For almost every New Yorker, 9/11 became a defining moment that changed the course of the city as a whole and individual lives as well, including that of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Participating in an ongoing video series focusing on the former mayor’s legacy, William Cunningham, his former communications director, said that the tragedy added an urgency to win the 2001 campaign.
Cunningham was joined by Haeda Mihaltses, FCRH ’86, GSAS ’94, former director of intergovernmental affairs. The May 28 conversation took place at the Lincoln Center campus. William Baker, PhD, the Claudio Acquaviva Chair in the Graduate School of Education, moderated.
Cunningham said that Bloomberg, a licensed pilot, knew instantly that the plane crashes were an attack even as others debated radar malfunction.
“He immediately cut to the big problem,” said Cunningham. “That’s his nature: What’s the problem and what do we do about it?”
For the then-candidate, that meant winning the election in order to help the city rebuild. But first he had to win. As 9/11 occurred on primary day, voting and campaigning were suspended for another two weeks while the city grieved.
Bloomberg re-approached the campaign with sensitivity, said Cunningham. His first speech after the attacks was held in Queens, with midtown skyscrapers serving as backdrop so as to not appear to be capitalizing on the void left in the downtown skyline.
Before the attacks, political veteran Mark Green was the front-runner. But after the attacks, the Bloomberg campaign focused voter attention on their candidate’s business expertise.
“Green knew the politics, but now the question was who can manage a multi-billion dollar enterprise that theoretically could collapse around you,” said Cunningham. “New York needed a mayor who could talk to the people that make those decisions.”
Cunningham reminded the audience that with the financial district still smoldering, leaders in Washington were beginning to argue that the financial sector shouldn’t be so centralized in one place and on the same grid.
“Chicago and New Jersey were making a bid for finance,” he said.
Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s endorsement was key to the win. The endorsement was quietly cultivated out of the spotlight, said Cunningham. The campaign allowed Giuliani to pick the endorsement date and time, which happened to be on a Saturday at 4 p.m.—not exactly the ideal time for Sunday newspaper deadlines. But behind the scenes, the campaign already had commercials featuring Giuliani’s endorsement shot and they were scheduled for the Sunday morning talk shows.
The strategy worked, he said. The unlikely billionaire candidate became the 108th mayor of New York City.
On arriving at City Hall, the mayor asked his staff to call him Mike, a request that they politely denied, said Mihaltses. It would be the first of many disagreements that the mayor would have—indeed encourage—from his deputies.
“We told him, ‘With all due respect you are the mayor of the City of New York,” said Mihaltses, who was part of the team that gave Bloomberg his crash course on city government.
Mihaltses described an engaged management style that was kind, “sometimes to a fault.”
“He wasn’t a micromanager,” she said. “He let managers do their jobs but he watched and made sure that he was part of the decision making.”
She described a challenging first year that included an 18.5 percent tax hike, followed by across-the-board budget cuts. She said an economic downturn coupled with the 9/11 attacks meant the city needed the revenue. The tax hikes were quickly followed by the smoking ban and mayoral control of the school system.
“That’s a pretty good first year,” said Cunningham.
Mihaltses and Cunningham said that almost all of the gains, whether they were accomplished in Albany or in City Hall, could be attributed to tight team coordination and the mayor’s willingness to meet repeatedly one-on-one with state legislators and city council members.
“He went to Albany again and again, he made the case with editorial boards and columnists,” said Cunningham. “He was very good about getting back to the legislators.”
The two discussed rezoning the city, overturning term limits for the mayor’s third term, and public safety. But ultimately, while the timing of the video series is good for fresh memories, they said that many of the mayor’s real accomplishments may not be realized for years to come. Mihaltses noted that the rezoned development at Hudson Yards and Coney Island is far from done. And Cunningham said that the data on the effects of the smoking ban is just beginning to accumulate.
“It wasn’t until the Giuliani administration that we realized the [value of the]housing plan that Ed Koch had accomplished,” he said. “There are many things we wont know until 20 years from now. And the longer view will be better.”
The discussion was part of the University’s Oral Archive on Governance in New York City: The Bloomberg Years.