Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
In his own city, a state judge can slap down a signature Bloomberg health initiative. But in a balletic pirouette this week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proved his massive fortune means he can still affect municipal policy, down to what Houston puts in its garbage cans and what four year olds in Providence are reading.
And that he’ll be able to do so for years to come, even as his power as New York City mayor wanes, and then, at midnight on December 31, vanishes altogether.
Just two days after a judge blocked his ambitious plan to limit the size of sugary drinks sold in certain establishments — ruling, among other things, that the mayor had overstepped his bounds — Mayor Bloomberg led a small tour of big city mayors through national television studios in New York. The group, including Mayors of Houston, Providence, Santa Monica and Philadelphia, were the winners of the “Mayor’s Challenge” — a $9 million gift to spur innovation in cities around the nation.
And so, Providence gets $5 million to fund a geeky new device to record what parent’s say to their pre-schoolers and Houstonians gets $1 million to toss all their garbage in one-bin and double the recycling rate.
The interviews led to some bizarre juxtapositions.
“It’s been described as a stinging defeat for you,” CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King told Bloomberg, speaking of the judge’s sugary drinks ruling.
“Stinging,” he agreed, with a wry smile. “We asked the federal government to do something. They did nothing.”
He rapidly pivoted. “It’s cities that are doing anything. That’s why we need this challenge.”
The challenge — for cities to pitch and sell replicable innovations like increasing recycling and giving better real-time information to residents — drew a whole lot of attention from the country’s mayors. More perhaps, than you’d imagine.
In a city budget, “a million bucks,” as Bloomberg described the cities’ haul, may not be that much. But it’s Bloomberg’s increasing willingness to fund city governments through his Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Project “government innovation” portfolio that has caught these mayors’ attention.
“We were on the brink of bankruptcy a year ago,” Providence Mayor Angel Tavares said in a phone interview. “This is a big game-changer.”
A year and a half ago, Bloomberg Philanthropies quietly began paying for city workers in New Orleans, Chicago and “elsewheres,” as Bloomberg likes to say, for the unglamorous projects of reducing waiting times for city services and streamlining business licensing. Six million of Bloomberg’s money is paying for staffers in Chicago, $4.8 million to in Louisville — $24 million in all. This January, there was $16 million larded around the country to improve financial literacy among the poor. Then there’s this $9 million mayor’s challenge, which, Bloomberg Philanthropies is hinting, may be the first of many.
Most mayors get to persuade by the power of their ideas — and whether they work. Bloomberg gets to do that, as well, but his soaring fortune and willingness to lavishly dollop it across cash-strapped cities nationwide magnifies his ability to mobilize municipal governments.
And of, course, when that doesn’t work, Mayor Bloomberg is perfectly willing to spend money on municipal elections. One million dollars — almost a third of the budget of the Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Coalition for School Reform, a group backing Los Angeles school board candidates — came from Michael Bloomberg, donor. And that’s not the first time he’s gotten involved in local elections — in 2012, he gave $400,000 to state senatorial campaigns in Colorado.
His campaign for municipal reform may be less high-profile than his gun control campaign — his Independence USA PAC has spent $10 million and counting on pro-gun control campaigns, including $2 million last month in a Congressional race in Illinois. He’s vowed to spend at least $50 million towards the Sierra club’s anti-coal initiative, and generously backs campaigns for other reasons —promoting gay marriage, encouraging immigration reform.
But it’s his willingness to be the Daddy Warbucks of municipal government reform that puts Michael Bloomberg in a category of one. “He is in a league of his own,” Mayor Tavares said, “and I mean that all positively”
And it gives him a built-in amen chorus of mayors when he does get slapped down by the inner-workings of his own municipal government.
“He will win this case, he will win this campaign,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago told Morning Joe’s Joe Scarborough when asked to comment on the soda ban.
Because he’ll continuing spending his fortune long after judges and lawmakers in New York stop telling him what to do -- as Mayor of the City of New York.