Bloomberg’s style gives hint at Chicago’s future

by Russ Stewert

Chicago isn’t New York City — at least not in terms of population, culture or sheer financial heft. There is no comparable Wall Street, Times Square, Broadway, Tammany Hall or Central Park in the Windy City.

However, politically, America’s so-called “Second City” — a term which should now be applied to Los Angeles, whose population (3,792,621) has surpassed Chicago’s (2,695,598) — is melding with the Big Apple: “Bloombergism” is oozing from the East Coast to the Midwest. Political machines in both cities are extinct, replaced by money machines and ubiquitous mayors.

Outgoing three-term New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire owner of Bloomberg L.P., Bloomberg News Service and other mega-investments, has developed a new methodology and style for governing an urban metropolis. It is simplicity itself. It demands discipline and accountability. It requires a “hands-on” mayor who functions 24/7, is acutely and instantaneously aware of everything that’s happening, alerts the media of all newsworthy developments, gets himself on television daily, and creates constant photo ops. In New York, Bloomberg is known among his detractors as the “Big Mommy” because he views city government as a like-it-or-not family member.

Under “Bloombergism,” the mayor makes the news rather than responds to the news. He has vast resources to monitor events. He makes the media dependent upon him for stories, and as the payback he gets top TV play. Bloomberg has, in effect, insinuated himself as a member of everybody’s household. When he decided to cap sugar levels in soft drinks, there was only minimal pushback. Why not? In New York’s “Mommy State,” why shouldn’t the mayor control everybody’s caloric intake? Let the government make me healthy.

In fact, Bloomberg has created a huge high-tech emporium from which he reigns supreme: a football-sized arena where he sits aloft at a sophisticated computer console, not unlike Captain Kirk on Star Trek’s Enterprise, surrounded by aides and gofers, with every city department head and commissioner at a similar computer phalanx within eyesight. He has information, they have the same information, and they better be doing their job.

Daily crime statistics are up? The mayor knows where, and the police commissioner better be deploying more manpower to that sector. A crack house? Get the building inspectors out. Rats, sexual assaults, parades, block parties, drive-by shootings, vandalism, graffiti, zoning applications, fires, city absenteeism — the mayor knows about it in minutes, and his subalterns are expected to react immediately, not several days later after phone calls, memos and press reports.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has embraced much of Bloomberg’s ubiquitous style, but not yet his methodology. He still operates out of City Hall, not a bullpen, but he creates daily news events and photo ops. Like Bloomberg he believes that good management is good government and that ideology and excessive partisanship impede good management. However, in Chicago there is no partisanship; the Democrats control every elected office, with not a single Republican among the 50 aldermen. There is, of course, racial, geographic and factional bickering.

Here are a few comparisons between Chicago and New York City:

First, money matters. With the demise of patronage and political machines, the media are the message, supplemented by the U.S. Postal Service. Precinct captains and volunteers are obsolete. Bloomberg’s insistent mommyism is not universally appreciated. He had to self-finance and spend more than $100 million to get re-elected in 2009, taking just 51 percent of the vote, and that was after he rammed through the City Council an ordinance changing the mayor’s term limit from two to three — a self-serving ploy which irritated much of the public. The Big Apple’s population is 8,175,133, but turnout in 2009 was roughly 1,060,000, and Bloomberg, running as an independent, topped Democrat William Thompson 532,726-486,721, a margin of 46,005 votes. Several other candidates ran. Turnout was barely 17 percent. Bloomberg spent roughly $188 per vote.

In 2005 Bloomberg ran for a second term as a Republican, faced Fernando Ferrer, spent $50 million, and swept to a 723,635-477,903 win, getting 59 percent of the vote in a turnout of 1.23 million.

Obviously, the novelty of “Bloombergism” was waning. He got almost 200,000 fewer votes in 2009 than he did in 2005, and turnout was off by 170,000 voters. His successor, however, will still need to employ his 24/7 methodology.

In Chicago, Emanuel spent $14.3 million on his 2011 campaign, none of which was self-funded. As in New York, turnout in 2011 was anemic. Chicago has 1,406,037 registered voters, Emanuel got 326,331 votes (55.3 percent of the total cast), and turnout was 594,734, or about 42 percent. If a billionaire spent $100 million to be Chicago’s mayor, he’d win, but until that happens, whichever political insider raises $10 million will reign as mayor. Emanuel spent $43.86 per vote.

