Mike Does it His Way

After nine years of Bloomberg rule, New Yorkers should not have been surprised by their mayor’s pick of Cathleen Black to be the new schools chancellor. Of course he chose someone with no connection to or experience with public education. Of course he picked a wealthy elitist with a professional lifetime in magazine publishing. Of course he selected an alumna of Chicago parochial schools instead of an educator or anyone who knew anything at all about education to run the largest public school system in the country.

The Black choice is classic, quintessential, in-your-face Bloomberg. He hasn’t packed his government with many such elitists, but he loves unorthodoxy and always has.

The young Bloomberg, unapologetically brash, told his bosses at Salomon Brothers that he could run the place better than they could. After Salomon fired him, he went his own risky way and invested part of his Salomon payout to create the data-jammed computer that made him a billionaire. Then he built a news division from scratch to sell more computer subscriptions, and when he got bored making money, he spent $75 million of his fortune to buy himself into City Hall, knowing nothing about campaigns or politics.

His unorthodoxy has worked for him, and he is at it again. Now, he's taking one of his gambles not with his own money but with the city’s fortunes and the future of its school children. Gambles sometimes pay off. Sometimes they do not. This time, the odds are daunting. Running a public school system, dealing with the teachers union and the custodians union and the principals union, with legislators in the union’s pocket, with teachers themselves and a dizzyingly diverse student population, is in no conceivable way like running Cosmopolitan or USA Today.

The departing chancellor, Joel Klein, was also a significant departure from the norm. A gruff, outspoken lawyer, he was — after eight productive but turbulent years as Chancellor — eased out, also in classic Bloomberg style. He got a soft landing at News Corp., the media company of another Bloomberg social buddy, Rupert Murdoch. But Klein, unlike Black, is a New Yorker and a graduate of the city schools. Though he and his wife, socially prominent lawyer Nicole Seligman, also make the Park Avenue scene, he was not new to public life when he became Chancellor.

Cathie Black’s most persuasive credentials for the schools job seem to be a friendship with the mayor’s girlfriend, Diana Taylor, and membership in the same Upper East Side social orbit as Ms. Taylor and Bloomberg. Black’s husband, Thomas E. Harvey, is a significant contributor to Republican causes, including Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential race and the Republican National Committee. The couple has, like Ms. Taylor and the mayor, spent leisurely days at the Allen & Company’s annual gathering in Sun Valley, Idaho, the summer retreat for the super-rich that few regular folk know much about because the media are banned.

“He didn’t go outside when he chose Cathie Black, he went inside,’’ said a Bloomberg friend and supporter, unhappy with the new schools chief. “It’s him and Diana, Cathie and Tom.”

Because the selection was swathed in secrecy, coming as a surprise even to most of the mayor’s confidants, his rationale is a matter of speculation. One theory: he picked her for her reputation as an effective manager. (At magazines?) Another is that he didn’t go for any of the country’s established educators, like Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools, because they would come with baggage. That they would. They also would have experience.

Going the traditional route would have been too easy for Mike Bloomberg. In his view, his political inexperience served him and New York well, so he’s figuring that Ms. Black’s inexperience will serve the city’s million-plus school children well. Now that is one high-risk bet. New Yorkers might prefer better odds.

Joyce Purnick, a veteran New York reporter and editor, is author of "Mike Bloomberg, Money, Power, Politics." She was an editor, reporter and columnist at The New York Times for 29 years, long-time author of the award-winning “Metro Matters” column, and the first woman to head The Times's City Hall bureau and Metro department. A native New Yorker educated in its public schools, Ms. Purnick has, so far, covered six mayors of New York.