Yorkers feeling so cheated fewer of them voted than in any election since 1917. It also reveals how one of these odd partners compromised the other, subverting the independent checks and balances required of a mayor and comptroller by law.

As the curtain opens on 2010, the stars of the year in city politics, Mike Bloomberg and William Thompson, who were awkwardly allied since being inaugurated together eight years ago, are each moving on to new and uncertain phases of their public lives.

Bloomberg, who has suffered recent stunning setbacks in the City Council, has already discovered that third terms and narrow wins can diminish even mogul mayors. Thompson—entertained at Gracie Mansion at a post-election private breakfast and praised by Bloomberg as “a quality guy” who the mayor hopes “stays in public service”—is still considering a 2010 race against our unelected senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, or unelected state comptroller, Tom DiNapoli (“Go for it,” cheers Bloomberg). Friends of Thompson expect him to try, like loser Rudy Giuliani did in 1989, to stay in play on the sidelines and run for mayor again in four years, when a departing Bloomberg might throw him an endorsement or some checks.

Thompson, who only promises he will run again sometime for something, has suddenly become a darling of the media, which are now overcompensating for relying too obsessively on inaccurate polls that failed to anticipate a four-point margin of victory. Thompson, it turns out, got virtually the same total vote Fernando Ferrer did in 2005, while Bloomberg pulled in 180,000 fewer votes than he received last time. Thompson’s close margin was less a result of his underappreciated strengths—the Times‘ Mike Barbaro correctly reported two weeks before the election that his “biggest obstacle” was “his own undisciplined campaign”—than they were of a result of Bloomberg fatigue. Thompson, in fact, had an “oddly relaxed” campaign schedule, with a single event some days, observed Barbaro, and was “chronically late” and often failed to appear at all. He spent more than half his money before the mid-September nominal primary, forcing him to rely on blink-of-an-eye, 15-second TV commercials in November.

But that wasn’t enough. Thompson’s real role, for Bloomberg at least, was to help force the feared congressman, Anthony Weiner, out of the race, a goal that Bloomberg guru Howard Wolfson has openly acknowledged. Thompson obliged, giving up a sure third term as comptroller. Weiner himself explained in a Times op-ed when he withdrew in May that “running a primary against Thompson would only drain the ability of the winner to compete in the general election.” Having lost to Ferrer in 2005 by 11 points, Weiner understood that minority candidates have won all but one of the Democratic mayoral primaries since 1985. So when the leading black politician in the city decided to make his improbable run, Weiner had nowhere to go but out. Thompson and Bloomberg might as well have had a first-round victory party together that night.

Like other powerful New York pols, Mike Bloomberg wanted to pick his own opponent. Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer spent a year setting the table for 2010, and, as one-time putative opponents Steve Israel and Carolyn Maloney can attest, the incumbent pair used every knife and fork available. Ed Koch picked his opponent when he derailed ex-congressman Herman Badillo and won a third term in 1985, and Giuliani did it when he submarined a possible challenge from Alan Hevesi in 1997. Faced with internal polls that we now know rarely put Bloomberg above 50 percent, he preferred an opponent whose vulnerabilities were well known to him, having already exploited them for years.

Thompson couldn’t, for example, attack Bloomberg’s development policies since, as a member of the city’s Industrial Development Agency, he had voted 876 times in favor of the $9.6 billion in bonds that underwrite the projects, opposing them only five times. Charged under the city charter with assessing Bloomberg’s budgets and auditing his agencies, Thompson had instead gushed about the mayor for most of his two terms, leaving him with virtually no viable way of distinguishing himself from his golf buddy when the two ended up on opposite sides of the ballot.

What Bloomberg got with Thompson was a made-to-order challenge, so tame at times that a reporter, frustrated by Thompson’s unwillingness to say a single critical word about Bloomberg at one September press conference, asked why he’d called it, and so over-the-top at other times (as when he promised to fire Police Commissioner Ray Kelly), that he looked grotesquely out of touch. The Daily News‘ Adam Lisberg captured it in a classic headline: “Nice-guy Thompson can’t find the jugular.” Thompson curiously decided to make schools the core of his attack on Bloomberg even as his key campaign consultant, Roberto Ramirez, was lobbying in Albany on behalf of a Bloomberg-tied group championing mayoral control. Thompson often looked like a befuddled shadow-boxer, tied to Bloomberg at the hip while serving up obligatory campaign lip. As for Bloomberg, he’d contended in 2008 that all the term-limits extension did was give voters the additional choice of voting for him, a supposed “expansion” of the franchise even as he overrode the result of two referendums. Then he maneuvered successfully in 2009 to narrow that choice to the opponent he wanted to face.

If voters had a vague sense that this was a mirage of a mayoral election, what follows is a damning set of facts that shows that these two supposed opponents were actually far more connected than we ever knew. They shared a very personal and subterranean agenda, the funding of a project dear to Thompson’s heart. Remarkably, Bloomberg continued pouring new money into a project that benefited Thompson even in the heat of the campaign. It is a connection begging for explanation, but Thompson would not answer virtually any of the post-election questions posed by the Voice.

Stranger still, Bloomberg’s press managers refused to provide any public information about that project—a museum—in the lead-up to the election, prompting me to tell the mayor’s press secretary, Stu Loeser, that he was more helpful when I was writing an exposé about the mayor than when I was reporting on the mayor’s opponent. Since November, however, the city agencies that once stonewalled me have piled public papers on my desk.

Here, then, is the story about Bill Thompson that Mike Bloomberg didn’t want you to know when he was running against him.

It starts with a single, unsettling fact: The mayor has directed or triggered between $43 million and $51 million in public and personal subsidies into a museum project led by Thompson’s current wife and longtime companion, Elsie McCabe-Thompson, dumping $2 million of additional city funding into it as late as September 30, in the middle of the mayoral campaign.

Thompson was so involved with his wife’s Museum for African Art that he may have violated the city charter by using his office to solicit state and city funding for its grand new home now under construction, with marble floors and walls, at the end of Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue and 109th Street. While the project sounds admirable, the museum has attracted this funding at a time when it is little more than an office in a warehouse in Long Island City, with no permanent art collection of its own, no gallery, no accreditation from the American Association of Museums or the Association of African American Museums, and no connection or history with Harlem. It is so out of compliance with state legal requirements for museums that the best it could do, after weeks of Voice questioning, was shake “a letter of existence” out of education department officials, which it misrepresented as a “letter of good standing.” Other outstanding African-American museums in the city, like the fully accredited Studio Museum of Harlem, which has a 1,600-object permanent collection and, unlike McCabe-Thompson’s, has trained 90 artists-in-residence, receive a fraction of the public assistance showered on this monument to political connections.

The Voice has identified four city and state sources who say Thompson spoke to them on behalf of the project, a potential violation of Conflict of Interest Board (COIB) decisions that have resulted in fines when low-level city officials use their position to benefit their girlfriends or wives. While Thompson declined to answer questions about these contacts, a museum spokeswoman, Jeanne Collins, e-mailed that McCabe-Thompson was “unaware of any conversations” her husband may have had on the museum’s behalf with individuals with “whom Ms. McCabe-Thompson did not have prior contact.” Thompson “did not introduce the museum or Ms. McCabe-Thompson to any new funders,” Collins said, never denying that Thompson pushed for funding the museum had already sought, as the Voice confirmed. In addition to Thompson’s contacts, McCabe-Thompson noted in an application for funding from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer that she was “the fiancée” of the city comptroller, volunteering it as a form of disclosure. In fact, a Page Six item in the Post on June 6, 2006, announced that the “elegant” Elsie and the “smitten” Billy were dating, a story that Thompson advisers say they planted, making sure, not incidentally, that any possible funder out of the loop got the news.

Beyond Thompson’s interventions on behalf of the museum, his office had to register its capital funding agreements and city contracts. Thompson’s spokesman insisted that its contract unit only certified the project once, in March 2008, without any involvement at the top of the office. The spokesman insisted it was “approved as a matter of course,” though the Bloomberg administration’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which is shepherding the museum project and is convinced of its merits, says the comptroller “has sent back some funding agreement packages with questions or requests for more information.” This project—which defaulted on or skirted several critical EDC deadlines, in addition to its questionable licensing status with the state—invited questions, but Thompson’s office rubberstamped it. The city charter explicitly requires that capital projects receive the comptroller’s approval, and he issues the directives that govern projects like this. His office even reviews the contracts for the museum’s operating grants.

Thompson’s explanation for how he handled this conflict raises as many thorny issues as it resolves. He supplied a previously undisclosed memo to the Voice dated March 14, 2005, indicating that he’d recused himself on “all matters” related to the museum. He asked his top deputy, Gayle Horwitz, who had worked with him since he became Board of Education president in 1996, to handle it. Since Thompson had only left his wife, Sylvia Kinard, in late 2004, his recusal just a few months after the break-up suggests what his friends say, but Thompson has never conceded—namely, that he left Kinard to move in with McCabe, who did not become McCabe-Thompson until September 2008. Thompson told the Post during the campaign that “there was nothing between us until I filed for divorce,” which he did on April 26, 2005, a claim belied by his earlier recusal. Kinard called McCabe-Thompson “The Hoverer,” telling the Post she was invited by Thompson to their 1999 wedding and was “always around” during their marriage. Others have said that even before McCabe-Thompson took over the museum in September 1997, she was actively lobbying then–Board of Education president Thompson on behalf of the technology-training company where she worked. She was one of the first to contribute to his comptroller campaign in 1999.

