Brian Lehrer: Why Mike Bloomberg Surprised Me

Michael Bloomberg won't be remembered as the anti-asthma mayor, as he will the anti-smoking, anti-obesity and anti-murder mayor. But he's done a lot more to fight the disease than I ever imagined he would.

On November 1, 2001, as a questioner in a Michael Bloomberg - Mark Green mayoral debate, I asked Bloomberg about a comment he had made previously regarding asthma, which accounts for more childhood emergency room visits and more sick days from school than any other illness, especially among the city's low income kids. Bloomberg had said it should largely be controlled by individual families, guilty of "not knowing how to clean." I brought it up in the debate to see if he would also acknowledge that public policy needs to play a role: I referred to building codes that could require landlords to control triggers like roaches, rodents and mold, and the concentration of air-polluting facilities in low income neighborhoods.

But the future mayor stuck to his guns about the issue being driven by personal choices.

This plague upon the poor was the fault of the poor, for their own lack of hygiene. I was astonished, thought we had gone back in time by a century, and concluded we were likely to have a mayor weak on public health if Bloomberg won.

Not.

Today, the well-worn debate about Bloomberg is whether his aggressive public health record amounts to a nanny state. Having been a public health grad student myself just before launching my show at WNYC, I've been a member of the cheering section for the mayor's pioneering policies, beginning with the indoor smoking ban for public places, which was widely ridiculed at first but has become an international norm in an amazingly short period of time. More recently, I was one of the most vocal members of the media in supporting the large sugary drinks limit. I couldn't believe that New Yorkers were falling for the beverage industry's propaganda campaign about this being a matter of "freedom." What a degraded notion of freedom we have when the right to supersize at McDonald's is seen as a higher good than parents' and public health officials' right to protect our kids from diabetes!

For some reason, the mayor never did make asthma a center stage crusade as he did with sugar, tobacco and guns. It puzzles me because asthma is such a leading city health problem. But he has said and done a lot. He referred to asthma in his arguments for the indoor smoking ban, requiring cleaner-burning heating oil, and congestion pricing to drive in Midtown. (I was never sure about the last one since Midtown doesn't have the asthma problem. It's worst in neighborhoods where drivers would park and ride.) And he donated $50-million of his own money to a Sierra Club anti-coal campaign, citing asthma as a reason.

To the point of my question, he began to address the polluting facilities imbalance in his 2006 Solid Waste Management plan. One piece of that has become a very hot issue in this year's mayoral race: the waste transfer station the mayor wants on the Upper East Side. Most of the candidates oppose it.  But it took City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to lead on the housing issue, and not until 2011, passing the kind of landlord crackdown bill I had in mind during the debate a decade earlier.

The Bloomberg administration's first public response to the bill was non-committal, but the mayor did become a supporter and did sign it. Maybe his close ties to the development community slowed him down on this. Maybe it was a belief in behavior as a driver of poverty. Remember his experiment with paying poor people cash to get check-ups and send their kids to school?

So Michael Bloomberg won't be remembered as the anti-asthma mayor, as he will the anti-smoking, anti-obesity and anti-murder mayor. But he's done a lot more to fight the disease than I ever imagined he would after that 2001 debate. Why didn't he just say so?