Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s three-term tenure, as an admirable yet flawed Village Voice article recently detailed, cannot be universally praised by anyone (except, perhaps, by the conceited mayor himself). The so-called Emperor Bloomberg threw out the term limit rule without a popular vote, grossly outspent his mild opponent William C. Thompson, didn’t actually reform the schools, and made New York an even more expensive place to live. In the twilight of term three, the mayor’s elitist disposition and mixed public policy record (did we really need such a virulent war on smoking?) has probably cemented his legacy as a plutocrat politician who occasionally threw the paupers a bone, like putting little tables and folding chairs on Broadway. Despite all this, the mayor, at least temporarily, deserves our praise.
Last week, he announced what might actually be the most ambitious and necessary program of his tenure: a $130 million Great Society-esque plan to improve the lives of young black and Latino men; women, surprisingly, were left out of the plan, and there has been little media criticism about that. A multifold attack on deeply-rooted socioeconomic conditions that are perpetually unsolved or ignored by policy makers, the plan would place job-recruitment centers in public housing projects, establish new fatherhood classes, link remedial math and literacy classes with paid internships, and overhaul how the government interacts with an oppressed population of 315,000. Mayor Bloomberg has dipped into his own vast fortune to help pay for the plan, contributing $30 million and recruiting fellow billionaire George Soros to pitch in $30 million as well.
Understandably, controversy has bubbled over the mayor’s private financing of public projects. He has also spent $250,000 of his own to reinstate the January 2012 Regents exams after budget shortfalls forced the state to dump the exams. The financing of public projects with private money has led to fears that Mayor Bloomberg can unilaterally decide what the public requires and erode the line between personal philanthropy and mayoral power. As the Times points out, is it not yet clear how much clout Patricia E. Harris, the chairwoman of his $1.75 billion charity, wields over the new project to aid black and Latino youth.
The greater problem of course is that the state even needs personal bailouts from the likes of a wealthy mayor. Hunter College political science professor Kenneth Sherrill calls this “exceedingly embarrassing” in a DNAinfo story. Praise the mayor for redirecting his funds toward something worthy instead of taking the typical philanthropist route of donating a building to a university, having it named after yourself, and getting a tax break. A billionaire politician should want to financially assist the public that he serves. Ideally, he shouldn’t have to, and public services shouldn’t be so severely underfunded. Still, it’s nice to have one billionaire tossing some money the public’s way instead of destroying the economy indefinitely.