In one more strange twist, the mayoral wannabe remained registered at the Brooklyn home that Kinard lived in for years after he left, though McCabe-Thompson’s neighbors on West 97th Street say that his city car and police vehicles were parked morning after morning outside her door since 2005. Mono Cleaners, around the corner from her condo building, gave us tickets for the suits and shirts on McCabe’s account that he picked up and dropped off there for years.

Stranger still, the clearest examples of Thompson’s efforts on behalf of the museum occur right after he recused himself from having anything to do with it. In early 2005, he asked Deputy Mayor Mark Shaw and Council Speaker Gifford Miller to fund it. Shaw recalled that the contact occurred while the administration was putting together the budget at the start of the year. Miller’s appointment diaries indicate that Thompson talked with him on April 22, a month after he recused himself and four days before he filed for divorce. It was the only time Thompson ever asked the Council speaker to fund a group, a source close to the former speaker tells the Voice, and Miller did, putting $750,000 into the capital budget. Shaw recalls going to the budget office with the Thompson request. Though it was a year later that the Post reported he was smitten, the comptroller was recklessly proving it, despite his recusal, even before he sought a divorce.

The Bloomberg administration quickly got the message. Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff had been a critic of the project, according to a former EDC official who attended a meeting that included him and McCabe-Thompson. “Doctoroff didn’t want to delay development of the site,” recalled Barbara Resnicow, a senior vice president at the corporation who dealt with “the skepticism about it” at the top of the agency from 2002 through 2004. EDC had agreed in the late ’90s, when Rudy Giuliani was mayor, to sell four city-owned parcels on the current site to the museum. But five or six years later, this prime property was still vacant and appeared to be going nowhere. “I have a clear memory,” says Resnicow. “Doctoroff was very negative about the project.” But, starting in 2005, the city’s attitude suddenly shifted. It wasn’t just that the McCabe/Thompson connection started to surface then, it was that Thompson’s relationship with City Hall was simultaneously undergoing an overhaul.

In 2004, Thompson decided not to run against Bloomberg in the 2005 election, a race he had toyed with briefly. Instead, Thompson endorsed Democrat Fernando Ferrer, but became so helpful to Bloomberg that his foot-in-each-camp dexterity was mocked in news accounts. When Thompson made his endorsement that August, he was asked to name three specific things Ferrer would do as mayor that Bloomberg hadn’t, and he demurred, forcing the reporter to see if he could name one or two. “You’d have to ask Freddy the question,” said Thompson, who had gone out of his way to praise Bloomberg the day before the press conference and the day before that. Ferrer raised questions about the rising reading and math scores that Bloomberg was trumpeting, and Thompson told reporters he had no intention of auditing school achievement claims, saving that for his own campaign in 2009. In fact, during the 2005 campaign, Thompson did not host a single press conference revealing a critical audit of any Bloomberg agency. The Bloomberg camp understood that Democrat Thompson had no choice but to endorse Democrat Ferrer, especially since he was trying to build an alliance with Latinos for his own planned 2009 run, but a Thompson political adviser now acknowledges that the mayor “was quite happy” with Thompson’s 2005 performance.

So, no doubt, was Elsie. The city increased its annual operating grant for the museum from $62,700 to $417,800 in the budget adopted that June. The Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) says the hike was a “one-time commitment from the mayor and the City Council,” coinciding with the calls to Shaw and Miller (Miller’s father was a Thompson appointee on the New York Public Library board). In fact, although the 2005 grant was the museum’s largest ever, its operating subsidy remained at $192,000 the next year and continues at roughly that level, three times its pre-2005 average.

The day after Thompson’s lukewarm endorsement of Ferrer, EDC’s executive committee approved the discounted sale of the four city-owned parcels to the museum. Thompson joined Bloomberg at a press conference announcing a minority-hiring program shortly before the election, and two days after Bloomberg crushed Ferrer, the full EDC board approved the property sale to the museum for $200,000 less than the appraised price. The ultimate discount was far greater since EDC stuck with its 2005 appraisal when the sale finally closed in 2007, though it had the legal right to update it, a substantial potential savings for the museum and its condo partners, who are building lavish apartments overlooking the park 14 stories above the three-story museum.

The lovefest between Bloomberg and Thompson was at its peak in 2007, when Bloomberg announced at a Guggenheim press event in February that the city would put $12 million into the project. It was a stunning reversal. A week before, Thompson said he was “delighted” about Bloomberg’s budget, expressing none of a comptroller’s traditional caveats of concern. By April, Thompson declared that the mayor’s budget was “fiscal integrity at its best.” And in May, Thompson invited Bloomberg to speak at Tufts, where Thompson is a trustee, and the mayor declared: “I think Bill will go down in history as maybe the best comptroller the city has ever had.” That November, the New York Empowerment Zone board approved the final $2 million of a $2.5 million grant for the project. Doctoroff was a member of the board, and if Congressman Charles Rangel, the state board member, or the city board member objects to a project, it isn’t funded. When Wall Street started unraveling, Thompson installed a Bloomberg terminal in his office, just like the mayor has in his City Hall bullpen.

While the mayor’s office will not say what Bloomberg knew about the ties between McCabe-Thompson and Thompson during these years (and neither will Thompson), McCabe-Thompson’s spokeswoman did. “She has dined at the mayor’s house and interacted with him at countless political functions at Gracie Mansion and elsewhere,” said Collins’s e-mail. “She has also attended occasional events (e.g., a ball game) with him, first as Mr. Thompson’s date and later as his wife.” Asked if the museum came up at any of these get-togethers, Collins reported: “In fact, Ms. McCabe-Thompson has few casual or professional conversations in which she does not bring up the subject of the museum.” Stu Loeser says that Thompson never asked Bloomberg or any of the current deputies or top EDC officials to help the museum, but Doctoroff and the ex-EDC heads, Andrew Alper and Josh Sirefman, did not reply to Voice e-mails asking about Thompson contacts. McCabe-Thompson hailed Sirefman as a former consultant to the museum in a submission she made to Stringer’s office while he was EDC president.

The level of Bloomberg support kept growing even in 2009. On June 25, the city announced the award of New Market Tax Credits for the museum, valued at nearly $4 million, one of only five capital projects to be selected for this new program encouraging private investment. On September 30, the EDC board added another $2 million in direct construction financing, bringing the total to $16 million, including grants added by the City Council and Stringer, who is a friend and political ally of Thompson’s. Stringer and Council Speaker Christine Quinn acknowledged in interviews that the administration’s support of the project was, as Quinn put it, “a positive” and “a relevant fact” when they decided to add millions from their own, limited pools of capital funding. McCabe-Thompson put $3 million more of expected city funding into the package that was voted on by the state’s Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) on September 16. She also listed $8 million in federal grants on the PACB submission, some of which remains unspecified. In addition to the $2.5 million in federal funds that flows through the empowerment zone, she says she’s received $1 million in construction commitments from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) that are only awarded to nonprofits that can prove they’ve received three times that much in other public funding, suggesting again the triggering effect of the Bloomberg grants. NEH is also providing $717,000 to finance the first exhibits at the new location, and Rangel is seeking another $450,000 earmark for a storage vault on site (he previously earmarked $250,000, but would not answer questions about any role Thompson might have played).

Beyond the $1.4 million in city operating aid that the museum has received in the Bloomberg years, the mayor has also put $700,000 of his own money into it, steered through the Carnegie Corporation. McCabe-Thompson and Bloomberg LP refused to say if the company has given it anything else. Ironically, Thompson had the nerve in both debates to charge that Bloomberg was engaging in “pay to endorse” politics, alleging that the mayor was giving to groups “with the expectation of something in return.” Thompson might have been projecting, but Bloomberg blowback could certainly have turned the allegation on its head. “Is that what I was doing when I gave hundreds of thousands to your wife’s museum?” would have become every station’s crushing debate sound bite.

Instead, Bloomberg just took the hit (by way of disclosure, my wife’s nonprofit has also received Bloomberg grants, unsolicited and unaffected by my battering of him). Like Loeser’s refusal to answer any of my museum questions before the election, Bloomberg’s debate dodge on his supposed political philanthropy indicated that he, too, might have been pulling punches.

Thompson’s quiet help for the museum did not, however, stop with city officials. A high state official in the Spitzer administration who asked not to be identified said that Thompson called him pursuing aid from the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC). Though Thompson did not reveal his ties to McCabe-Thompson, “anyone who was involved knew what was going on,” said the official. The state has either awarded or is poised to award $17 million in construction support for the new site. McCabe-Thompson, who was Eliot Spitzer’s moot court partner at Harvard Law School, got Spitzer to agree to equal the city’s initial $12 million capital contribution, and he and then–Lieutenant Governor David Paterson attended a groundbreaking ceremony in September 2007 announcing the match.

