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Mayor Bloomberg’s wealth holds lessons for politics

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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s third and final term is drawing to a close. He is by far the wealthiest politician in the country, worth about $27 billion. Bloomberg claims that his wealth is a political asset — meaning he can’t be bought — but there are two sides to that coin.

In his last State of the City speech, Bloomberg offered up one reason to support his aggressive agenda. “Special interests and campaign donors have never had less power than they’ve had over the past 11 years, and this year we’re going to show them just how true that is,” Bloomberg said.

“There are a lot of things the mayor has been able to do because of his immense personal wealth,” says Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College and an expert on New York City politics. “He doesn’t need to take campaign contributions, he doesn’t owe anybody anything.”

That, says Muzzio, theoretically lets the mayor pick fights that a conventional politician might avoid. He points to the smoking ban that pit City Hall against bar and restaurant owners, the proposed sugary drink ban that antagonized the beverage industry, and Bloomberg’s opposition to paid sick days that upset organized labor.

So, Muzzio says this take on his independence “is a very positive side of the Bloomberg narrative, but the counter narrative is, he doesn’t have to listen to anybody.”

And that makes some people mad. “He finds it impossible to feel anybody else’s pain,” says Scott Levenson, with the Democratic strategy firm The Advance Group. Levenson says, yes, Bloomberg’s riches mean he isn’t beholden to any special interest, but one man’s special interest is another man’s champion.

“Special interests are not alien to democracy, [they are] integral to democracy,” Levenson says. “Michael Bloomberg seems to miss that point.”

Bloomberg has by no means won all of the fights he’s picked. And he won two of his three elections by slim margins, notes Kenneth Mayer, professor of political science at University of Wisconsin.

“So it’s not as if his wealth and ability to spend lots of money has led to absolute landslides,” Mayer says.

Will New Yorkers ever have another mayor wealthy enough to ignore everybody? Well, last month, billionaire John Catsimatidis joined the race. But he’s only worth $3 billion.


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