Opinion: The Goldsmith Cover-Up
Friday, September 02, 2011
Mayor Michael Bloomberg must be taken aback by the dust-up over his effort to hide the real reason for one of his deputy mayor's resignation. The mayor's conduct was quintessential Bloomberg. Why was anyone even surprised?
In a legacy from his days running his own company, when he was answerable to nobody but himself, Bloomberg often does as he wishes. Government is not a private business. But when Stephen Goldsmith, his deputy mayor for operations, resigned last month, the mayor's office said in a statement that Goldsmith was "leaving to pursue private-sector opportunities in infrastructure finance.''
In fact, Goldsmith was leaving because he had just been arrested over a domestic violence complaint lodged by his wife, in Washington, D.C. It is hard to imagine most elected officials hiding that fact, much less assume, as the mayor must have, that the real reason for his deputy's departure would not eventually get out. In this 24/7 media environment, it is astonishing that it took this long.
But Bloomberg in effect put loyalty first, even ahead of the public's right to know. And that is standard Bloomberg.
Loyalty was of critical importance to him when he ran his own company — loyalty and disloyalty. He was infuriated with anyone who left for another job — and he bent over backwards to support those loyal to him.
That approach to management has not changed during his time in City Hall. Goldsmith, blamed for the city's botched response to last winter's snowstorm, is not the first Bloomberg official to stay on the job despite widespread reservations about his competence.
He will not, Bloomberg said to me a few years ago, sacrifice someone because of the risk of bad publicity. That is an admirable quality, and those who work in Bloomberg's government acknowledge that they appreciate knowing they will not be sacrificed to appease an editorial board or columnist. It gives them the freedom to make mistakes and to take risks.
But it also ignores that, at times, the public loses faith in a public official, and that the public matters.
In Goldsmith's case, there was little defense, even from the mayor, of his handling of the snowstorm. Most thought that Bloomberg pushed him out because of it, and perhaps Bloomberg was not unhappy to have a reason to ask Goldsmith to leave. But he did not precipitate, we now know, Goldsmith's exit.
Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis with few insights into New York, got the job because of another Bloomberg trait — his fondness for the unorthodox. The mayor seems to have assumed that an outsider, whether from business or another city, would bring new ideas to government.
Sometimes outsiders do. Sometimes they are overwhelmed by the political and bureaucratic complexities of New York. That was the case with Cathie Black, the publishing executive Bloomberg selected to be his schools chancellor. She did not last long in that position, new to the layered culture of the world of public education, and unequal to its challenges.
Goldsmith, who spent at least half of his time in Washington D.C. where his family lives, had little feel for the city whose government he purported to run.
Deputy Mayors for Operations are usually hands-on officials who oversee the municipal government. Sometimes first deputy mayors do that job, but Bloomberg's first deputy, Patricia Harris, has never played that role. Her responsibilities include running the mayor's foundation and overseeing his charitable donations, including those to city non-profit organizations.
Other deputies ran the city agencies — Marc Shaw in the first term, Edward Skyler in the second. Goldsmith was responsible for running the agencies — he had the same title as Skyler — but never quite did that job.
Maybe, until the snowstorm, Bloomberg thought a hands-on manager was no longer necessary, or favored the promise (unmet) of innovation over standard management. In the aftermath of Goldsmith's departure, the mayor named a more traditional, Caswell Holloway, just as he named his faithful aide, Dennis Walcott, to succeed Ms. Black as Chancellor.
There seems little question that the Goldsmith episode reinforced Bloomberg's reputation for stubbornness and secrecy, maybe neutralizing the high marks he won for his firm guidance during Tropical Storm Irene.
But at 69 years old, in his ninth year as mayor, his temperament is pretty well established. The guess, in these quarters, is that if he got a chance to do it over again, he would handle the Goldsmith resignation exactly as he did the first time.