But it took a jolt from Paterson, after Spitzer’s resignation in March 2008, to actually get the state money flowing. Four months after Paterson became governor, he directed ESDC to begin processing the first $6 million in funding for the museum. Paterson declined to answer Voice questions about any contacts he might be aware of that Thompson had with him or other state officials, but he did tell a source that discussed this story with him that “Billy called everyone.” ESDC chief Avi Schick wrote McCabe-Thompson on July 2, 2008, saying he was “pleased to inform her” that Paterson had “recommended” a $12 million Art & Culture grant for the museum. “To commence processing of this grant,” Schick urged her to apply, putting a very loaded cart before the horse.

An ESDC vice president wrote her again in April 2009 “to invite her to apply,” and ESDC officials then guided the museum step by step through a long application process. When the agency tried to calendar the first $6 million grant for a board meeting, an official had to ask McCabe-Thompson twice for a memo explaining why it was “urgent” that the funding be approved. When the agency questioned why McCabe-Thompson had only accounted for $66 million of the $113 million pricetag on the project (both numbers were grossly inflated), she simply said that the museum could cut $30 million in costs mostly associated with the Nelson Mandela Center, a historical feature of the museum that she had used to appeal to private funders and the Mandela Foundation in South Africa. An assistant secretary to the governor, Arana Hankin, repeatedly and atypically contacted ESDC about the project, and Paterson personally attended the August 2009 board meeting when the grant was approved, a rare occurrence for any governor. After the grant was approved, the museum inquired about the second $6 million, and an ESDC e-mail suggested: “Maybe you should inquire directly with the Governor’s office.” ESDC says that the museum has also applied for a $5 million Downstate Revitalization grant, which would come atop the $12 million, and that funding decision is pending. Though there has been much media speculation about Thompson running with Paterson’s likely opponent, Andrew Cuomo, Thompson has been publicly urging Democrats to get behind Paterson.

ESDC e-mails also raised questions about the museum’s charter with the Board of Regents, which lapsed two months after McCabe-Thompson became president in 1997 (she had her title immediately changed from executive director). The five-year charter has never been renewed. The charter itself said it would become “void” unless the museum applied for another provisional or absolute charter before the expiration date. The museum finally sought an absolute charter in 2004, but it did not file its annual reports, which are required by the Regents, until the end of 2008, when it retroactively made submissions for 2004 through 2006. Despite 12 years of derelict filings, the Board has never formally acted against it, in large part because it rarely takes action against institutions out of compliance. After Voice inquiries, the museum sought this December to renew its provisional charter, but was too late to get on the board’s agenda. The museum acknowledged its “discrepancies in status” with state chartering officials in 2009 e-mails with ESDC but said they usually resolved questions “by providing a certificate of good standing issued by Kirti Gotswani,” a lawyer at the State Education Department. But Gotswani tells the Voice: “We can’t say they’re in good standing,” insisting that all he has done is provide a letter confirming that the museum “can do business in the state.” The Bloomberg administration questioned the museum’s status in 2005, forcing it to write the Regents seeking an immediate absolute charter. But when that couldn’t be done, the city apparently backed off from the demand.When the Voice asked the city’s cultural affairs department if it was aware that the museum’s charter had not been renewed since 1997, the agency said simply that it was.

By every standard other than its grand new home, the museum has declined dramatically under McCabe-Thompson, who relocated it from Soho to Queens. It reported earning $326,217 in fees for the exhibits it organized and showed at other venues in its 1998–1999 filings—McCabe-Thompson’s first full year. By its most recent filing in 2007–2008, exhibit fees had plummeted to $102,500. It published and sold so many catalogs associated with its exhibits that it reported a $121,153 profit in its 1999–2000 annual filings; now that number is blank on the filings. It ran a store that sold $331,831 worth of African art and other objects in its peak year. That’s down to $13,225. Its educational programs dropped from $421,161 to $143,063. Its membership, once lofty, fell to 130 members by 2006, according to its latest filing with the Regents. The more the museum declined, the greater government support it drew. Its gross receipts bottomed out in 2005 at a quarter of what they were when McCabe-Thompson took over, and that’s precisely when the city started the ball rolling in its direction. That’s also when it closed its gallery to cut its rent in half.

What did go up were its management and general expenses, tripling under McCabe-Thompson. Her salary went from $102,000 to $184,069 by 2003–2004. The museum declined to say what it is now, what her other benefits are, or whether the personal loans listed on its financial records involve her. She took out a mortgage on her West Side apartment with the same bank that she simultaneously secured an annual $150,000 credit line for the museum. She told friends that she was trying to get one or two condo apartments for the museum from the developer. The museum’s travel expenses, which were zero in 2001–2002, hit a high of $516,813 in 2004–2005. Much of that is associated with what it cost to move exhibits, but the travel amount billed to management and fundraising (her two functions) hit nearly $100,000 a year later, almost as much as the amount billed to the program services tied to the exhibits. The more the museum depended on connections, the less it did for its African art constituents, the more it spent on itself, and the better it fared as a magnet for public funding.

“I hated the project from the beginning. I really disliked it,” says East Harlem City Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito, who represents the area, conceding that when it became a fait accompli, she allocated $250,000 in capital funds to it, a fraction of the millions Quinn and the Council leadership delivered. State Senator Bill Perkins, who lives across the street from the site and has long opposed it, wasn’t informed when the PACB voted for it in the fall. Even the city conceded in legal documents that it wasn’t the “highest best use” of the city-owned land, and Community Board 11 at one point voted against it.

Controlled by the Housing Preservation and Development agency until it was transferred to EDC for sale to the project, the site was seen by Viverito, Perkins, and Stringer’s predecessor, Virginia Fields, as a natural for affordable housing. The museum, which owned the parcel fronting Fifth Avenue, insisted instead on partnering with Brickman Associates, the developer that is now building multimillion-dollar condos. The company, whose owner, Bruce Brickman, has reportedly boasted about his longstanding ties to Thompson, won McCabe-Thompson’s favor by offering to build the core museum at cost, cover the land price, and donate $5 million to it, a total value of $20 million, according to estimates in city filings. Ironically, there may be no better example of the Bloomberg administration championing projects for the rich, the theme of the Thompson campaign.

When the deal was initially approved at the end of the Giuliani administration and the beginning of Bloomberg’s, the rationale was 450 permanent new jobs. The museum was then partnered with Edison Schools, the controversial for-profit public company that planned to build its national headquarters and a charter school there. Edison collapsed and sold its site to the museum in 2003, reducing the museum’s estimate of new full-time employees to 16, a threshold it says it will not reach for eight years. Then the justification for re-approving the project shifted to its marvels as a tourist attraction and economic development engine. A recent Times front-page story (“In the Arts, Bigger Buildings May Not Be Better”) reported that across the country and in New York, major arts projects were being “delayed, scaled back, put into question or abandoned altogether,” concluding that planners of these “ambitious” projects had “succumbed to an irrational exuberance that rivaled the stock market’s in the boom years.” Thompson tried to make Bloomberg’s Yankee Stadium boondoggle an issue in the campaign, contrasting the jobs created with the public investment, but he’d voted for most of it, and, as it turned out, he’d pushed for his own miniature facsimile, with its own elaborate theater.

The city charter was rewritten in 1989 to enhance mayoral power. It is the soul of the city and depends upon an independent comptroller and Council as the constitutional counterpoints to mayoral excess. Yet that is hardly what we’ve had in Bloomberg’s first two terms. He has driven this project so far that the public funding, including the state grants he sparked, exceed by far the $38 million cost of the museum’s core construction. There is no way for us to know if the city’s museum largesse was a motive for Thompson’s obsequious oversight of the Bloomberg era, or simply a consequence of the intertwine between them. He was no doubt more mayoral understudy than overseer. There is also no way to know if the Council’s museum generosity had anything to do with why Thompson never noticed its bogus slush-fund budget documents, or even audited its discretionary expenditures after the scandal blew. Bloomberg can smell an edge on the ground from the private plane he used to fly Thompson to ball games in, and he’s milked this one for years, perhaps all the way to re-election. Quinn might have exploited it, too, though she says she’s usually “the last to know” gossip like who Thompson was dating.

Bill Thompson, the city’s newly discovered media hero, seems so understated and reassuring that he deflects attention from the mess his private life has always been. He took a favorable mortgage and credit line in 2008 from a bank his office had done billions in business with, getting a letter from the bank saying the transaction was proper rather than doing what thousands of low-level city employees do every year, seek an opinion from the Conflict of Interest Board. When he worked as an investment banker in the ’90s, he failed to take key securities tests six times in three years, operated without a license, and broke a half-dozen securities regulations. No one has noticed, amid Andrew Cuomo’s pension fund prosecutions, that Thompson was functioning in the ’90s as an unlicensed placement agent, before anyone knew what that was and before comptrollers like him started banning them from their offices.

