Outgoing New York Mayor Bloomberg is kept at arm's-length by candidates

New York mayor's would-be successors worry about being associated with his policies and don't want his endorsement - not that it's on offer

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 September, 2013, 4:16am

Michael Bloomberg is a data-loving, health-enforcing non-partisan who defined what it meant to be a mayor over the past 12 years.

But the major candidates vying to succeed him as Mayor of New York are not pleading for his pointers, or pressing for a place in his photo ops: none of them, Democrat or Republican, has even asked for his political blessing in the primaries next week.

They instead describe polls showing that Bloomberg's endorsement, once deemed a coveted prize, would now dampen their appeal to the party faithful, not burnish it, and they fret over lashing themselves to his divisive policies on policing, not to mention his soured relationship with municipal unions.

"A double-edged sword - or worse," is how Bill de Blasio, the front runner in the Democratic field, characterised support from Bloomberg.

Christine Quinn, long treated as the mayor's heir apparent, was more diplomatic, but no less conflicted. "You know," she said, "it's a complicated question."

It is a humbling and alien experience for the relatively popular mogul turned mayor, who is unpracticed in humility: in the race to lead a post-Bloomberg New York, there is profound wariness of being viewed as, well, too much like Bloomberg.

The arm's-length approach to the powerful mayor demonstrates how thoroughly the campaign has been reframed by the fiery, anti-Bloomberg message and rhetoric of a single candidate - de Blasio - who has portrayed the current administration, and its allies, as protectors of an unacceptable status quo that coddles the rich and overlooks the poor, elevates Manhattan and ignores its neighbouring boroughs.

In the process, de Blasio has forced his rivals to recalibrate how they talk about Bloomberg and the future of New York.

"He has shown that you can succeed by complaining about Bloomberg," said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in Manhattan. "That was something that most candidates were afraid to do."

Now that the critique of the Bloomberg era has become so central to de Blasio's surging candidacy, Sherrill said, rival campaigns are struggling to match it.

Not even candidates from the Republican Party, which propelled Bloomberg into the mayoralty, are immune to the anxiety. A poll commissioned by a Republican mayoral campaign found that two-thirds of the party's rank-and-file voters had a negative view of Bloomberg.

Bloomberg has a somewhat tortured relationship with the two major political parties: once a Democrat, he ran for mayor as a Republican, then became an independent. That journey has engendered bitterness in each scorned camp, and earned him little love from the partisan voters who may settle the September 10 primaries.

In the unsettled relationship between the candidates and the mayor, it turns out that the apprehension is mutual. Bloomberg has openly despaired about the aptitude and readiness of this year's field, so much so that he has repeatedly tried, but failed, to recruit what he felt were better-qualified outsiders to jump into the race.

The result is a primary campaign in which the candidates are not seeking Bloomberg's approval and he has no plans give it.