Second, Republicans have a presence in New York. A Republican won the mayoralty in 1965, 1993, 1997, 2001 and 2005, and four of 51 aldermen are Republicans. Not in Chicago.

Third, New York has more talent and more parties and is top-heavy with elected politicians — all of whom dream of occupying Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence. For them, New York City mayor is the second most powerful and prestigious job in America. It may not be, as Rudy Giuliani hoped, a steppingstone to the presidency, but it’s a political pinnacle.

New York contains 303 square miles, to 227 square miles for Chicago, and it consists of five independently governed boroughs: Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. Each has a borough president, a district attorney, a sheriff and other officials. The entire city elects the mayor, a controller and a public advocate, and aldermen are elected from 51 districts. There are 12 congressional districts within city limits. Of the congressmen, four are black and two are Hispanic, and of the six white congressmen, three are Jewish, two are Irish and one is a Republican (from Staten Island). That’s at least 60 ever-ready, ever-present mayoral wannabes.

Chicago aldermen grumble that, dividing the city’s 2,695,598 citizens into 50 wards, they have to “service” 53,900 residents; in New York, the 51 aldermen have to service 160,300 residents.

There are 11 candidates in the 2013 race to replace Bloomberg, of whom seven are Democrats. They include City Council speaker Christine Quinn, 2009 loser Thompson, public advocate Bill DeBlasio, comptroller John Liu, minister Erick Salgado, Alderman Sal Albanese and disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner. There will be a September primary, and a runoff will be held if nobody gets more than 50 percent of the vote. Quinn, who would be the city’s first female mayor, leads the pack in the polls but is under 20 percent. Weiner, DeBlasio, Thompson or Liu will be in the runoff. There are three Republicans: former Giuliani aide Ray Lhota and businessmen George McDonald and John Catsimatidis (who has pledged to self-fund $10 million). Then there is a November election. It’s a gauntlet.

In Chicago, the most powerful aldermen have no desire to be mayor, and even though the election is nonpartisan, there is no profusion of mayoral wannabes.

Unlike Chicago, race in New York is nearly immaterial; Thompson will get most of the black vote, which is 25 to 30 percent, but he is no Harold Washington. African-American voters are split between Al Sharpton types in Harlem and the Jamaicans, Haitians and Caribbean blacks in Queens and the Bronx. There is a large Muslim presence in Brooklyn. A lot of Irish-American pockets remain outside Manhattan, and Italian Americans dominate Staten Island. Manhattan, of course, is filled with rich people, both Jews and gentiles.

Partisanship, gender, geography and ideology prevail. In short, a liberal female Democrat from Manhattan contests against black, Hispanic and conservative whites from elsewhere. In Chicago, “Manhattan” is the north Lakefront and south Hyde Park, but there’s no cohesive liberal vote or political bench. Likewise, Chicago’s black voter base is not diluted by immigrants from the Caribbean. Like New York, Chicago’s Hispanic base is inconsequential.

The last Republican mayoral victory in Chicago occurred in 1927; in New York, Republicans were elected mayor in 1965 (John Lindsay), 1993 and 1997 (Giuliani), and 2001 and 2005 (Bloomberg). Unlike Chicago, which abolished partisan mayoral elections in 1996 and which has always elected aldermen on a nonpartisan basis, New York resembles Italy, which has dozens of political parties and is beset by chaos. Every election is partisan. There are a multiplicity of parties, including Democratic, Republican, Conservative, Liberal, Independent, Working Families, Socialist, Right-to-Life, Reform, Green and more. Everybody’s viewpoint is represented. All get a ballot line simply by filing a minimal number of signatures. Ballot positioning is determined by prior vote, if any, and candidates can run on more than one party line, with the aggregate vote counted. However, that doesn’t spur voter turnout — only candidate profusion and voter confusion.

In Chicago there were fleeting independent parties during the 1980s, including Chicago First, Solidarity and Harold Washington, which vanished. New York last elected a “machine” Democrat in 1973 (Abe Beame), and before that Bob Wagner (1953 to 1965) and William O’Dwyer (1947 to 1955). Independent Fiorello LaGuardia was the mayor from 1933 to 1945.

In Chicago, geography trumps ideology. Bridgeport ran City Hall from 1933, with brief interruptions by Jane Byrne (1979 to 1983) and Harold Washington/Gene Sawyer (1983 to 1989). Liberal/independent or black candidacies have been feeble. Emanuel, governing as a Bloomberger/Clintonite, will soon generate fatigue. He, like Bloomberg, will be gone in 12 years.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www.

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