In addition to his clear-cut efforts to benefit the museum with public funders, there are several disturbing indications that he may have used his muscle with private backers as well. The largest single corporate donation to the museum comes all the way from Los Angeles, a million-dollar check from Disney. Thompson’s pension funds held at least 7.6 million shares of Disney stock throughout this period. In 2004 and 2005, Thompson switched from opposing Michael Eisner as the company’s chair and CEO to supporting him, abandoning a coalition with seven other large funds. Disney even hired mega-lobbyist Patricia Lynch to push him, and she did, also contributing to him at the same time.

It’s unclear when the decision was made to bankroll the museum, though Disney’s spokesman connects it to a decision Eisner made shortly before he left in 2005, when he donated the company-owned Tishman collection of African art to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. The Disney check wasn’t written until McCabe-Thompson organized that phony 2007 groundbreaking ceremony with Spitzer, which preceded actual construction by two years but ostensibly did generate donations tied to an ongoing project. Disney fits a pattern, with JP Morgan Chase and others bringing wheelbarrows of money to the museum just as they steered them out of Thompson’s office.

Good things can come from bad, and perhaps the Museum for African Art astride Museum Mile will prove to be that. Elsie and Bill Thompson, as well as Mike Bloomberg and David Paterson, will certainly celebrate it when the grand opening occurs late next year. So will many New Yorkers, especially African-Americans. The museum has put on hailed exhibits in the past, and is even beginning to assemble the first collection of its own. And if it inspires and informs up the road, it may transcend the stain of its origins. The price we have paid as a city is not visible, while its art will pack school and charter buses.

We do know, though, regardless of what the museum becomes, that this is not the way it should have been built, one compromise atop another, a memorial to machination. The sheer size of the Bloomberg subsidies, as well as his eagerness to add to them right into October, has cast a cloud over an election already darkened by the unprecedented end-run around two popular referendums. The bizarre specter of a mayor unloading public funding on a project so tied to his public bookkeeper and eventual opponent has distorted democracy, both in the years before this election, and in the only moment when New Yorkers, at least theoretically, had their say. If legitimacy is necessary to govern, even for the richest man in New York, he cannot rig consent.

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The Bloomberg Blowout That Wasn’t

A lot of New Yorkers were still scratching their heads about last week’s election results when the mayor’s campaign brain trust arrived at the NY1 TV studios the day after the vote to talk about the fine job they’d done. Their candidate, a popular two-term incumbent, had just spent somewhere north of $90 million on his re-election—the most by any local politician in history.

The net result? Nearly 200,000 fewer votes than Mike Bloomberg got the last time he ran.

This impressive shortfall was achieved even though they were up against a candidate who only got pulses racing by shouting, “Eight is enough!” Outgoing city comptroller Bill Thompson’s only clear vision of where he wanted to lead the city was that it wasn’t where Bloomberg was taking it. Whatever his message, Thompson was sadly outgunned in media buys: 14 Bloomberg bucks were spent for every dollar the comptroller scraped together. Despite those handicaps, the Democrat came in nipping at the mayor’s heels, less than 5 percent behind the mighty billionaire. This was after every poll—including the mayor’s own internal surveys—had Thompson running behind by double digits, from 12 to 18 percent.

Given those facts, you might have expected Team Bloomberg to take their seats at the table with host Michael Scotto looking a little spooked by the near-fatal miss they’d just had on the election highway. If so, this shows you are woefully out of touch with the current craft of bully politics as practiced by modern campaign professionals. Humility is treason, punishable by death or lack of political clients, which is the same thing.

Bloomberg campaign manager Bradley Tusk, communications chief Howard Wolfson, and field director Maura Keaney were as smug and satisfied as if they had just brought an underfunded long shot across the finish line in first place.

“One of the great things about this campaign and our success was making sure that we had a comfortable lead and margin throughout,” said Tusk.

High fives all around! We spent the annual budget of a Caribbean nation and managed to barely beat a campaign that never even got to first base!

Tusk’s last candidate was a politician named Blagojevich in Illinois who is now hoping not to spend the remainder of his second term in the Leavenworth federal penitentiary. For his Bloomberg work, Tusk has so far been paid $247,000. Another couple of paychecks are due, plus a likely bonus (Bloomberg’s last manager, Kevin Sheekey, got a $400,000 reward, plus a $200,000-a-year post on the public’s dime as a deputy mayor). Wolfson’s firm booked a whopping $440,000; Keaney clocked in at $136,000.

What the Bloomberg Three accomplished for this big money was to barely tread water for six months. The first Marist Institute poll back in May had the mayor at 51 percent and the comptroller at 33. At that point, Bloomberg had already doled out $19 million, more than double Thompson’s entire campaign purse. Fast-forward to election night: Bloomberg came in at the same 51 percent; Thompson hiked his tally to 46 percent of the vote.

The way this breaks down when data-driven executives like Bloomberg start crunching the numbers is this: The additional $71 million he spent in the six months between May and November produced absolutely nothing, other than a 13 percent boost for his opponent.

Tusk and company naturally scoff at such math. It is the old way of thinking, they say. It completely ignores the vicious anti-incumbent riptide that was surging through the electorate this year. Just look at what happened to poor Jon Corzine, a fellow billionaire, across the river in New Jersey. That was the Bloomberg Three’s mantra: Voters were mad as hell this year, and we alone bucked the tide.

This is another silly fiction adopted at the last minute by people who lack all class. In Corzine’s case, the soon-to-be ex-governor was wildly unpopular, and was always viewed as a tough bet. Bloomberg boasted approval ratings that hovered around 60 percent. Corzine fought back to within striking distance, falling just short at the polls; New York’s billionaire squandered a nearly 20 point lead.

But enough already about these sore winners. The real debate is taking place on the other side of the fence, where Democrats are still kicking themselves and each other about what might have been. The suspect most frequently cited is Barack Obama, who couldn’t even bring himself to do a quick arm-around photo-op with Thompson. Whatever the thinking in the White House, this doesn’t say much for party loyalty. But the bigger culprit is even closer to home. The state Democratic Party, under the control of Governor David Paterson, was also AWOL.

“They were totally silent,” said Stu Appelbaum, the leader of the retail workers union and one of Thompson’s most active supporters. At one point, Appelbaum offered to pick up the cost of a Wolfson-style attack dog for the Democrats to deploy as a counter to Bloomberg’s anti-Thompson onslaught. Party officials shrugged.

“This was the biggest, most significant race in the state, and they were missing in action,” said Appelbaum. “They should’ve been out there, revving people up to participate. They could have been involved in fundraising. They did nothing.”

Of course, both Paterson and Obama were encouraged to stay out of it by the parade of Democratic stalwarts—unions, politicians, consultants—who backed the candidate of the Republican and Independence parties. All cited the mayor’s inevitable victory as their excuse. “I have children to put through college,” said a consultant who took the Bloomberg short money after feeding off Democrats for 30 years.

Another stumbling block came from the city’s Campaign Finance Board, whose zealous bureaucrats rigidly enforce rules about so-called “coordinated” expenditures by a candidate. Bloomberg, of course, thumbs his nose at the public campaign finance system and spends his fortune any way he wants. Thompson supporters had to constantly look over their shoulders. “We wouldn’t even call campaign headquarters,” said Scott Sommer, a leader of United Auto Workers Local 2110 (the Voice‘s union). “We’d look at the public website to see what events were planned.”

One of those who never bought the Bloomberg Blowout theory was Arthur Cheliotes, the gentle, goateed leader of a city employees union, Communication Workers Local 1180. Cheliotes often goes his own way. Last year, as a procession of labor officials eager for City Hall favors testified in support of the mayor’s term-limits coup, Cheliotes alone took the mic to denounce it.

This year, his members conducted a telephone survey of voters in districts where term-limit support was high. “We connected with 25,000 people. Fifty percent of them said they were voting for Thompson; 2 percent said they were for the mayor. Our numbers showed a close race.”

With his executive board’s support, Cheliotes independently mounted a series of caustic TV ads. Crafted by adviser Scott Levenson, they lampooned the plutocrat mayor and his pals. One featured a cocktail party of haughty Bloomberg backers; another portrayed an imaginary New York in 2021—with Mayor Mike still in charge. The humor was heavy-handed, but the points hit home. The local, with all of 10,000 members, spent $500,000 to put them up. “They were happy to do it,” said Cheliotes. “I’m incredibly proud of them.”

How did his labor union colleagues respond to his mini-campaign? “I got slaps on the back. They said, ‘Hey, that’s a real ballsy move, Cheliotes.’ I said, ‘Well, I wish a few others were out there with me.’ “

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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Mayor Bloomberg’s School-Snack Bungle

Public health has always been Mike Bloomberg’s strong suit, and last week, he pressed ahead with his latest initiative: new vending machines offering healthy snacks and low-calorie drinks in city schools. This is good policy, especially for obese-prone kids, and Bloomberg’s team presented it as another instance of the good government New Yorkers have come to know and expect from their mayor.

After taking these bows, Bloomberg’s people promptly handed the new multimillion-dollar vending contracts to a pair of nonunion firms that offer no benefits to their workers. The contract to provide snack machines went to a company that’s been found to have violated state labor laws by underpaying its employees.

Answer Vending, a Westchester-based firm, was ordered in June 2008 by the State Department of Labor to ante up $116,000. This included penalties and back pay to 21 employees it was found to have shortchanged. Answer executives didn’t respond to questions last week, but Labor Department spokeswoman Michelle Duffy said the fines are still outstanding: “They haven’t paid.”

The Labor Department probe was launched after organizers from a Teamsters local in Queens contacted workers at Answer to see if they were interested in joining the union. “They were interested, but they were terrified of losing their jobs,” said Sandy Pope, president of Local 805.

What the workers did tell organizers was that they often had to work 50- and 60-hour weeks, without overtime, and that wages were often paid partly in cash. They received no benefits, they said. The organizing drive stalled, Pope said, after employers warned workers that they didn’t want a union in the shop. Since the union couldn’t help the workers, it turned its findings over to state labor investigators.

In contrast, the Teamsters succeeded three years ago in organizing another firm called Canteen Vending Services, which is owned by the Compass Group, a national corporation. Employees there won a contract providing a retirement plan, health benefits, and higher pay. Canteen also bid for the new schools vending initiative but was rejected in the last round. The reason? “Their bid was lower,” said a spokesman for the city’s Department of Education. “The others offered greater revenue to the schools.”

“Of course they did,” responded Pope when told of this rationale. “They don’t have to pay decent wages and benefits.”

As for Answer’s labor-law violations and outstanding penalties, the Education Department said it knew nothing about them until informed by the Voice. This is strange because in order to qualify for the contract, Answer had to fill out an official 20-page background questionnaire and then sign it, swearing that everything in it was nothing but the truth. Question number 12 on the form asks if any fines or penalties “have been assessed by any government agency.” Question number 15 asks about any investigations.

“They did not disclose it,” said department spokesman Will Havemann. “We need more information to determine whether Answer should have done so. If any action is warranted we will follow up appropriately.”

Mike Bloomberg’s argument for being elected to this third term that he always said he didn’t want is that he represents progress and competence. But progress, Bloomberg-style, comes only on his terms: In this case, it’s keen attention to the eating habits of school kids, and a deaf ear to the health needs of workers.

Even though Bloomberg has garnered many major union endorsements (including that of the largest Teamster locals), most of these represent a simple exchange of political favors: union backing in exchange for City Hall’s help with their specific concerns. Bloomberg has steadfastly refused to say where he stands on organized labor’s biggest demand, the Employee Free Choice Act, which is still stalled in Congress and which would allow unions to organize shops by signing up a majority of members without employer intimidation. Bloomberg has told labor leaders who have endorsed him that he’s against the bill, but doesn’t want to say so publicly.

“If we had that law on the books, we could organize those shops in a week,” said Pope about the failed drive at Answer Vending and CC Vending, a Bronx-based firm that won the beverage machines contract.

Then there’s the mayor’s competence claim. This is supposed to be his strongest asset. But even this relatively easy lift—installing vending machines in city schools—has steadily tripped up the multibillionaire businessman.

Bloomberg has been drenching the airwaves with attack ads blaming his Democratic opponent, comptroller Bill Thompson, for every past educational misdeed. But one of the things that Thompson indisputably got right was his critique of Bloomberg’s bungled maneuver to put vending machines offering Snapple drink products in the city schools.

This was back in 2003, and it was the first big face-off between Thompson and Bloomberg. Thompson issued a scathing audit showing that Bloomberg’s team had awarded the contract to Snapple without even sending a letter of invitation to other major firms who had to learn about this major opportunity through the business grapevine. Snapple, the audit showed, had been tapped for the job by a private marketing consultant named Octagon that had a bit of a conflict of interest since it already carried Snapple’s parent company as a client. After other bids were received, Snapple alone was allowed to sweeten its offer.

Bloomberg dismissed these complaints as the old way of thinking: “Political red tape,” he said then. What was important, he insisted, was that Snapple would provide a guaranteed minimum of $40 million over five years to help pay for school activities.

Fast-forward to last month, when the Bloomberg people were revving up media interest in the new healthy vending plan. As they broached this wonderful idea, they also quietly let drop that the Snapple deal had fallen short by at least $5 million, and that the city was ending its contract with the beverage company.

Another mayor in another time—back when newspapers cared more about the business of government—might have suffered a few bad press days after this kind of embarrassing flub. Bloomberg has no such fears. The news was relegated to one line in one paper, and that was that.

Last month, Education Department officials informed the Panel for Educational Policy, which, under the new state law, must approve school contracts over $1 million, that it was retaining Octagon again for the new vending initiative. Mayoral appointees control the panel, and the lucrative new Octagon deal was quickly rubberstamped. But dissident members got a chance to air their gripes. “We’re paying them 15 to 18 percent of the contract, and it’s not even clear what they’re doing,” said Patrick Sullivan, a public school parent who is Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s representative to the panel and who voted against Octagon. “There was no assessment of their prior performance.”

Like the Snapple deal, the new one is similarly muddled, and not just because an award went to a firm that may have covered up a state investigation. Education officials admitted last week that the formal contract authorization request that they submitted to the panel described the only unionized firm, Canteen Vending, as offering the highest guarantees for revenue to be paid to the schools. Canteen was rejected, the report stated, only because its “vending machine operation/monitoring systems are inferior to the competitors.”

The department’s spokesman said this was “a misprint.” Wasn’t this a pretty long and involved sentence for a misprint? “I have no idea what that’s about,” he said. And the statement that the losing bidder made the highest offer? That was a mistake, too.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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A Bloomberg Score Card: The Mayor’s Hits and Misses

Even if Democratic challenger Bill Thompson could buy enough airtime to get his message out, this year’s mayoral election would still be a referendum on Mike Bloomberg. And for many voters, Mayor Mike is a riddle, at once admirable and agonizing.

If things do tighten up, the 10 percent of voters who rate Bloomberg’s job performance favorably, but don’t want to see him re-elected, could become an important swing demographic. The mayor has spent $65 million already, yet his numbers are flat. The avalanche of his television ads only highlight the power of his money at a moment when, to many New Yorkers, wealth and wisdom appear increasingly contradictory. And, perhaps most unsettling, he wouldn’t be on the ballot at all but for the coup he engineered to extend term limits set in two referendums, defying voters just months before he started seducing them again.

Third terms diminished Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo, and George Pataki, but there is a tangible sense of purpose about the Bloomberg we see now, an energy reminiscent of his post-9/11 resolve. It could be just the campaign that is animating him, but the daily drumbeat of announcement and action now is in stark contrast with the bored and unfocused tedium of the second term, when he drifted into a presidential haze and lost his lust for the details of governing. He appears again to actually want the job.

A second Bloomberg sequel seems as surreal as it does inevitable. Though Thompson has shown some movement in polls, we can’t help feeling that we’re being pulled into a third Bloomberg administration whether we want one or not. Perhaps the best we can do as the election nears is add up the mayor’s accomplishments and mistakes in as clear-eyed a manner as possible.

Our accounting does not inspect the style of his leadership, which biographer Joyce Purnick captured—calling him “curt, profane, cranky, and willful,” as well as “allergic to introspection” and “ever confident he is right,” even as she pronounced him potentially “one of the most effective mayors in the city’s history.” It doesn’t examine how white his inner circle is, or the astonishing fact that Rudy Giuliani appointed more blacks to high posts in his administration than Mike has. Nor does it salute him for the towering courage he displayed when the city was on its heels and he was new to public office, imposing the largest property tax hike in history and pushing new income surcharges on the wealthiest, to protect services.

But the list that follows is intended to be a useful measure of the man. If it reads like I am arguing with myself, I am. Bloomberg is the most perplexing of the five mayors I’ve covered. I receive the calls that all undecided voters get, again and again, from the Bloomberg phone banks, perhaps the only stimulus program Obama is not financing. I have told them I will not decide until the debates are done, that I am giving Bill Thompson the chance to show he is ready for the job. That is really only partly true. I am also wrestling with my Bloomberg demons, shifting uneasily between days of trust and torment. These are the reasons why.

Mayor Mike knows how to hire, but he can’t bring himself to fire. He’d be a millionaire if he ran his company like this.

“We joke that getting the Post to demand our resignation is the ultimate job protection,” one Bloomberg aide told Purnick. Bloomberg has made some terrific choices—Health Commissioner Tom Frieden and Housing Commissioner Shaun Donovan have already been tapped by President Obama for top national jobs—but, as Purnick put it, he lets “weak commissioners stick around long after any other mayor would have dumped them.”

Fire Commissioner Nick Scoppetta is Exhibit A. Eight years after the ex–Commissioner of Children’s Services became the unlikely head of the FDNY, we still don’t know if he can turn off a stove. We do know that when he climbed to the roof of a firehouse to see the damage caused by debris falling off the nearby Deutsche Bank demolition site, he didn’t order an inspection for the bank building, or even notice that the department’s regular inspections, required by law every 15 days, weren’t being done at all. And when the building went up in flames three months later and two firefighters perished, we know that the mayor and the fire commissioner collaborated to blame underlings. Bloomberg’s own investigations commissioner found a few months ago that Scoppetta’s executive team “did not address noncompliance with the 15-day rule,” contributing to a “culture of widespread disregard” in “commands throughout the department.” Even then, Bloomberg refused to ax him. Finally, just last week, Scoppetta announced that he would leave at the end of the year.

Scoppetta had many accomplices in the lead-up to this deadly fire—buildings commissioner Patricia Lancaster, deputy buildings commissioner Robert LiMandri, and Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff—though none have paid a price for allowing concerns about the pace of the demolition to take precedence over a safe takedown of the city’s most toxic building, next door to Ground Zero. Lancaster was forced out over failings unrelated to Deutsche Bank, LiMandri was elevated to commissioner, and Doctoroff won the ultimate promotion (president of Bloomberg LP).

The list of the unaccountable extends far beyond Deutsche Bank. Department of Aging commissioner Edwin Méndez-Santiago lasted two and a half years after the first of two sexual harassment complaints were filed against him. The city eventually settled both cases, but Méndez-Santiago wasn’t dumped until the mayor extended term limits and readied himself for a re-election run. Giuliani’s cousin, Ray Casey, installed by Bloomberg as a favor to Giuliani, took a profitable Off-Track Betting Corporation into such a financial tailspin that, six and a half years later, Bloomberg finally prevailed on the state to take the nearly bankrupt bookie over. Robert Walsh, the Small Business Services commissioner, was put in charge of the two great minority initiatives ballyhooed by Bloomberg during the 2005 campaign, and when his agency’s mishandling of both was revealed, the mayor said “nobody read” the damning critique.

Aside from Lancaster, who resigned after conceding that her buildings department had mistakenly granted an improper permit to a project in which a crane collapse killed seven, the only other forced departure was finance chief Martha Stark, an election-year fatality. Though a federal probation report, and other government findings, laid the failings that led to the Staten Island ferry crash at the feet of transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall, Bloomberg retained her for years afterward and celebrated her elevation to a top City University post. Weinshall was an accomplished commissioner in many other ways, but the mayor never held her accountable “for placing an unqualified person in charge of a large municipal ferry service,” as the probation report found (also concluding that the top executives of her agency had “a share of responsibility for the accident” that killed seven).

Rudy Giuliani famously said he wanted to “blow up” the independent Board of Education. Bloomberg instead made it his own—persuading the state legislature to disband the board and turn this $18 billion bureaucracy into a mayoral agency. Mike might be hyping the grades, but there’s no doubt he has a right to boast.

Let’s examine a statistic that neither Bloomberg nor the Department of Exaggeration compiled. The City University Office of Institutional Research & Assessment says that between 2002—when Bloomberg became mayor—and 2008, there was a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of city high school grads who became freshmen at CUNY institutions. There are 8,000 more freshmen matriculating today than when Bloomberg took office.

Audits by Comptroller Bill Thompson have raised legitimate questions about the controls the Department of Education has in place to assure that high school diplomas are being granted only to those who earn them. But it’s inarguable that the graduation rate has substantially improved, even if you believe that the 10- to 15-point boost by city standards (and nine points by state standards) can’t be trusted. Any comparison with the flat grad rate before Bloomberg—moving only between 48 percent and 51 percent for a solid decade—confirms the reality that this mayor has changed schools for the better. The hike in reading and math scores is certainly a by-product of teaching to tests that are easier than ever, but that only diminishes the level of claimed improvement, not the fact of it.

No other modern mayor has ever said, “Judge me by the schools,” and no mayor has been more hands-on, meeting weekly with his chancellor, engaging in the minutiae of operational decision making. His chancellor, Joel Klein, left a guaranteed, five-year, $2.5 million-a-year contract with Bertelsmann to take on the city’s toughest, and once thought intractable, public challenge, at a tenth of the salary. He now appears primed to do the bulk of a 12-year term if Bloomberg is re-elected, in sharp contrast with the instability of the eight Giuliani years, when four chancellors played musical chairs.

More than any chancellor in my lifetime, Klein has stood up to the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which prefers to micromanage the schools in service of its members. Bloomberg has undercut Klein to negotiate politically inspired contracts with the union, granting giant pay and benefit boosts while failing to win Klein-backed contract changes that would rid the system of bad teachers. The two have combined, however, to create an alternate universe of nearly a hundred charter schools, almost all of which operate outside the confines of the UFT’s 165-page contract, and Bloomberg recently announced his determination to double that number. By every standard, these charters, clustered in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, are destroying the whispered narrative over the years that “these kids can’t learn,” narrowing what’s called the “Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap.”

Bloomberg gave us eight years of bully pulpit on the city’s need for pension reform, but let himself be bullied by the labor barons. City contributions to pensions leaped from $1.4 billion to $6.3 billion. Paying the bill for Mike’s union alliances will cost New Yorkers thousands of layoffs and diminished services in the third term.

The Independent Budget Office (IBO) offers the following statistical critique of the Bloomberg years: The city budget went from $41 billion to a $59.5 billion projected total for the current fiscal year. Salaries and benefits for city workers went from $22.8 billion to $35.9 billion. Pension, health, and other benefits grew from $5.7 billion to $13.4 billion. The full-time workforce went from 247,681 to 274,696. Debt rose from $43 billion to $60 billion. If a liberal Democrat presided over such soaring numbers, Rupert Murdoch and Mort Zuckerman would put a tabloid bull’s-eye on his back (for evidence of that, look what they’ve done to David Paterson, with a record of less imprudence).

The day of reckoning will come as soon as Bloomberg is re-elected. He is using every cent of a $2.7 billion surplus carried over from the good years to close the current budget gap, and with projected gaps over the next two years of $12 billion, mass layoffs—especially of teachers—might as well be announced at the victory party. “The mayor has typically looked to get headstarts on significant shortfalls,” says the IBO’s Doug Turetsky. “The fact that he didn’t this time was out of character. So he put a new twist on the term ‘election-year budget.’ Rather than big new spending, he held off from taking the kind of steps he might have in a year without municipal elections.”

The biggest drag on the budget—exploding pension costs—can’t be laid solely at the mayor’s feet. In fact, some of the blame can be assigned to his Democratic opponent, Bill Thompson, whose investment decisions as a prime manager of the pension funds have become a target of Bloomberg commercials. But even the mayor’s office agrees that roughly 30 percent of the new costs are attributable to the salary and benefit hikes he granted, which, in turn, pushed pensions higher. Though city officials concede that the 43 percent cumulative hike in teacher salaries awarded by Bloomberg is the largest in the country, they argue that the average boost for city workers is only six points higher than inflation. At the outset of his first term, Bloomberg demanded productivity improvements to pay for these salary increases, but he largely abandoned that demand around the time of his re-election, in 2005.

Lax management is also driving pensions upward. Nearly three of four retiring firefighters since 2004 are receiving disability pensions, collecting three-quarters of their pay tax-free for the rest of their lives (25 percent of Chicago firefighters get disability pensions). Incredibly, many firefighters are even racking up overtime after their supposedly disabling injury, juicing up their departing pay to grab even bigger pensions. That’s only one of the overtime scams tolerated by Bloomberg management. The state’s Financial Control Board (FCB) recently concluded that the city “has done little to control overtime spending,” which, it says, is “one of a few areas in the city’s budget directly under management control.” Overtime, says the FCB, has boomed an average of 3.2 percent per year in the past five years, exceeding a billion dollars for two years in a row.

Jim Hanley, who has been the city’s labor commissioner for 20 years under four mayors, tried to put the salary hikes in context during a Voice interview, noting that the city engages in pattern bargaining, even granting two-year, 14 percent salary increases to police at the same time it was laying off 5,000 of them during the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s (when Hanley was a young assistant in the office). This pattern bargaining, which intertwines the increases granted to various unions and began in 1898, is the reason that Bloomberg was still awarding two-year, 8 percent boosts just a few months ago, even as the city economy collapsed, insists Hanley. Remarkably, as bleak as the budget is, Bloomberg has set aside funding for 8 percent increases for teachers, to be awarded right after election. “The city is now ending that pattern,” Hanley explained, predicting that “there will be a much greater emphasis on being frugal in the next round of bargaining.” If Bloomberg is re-elected, “he will be tougher on these issues,” he contended, adding that the budget crunch will give him the leverage to be tougher. He says that “almost all unions prefer layoffs” to any givebacks or reductions in salary increases, because laid-off workers can’t vote in union elections. The administration appears content to live with even this union priority.

Bloomberg correctly blames a compliant state legislature for pushing pension costs higher by passing “sweetener” bills that enrich them, and Hanley says the mayor has almost uniformly opposed this periodic largesse (even as he became the single largest donor to the Republican Senate that approved them). Bloomberg “has fought these sweeteners harder than any mayor I’ve worked for,” Hanley contends, adding that Bloomberg recently cajoled the legislature into raising the service requirement for pensions to 22 years for new police officers and firefighters, two years more than the longstanding 20-and-out early eligibility that has the city picking up the tab for 10,000 cops who’ve recently retired in their forties. Hanley cites this adjustment as evidence that, seven and a half years into his two terms, Bloomberg is finally attacking the pension issue with effect. The teachers union also recently agreed to modify their pensions, and a coalition of municipal unions signed off on increased co-pays for health care.

All of this is too little, too late, but Bill Thompson is unlikely to bring the issue of labor and pension costs up during the campaign, since some of the city unions are backing him.

No mayor ever—here, or anywhere else in America—has done more to fight illegal guns. It’s a promise Bloomberg made to the families of cops killed by imported guns. The anti-gun war is just a part of Bloomberg’s public safety record, which is admirably better than his celebrated predecessor’s.

Nine years in politics have chipped away at Mike Bloomberg’s authenticity, but his resolve to combat gun violence is genuine and visceral. Ask Plaxico Burress. Ask the National Rifle Association, which depicted him as an octopus on its magazine cover, deriding his “anti-gun reach across America.” Ask Carolyn McCarthy, the Long Island Democratic congresswoman whose husband was killed in an infamous 1993 Long Island Rail Road shooting and who did a television commercial endorsing Bloomberg because his gun-control commitment “saves lives.” Ask the 450 mayors from 40 states, representing 56 million Americans, who have joined his Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition, jump-started with $3 million in Bloomberg contributions. Ask the gun boosters in the U.S. Senate who saw Bloomberg’s coalition help defeat the Thune Amendment, which would have required states with tough laws to grant reciprocity to gun owners with permits from weak-law states.

Bloomberg was a major force behind the passage of a new law in New York that tripled the mandatory minimum sentence for gun possession, just as he pushed a new-offender registration law through the City Council making it possible to track gun offenders. But his really extraordinary action was his pursuit of 27 gun dealers in several Southern states that were selling illegal guns used in the commission of crimes in the city, successfully settling with 24 of them and forcing changes in their practices. The litigation followed Bloomberg-orchestrated sting operations that caught dealers selling guns in apparent violation of federal law. Not only did the Bush Justice Department refuse to prosecute the dealers, they warned the city of “potential legal liabilities” resulting from the interstate undercover operation. A Johns Hopkins study verified that, after the settlements, there was a sharp decrease in the number of illegal guns sold by these stores that wound up in NYC. Bloomberg even recruited the biggest gun-seller in America, Wal-Mart, to join his coalition.

And just last week, Bloomberg revealed that his investigators had completed a similar integrity test at gun shows in several states, making a video called “Gun Show Undercover” and documenting that 19 of the 30 sellers approached at these shows sidestepped federal law and sold guns to undercover investigators who said they couldn’t pass a background test. The mayor is sending the video to every member of Congress in an effort to close the gun show loophole that permits these sales.

The anti-gun campaign is a distinctly Bloomberg contribution to the decline in violent crime achieved under both his and Giuliani’s administrations. Bloomberg’s approach, however, has destroyed the Giuliani premise that to lower crime, the mayor and the NYPD have to raise the racial temperature of New York. As recently as the allegedly DWI cop who ran over the pastor’s daughter in Brooklyn, Bloomberg has found just the right voice of indignation and assurance, even as other officers on the scene were allegedly scrambling to cover it up. Racially tinged stop-and-frisk numbers call out for a change in policy, as does the NYPD’s handling of civil protest, but Bloomberg’s record as the protector of the people of his city is commendable, whether the perpetrators are muggers or terrorists.

Another abiding Bloomberg commitment is public health. When his poll numbers were down in 2002, he didn’t care if an unpopular smoking ban would be harmful to his political health. His budgets invested billions in city hospitals, reversing years of Giuliani disinvestment. Johns Hopkins has already named its legendary School of Public Health after its most generous backer. When he is done as mayor, Bellevue should be renamed “Bloomberg.”

We don’t really know if Bloomberg deserves credit for the year-and-a-quarter gain in life expectancy since he has been mayor. Nor do we know if 350,000 fewer New York smokers is a consequence of the ban, the tax hikes, mass distribution of smoking-cessation patches, and the stream of graphic television and other advertising that the administration has done to fight smoking. HIV deaths, drug deaths, and infant mortality were all decreasing before Bloomberg became mayor, and no one credited Rudy. As hard as it is to figure out what share of the credit belongs to the mayor, it’s easy to determine that some of it does.

The city’s rise in life expectancy significantly outpaced the national average. The percent of adult smokers in NYC, for example, fell from 21.5 percent to 15.8 percent, while the drop in Los Angeles was less than a single percentage point (the city’s rate is now lower than all but five states). When Bloomberg became mayor in 2002, a quarter of New Yorkers did not have a regular doctor; today, it’s less than 20 percent. The percent of blacks and Latinos getting colonoscopies has grown dramatically, and the screening rate for everyone has increased by 48 percent.

Each of these improvements has been connected to a program developed under Bloomberg—including an electronic health record system that has helped more than a thousand doctors connect with a million patients—concentrated in the city’s poorest and sickest neighborhoods. A new Diabetes Prevention program is just beginning to achieve results, and the trans fat ban and overhaul of the restaurant inspection system are making dining out safer.

But there’s no greater measure of Bloomberg’s health commitment than the dollars he has put into public hospitals. Giuliani tried to privatize them and was rebuffed by the courts. When Bloomberg came to office, the city’s net subsidy to the Health & Hospitals Corporation was $241 million; it climbed to more than a billion by 2006. It has dropped a bit since then, says the IBO, a technical budgetary adjustment without an impact on services, but Mayor Mike inherited a demoralized and damaged public system and can now boast that some city hospitals are getting top national ratings.

“New York is healthier than ever,” Bloomberg said at Maimonides Cancer Center in Brooklyn this spring. “If that isn’t the purpose of government, I don’t know what is the purpose of government.” As quiet as it is kept, even by Bloomberg’s stumbling campaign, the beneficiaries of his health, crime, and education initiatives are mostly poor minorities, utterly contrary to the Thompson critique that he is a mayor only for the rich.

As much as the city ought to name a hospital after Mayor Mike, it is more likely to name a stadium or arena. He has certainly spent enough of our money on them to pay for the naming rights. If he gets a pre-election Yankees World Series parade, the confetti should remind us of the bonanza of tax dollars that helped finance the stadium in which it was won.

City officials resent any suggestion that Bloomberg’s has been a stadium-centric economic development policy. They rightly point to his smart focus on biotechnology, including the ongoing construction of the East River Science Park and support of the SUNY Downstate Biotechnology Incubator, all contributing to top rankings as a life science city in two national surveys. They point to his nurturing of the tourism, film/TV, and nonprofit sectors. The $4 billion he has invested in new housing is cited as an economic development marker. But the fact remains that the only major projects built or to be built in the Bloomberg era—the monuments to Mike—are Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, and the soon-to-be-bonded-by-the-city Nets arena in Brooklyn. Even the city-financed extension of the 7 subway line, ballyhooed by Bloomberg aides, is merely a potential pathway to Westside development, not a project itself.

That’s a dismal track record, especially from a mayor who derided the job development benefits of stadium deals when he junked Giuliani’s in 2002. The city is directly spending a half-billion on the two stadiums, largely for infrastructure improvements, some of which are still incomplete. It is also tapping its own supply of tax-exempt bonds, which are supposed to be used for projects of great public value, like hospitals, for $1.9 billion, subsidizing the two teams that are claiming to be building the stadiums themselves to the tune of $1.3 billion (a combination of the savings achieved through the bonds and other property, mortgage, and sales tax exemptions). The evidence that top officials of the Bloomberg administration reversed land assessments for the Yankees deal to artificially jack up the value in order to qualify for the tax-exempt financing is overwhelming and would—in a time when a good scandal had staying power in New York—make Bloomberg wince at the thought of an election eve parade. E-mails like one from a top aide to Deputy Mayor Doctoroff explicitly said they were making the assessment “so high” in an attempt “to support the tax-exempt financing.”

By December, the Bloomberg administration will replicate its scandal-ridden history of bonding these projects by supporting the issuance of $678 million in state tax-exempt bonds for the Nets. The IBO estimates that the arena will also cost the city $350 million, combining direct and indirect subsidies, concluding that it will lose at least $40 million over the life of the deal, assuming the most optimistic revenue projections. Salty Mike’s response to the unstated, apolitical IBO: “I don’t know what the IBO studies would have shown back when they tried to establish the value of Central Park.”

A Bloomberg hero, the late Senator Patrick Moynihan, attached an amendment to the IRS code in 1986 to try to bar cities from using tax-exempt bonds to finance stadiums, but the IBO reports that the city “found a way to circumvent these strictures” by technically structuring these two privately built and operated stadiums as publicly owned and leased for 99 years. The IRS originally OK’d this arrangement and then reversed itself, prohibiting such maneuvers in the future. Yet the city plans to do the arena precisely the same way, and the IRS grandfathered the arena in under its initial ruling, giving the city until the end of the year to sell the bonds. Incredibly, all of these resources have been used either to induce a basketball team to move across the river or to build stadiums with fewer and more expensive seats, neither of which is much of a public benefit. And every independent analysis re-establishes what the mayor once believed—nothing generates fewer real jobs than these television studios disguised as sports facilities.

It’s at least a bit awkward that Bloomberg LP’s business news channel, a linchpin to the growth of the media giant Mike owns almost entirely himself, now occupies the Yankees’ precious former location (Time Warner’s channel 30) on the New York cable dial, moving up 74 notches from channel 104, with the acquiescence of the Yankees, whoseYES network moved to channel 53. It’s more than awkward that the administration’s favorite developer, Steve Ross, was so cozy with city development czar Doctoroff that he assumed a $4 million loan Doctoroff made to the city’s Olympic committee shortly before Doctoroff took office. And it’s stunning that the mayor himself boldly endorsed the biggest real estate acquisition of all time—the $5.4 billion purchase of Stuy Town—even though the 20 percent owner of Bloomberg LP at the time, Merrill Lynch, was one of the buyers and he was legally barred from doing anything in his official capacity to aid Merrill.

Bloomberg is proud of his self-financed campaigns, often celebrating the fact that he takes no contributions from anyone. But the evidence is mounting—with 33 of Bloomberg LP’s top 124 customers having business with the city—that we may be getting the quid without the quo. The mayor’s friends and prime-time business supporters appear to be reaping the same rewards as those big donors used to get, only minus the donations, and the circle of insiders that openly rallied to him during the term limits debate is, by and large, the same group that is prospering from his discretionary decisions. The New York City Partnership, co-chaired now by Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein and Rupert Murdoch, has become Bloomberg’s modern version of an oldline political club.

Even as the mayor can make the case that his health initiatives and other priorities benefit the poor, his near 100 rezonings, construction deregulations, generous subsidies, and other policies have fed the aura of a government of, for, and by the elites.

When I was in high school, and John Kennedy and Richard Nixon were squaring off, my father helped me craft a list of the qualities and issues we should use to judge the two candidates, a score card so logical that it did not take into account the heart or the gut. I wound up the only kid in my class, at a small Catholic high school in Virginia, willing to champion Nixon in a debate.

There is only so far that a checklist of pluses and minuses can carry you, though this one is not as detached as the one I concocted in 1960. I won’t let my emotions rule, either, however. I believe that the self-serving reversal of term limits was the greatest abuse of power I have covered in more than three decades on this beat. But elections are choices between names on the ballot—not opportunities to file a protest.

In some ways, this choice is between the Mike Bloomberg of his first and second term, when he moved from determined to distracted. The negatives explored here mushroomed in and after 2005. A city that is shuddering with uncertainties has to figure out which one of the two Bloombergs we are likely to get the third time around.

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The Bloomberg Dilemma: Favorite? Or Just No Obvious Alternative?

Michael Bloomberg remains an overwhelming favorite for re-election, even as polls keep finding that most New Yorkers would just as soon someone else took over at City Hall. It’s the riddle of Campaign 2009. Chalk it up to uninspiring opponents, the advantages of incumbency, and the results of $36 million worth of electoral carpet-bombing by an incumbent taking no chances.

Whatever the reasons, despite all that costly self-promotion, scratch any surface and you’ll find voters who are less than thrilled with Mayor Mike’s performance, but who don’t see the obvious alternative. Take, for example, those involved in the nasty development battle now being waged in the Kingsbridge Heights section of the Bronx.

Last Wednesday night, Bloomberg’s top Democratic challenger, Bill Thompson, stood in front of a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 local residents and union members gathered at Our Lady of Refuge on East 196th Street. Thompson got only polite applause when he was introduced by Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, leader of a coalition of community and labor organizations calling itself Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. But the city comptroller pulled a deafening roar as soon as he said that he wouldn’t vote for Bloomberg’s proposal for a new city-subsidized shopping mall at the huge old armory on West Kingsbridge Road, unless the developer agrees that new jobs there will pay decent wages.

“The Bloomberg administration hasn’t pushed to make sure that people are paid a living wage in this city,” Thompson told the crowd. “I am going to continue to vote no on this project until the right thing happens.” Thompson paused, enjoying the moment. He looked like he was about to break into a full-throated takedown of Bloomberg policies: The audience was his for the asking. Instead, he grinned, waved, and ducked out of the room.

There were plenty of potential recruits to be had. Among those hooting loudest for Thompson were representatives of unions like the carpenters that have actually endorsed Bloomberg’s bid for a third term. Also part of the coalition seeking a better jobs deal for the armory project is Local 32BJ of the building service workers, which, last week, gave Bloomberg its backing.

Being for the mayor while opposing him is an ongoing dilemma for Bloomberg supporters. A political aide to another building trades union that has endorsed the mayor put it this way when asked the basis for endorsing Bloomberg: “The basic rationale? He’s going to win. That’s the basic rationale.”

There’s not a whole lot else. Mike Bloomberg’s own argument last fall for overturning the term limits that voters had twice approved in referendums was that the city needed to keep his strong hand on the tiller as we weather a terrible economic storm. Last week, however, the storm raged unabated: City unemployment hit 9.5 percent, matching the national rate for the first time. Unemployment in the city is now running even higher than the rest of the state, the labor department reported.

There’s an even bigger disconnect between the mayor’s views on labor and his union endorsers. Bloomberg has garnered support for his third term from the Teamsters, the Laborers, and the Food and Commercial Workers unions. All are fierce champions of the Employee Free Choice Act—the congressional legislation that would make it easier for workers to form unions. On Friday, even as news surfaced that key provisions of the bill were being dropped in the face of conservative opposition, national union spokesmen restated that the legislation remains labor’s single most crucial goal, calling it “essential to recovering our nation’s economy.”

And where does Mike Bloomberg stand on the bill? The question was posed last Thursday, moments after the mayor issued a press release announcing another labor endorsement. A campaign spokesman said she’d get back to us. We’re still waiting.

That’s a good example of the mayor’s strategy in this campaign: Play rope-a-dope on tough questions, while burying voters under a multimillion-dollar avalanche of positive ads.

The armory fight is another instance in which Bloomberg’s position on labor standards goes against the grain of his union supporters.

Ever since the huge armory was handed over to the city back in 1998, local groups have been fashioning ideas about what it could become. The building is a vast, castle-like affair, with some 575,000 square feet tucked under a cavernous, vaulted ceiling that looks like it could swallow the better part of Madison Square Garden.

Rudy Giuliani tried to force through a scheme to create sprawling, suburban-style big-box stores there. Groups like the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, whose members and organizers held the neighborhood together through the worst of the “Bronx Is Burning” days, had been thinking more along the lines of schools, youth facilities, and retail stores that didn’t drive local merchants to the poorhouse. Thankfully, Giuliani’s plan turned out to be just bluster, never even getting off the ground.

Bloomberg played things much smarter, agreeing to give community groups input into the planning. Locals recruited architects and planners from the ever-helpful Pratt Center for Community Development in Brooklyn to help. This time around, City Hall’s new request for developer proposals included language aimed at discouraging big-box stores. It also gave preference to builders whose schemes would place local residents in jobs that paid more than minimum wage.

When Bloomberg’s team finally settled on a developer it liked for the project, lo and behold, it was an administration favorite: Steve Ross and his Related Companies. The builder counts both Bloomberg and former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff (now running the mayor’s mighty corporation, Bloomberg LP) among his close pals and has been chosen to handle several other development projects by Bloomberg’s administration, including the redevelopment of the old Bronx Terminal Market, for which he didn’t even have to compete against anyone else.

Still, Related is a union contractor, and it would have been fine with everyone if not for another bait and switch. After initially describing the components of what it quaintly dubbed “The Shops at the Armory,” the developer quietly let it be known that it would seek a 50,000-square-foot supermarket for the site. Such a mega-market, enjoying its share of the project’s $18 million in city tax breaks, would have a strong, competitive edge over a pair of long-standing nearby family-owned supermarkets that have contracts with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union covering some 150 workers.

Related then threw another deal-buster into the mix: Under no circumstances would it require its tenants to offer full-time jobs at $10 an hour, plus benefits, the current yardstick for a so-called “living wage.”

Bloomberg’s economic development aides shrugged. Any job is a good job, they said. With City Hall’s blessings, Related upped the ante even more. If forced to tell tenants to hike wages, it would walk away from the deal, its lawyers told the local community board.

This “my way or the highway” threat had the desired effect. A divided community board #7 voted last week to approve the project on condition that everyone keep talking. The Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, including its union partners, is still pressing its demands. “We got involved three years ago to support the principle of good wages and working conditions at this site,” said Fred LeMoine, a leader of the Lathers Local 46 who helped organize last week’s rally. “We’ve got ours, and now we intend to help the rest of the community get theirs.” Yes, he acknowledged, it was unusual for a building trades union to be adding demands to a development project—and yes, there had been “a little pressure” to back off. “But we’re not going anywhere,” he said.