City Hall, New York: a damp autumnal afternoon, three blocks from the awesome ground zero hole that was once the twin towers. On the steps of the elegant 18th-century mayoral offices I await my first encounter with 'Hizzoner' the 108th mayor of New York City, multi-billionaire media mogul Michael Bloomberg. A guard at the security channel at the gates has made me strip outer coat and jacket for the X-ray machine. Last summer a troubled individual, with no clear motive, shot dead a city councillor from the City Hall public gallery. But the policeman has given me extra reasons for heightened security. 'You're about to meet,' he states portentously, 'the most important human being on the planet.' Bloomberg, arm in arm with a fleshy woman in fire-engine red, comes through the double doors of the chandeliered lobby to meet me and a handful of reporters who have waited for more than an hour and a half. Shuffling on splayed feet (his fallen arches famously saved him from a Vietnam War call-up), he wears a modest two-button navy suit and a wilting white shirt too tight at the collar. No more than 1.5 metres tall in his well-heeled, tasselled black loafers, he carries not a gram of surplus adipose, despite the sobriquet 'two-dinners Bloomberg'. Like a bilocating prodigy he is known to partake of dinners in several venues during any one evening. But Elaine, the famed proprietor of the restaurant of that name, confides: 'He likes his food, but in very small pieces.' The personality, the presence, the explanation for his boundless hubris - why, after all, does a self-made media tycoon seek the grief-laden mayoralty of New York City? - are in his grizzled scalp, bland face, primly protruding mouth and indignant, hooded eyes. Greeting 61-year-old Bloomberg is like encountering a prehistoric amphibian. He licks his thin upper lip with a flash of the tongue. When he turns his head, striving for leeway from his constricting collar, his creased neckline elongates to gecko-like proportions. His press office, led by lanky, 30-year-old Ed Skyler, who throws handy objects and obscenities at journalists who provoke him, has revealed it turns down 500 requests to meet Hizzoner every day. But this morning Bloomberg is keen to endorse the woman on his arm as the Republican candidate for a seat on the city council, and he has ordered an unscheduled press conference. It has become a routine tactic in Bloomberg's strategy for the next mayoral election, set for next year. Formerly a Democrat who switched to the Republicans to run for mayor, he now poses as nonpartisan. He owes Democrat councillors for supporting his latest swingeing city tax hikes, but today he's promoting a Republican. Defiance of 'politics as usual' has become a popular platform in bids for high office in America. It swept multi- millionaire actor Arnold Schwarzenegger to power in California in October, and Bloomberg is banking on it for a second term in the hot seat. Bloomberg, however, became mayor in 2001 not on merit, nor because of party or nonpartisan credentials, but because he bought the position with mass-media backing. As with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, there is no better way of manipulating the media for political purposes than by owning it, or buying it. Bloomberg, worth US$4.9 billion by the latest reckoning, owns one of the most influential news and financial-information businesses in the world, encompassing radio, television, magazines and online newsletters. In addition, he punted a staggering $75 million of his own money into public-relations promotion for his candidacy. To prepare his company for his absence while running New York, Bloomberg temporarily rotated his top nine executives around the principal departments to give them a sense of the whole operation. Last year he stood down as chairman and gave the role to Peter Grauer, best friend, world-class merchant banker and managing director of Credit Suisse First Boston. He also installed Lex Fenwick, the European managing director of the Bloomberg empire, as his chief operating officer. Bloomberg loves being mayor of New York and wants a second term to complete his millennial vision for the city with the largest budget on Earth ($8.7 billion a year) and the biggest deficit ($3.7 billion and rising). But there are other problems, not least its post-September 11 blues and the increasing cost of security and health care. The hard-won confidence and optimism of New York took a pounding when the World Trade Centre collapsed, killing 2,700 office workers, police and firefighters, although the truth is barely acknowledged by Toni, who serves bagels outside Grand Central Station: 'People in this city have short memories.' Sadder, and a lot wiser, New Yorkers are uninspired by Bloomberg, who, two years into his term, is so obsessed with balancing the books that he has failed to click with the mood of the citizens. Many believe he is incapable of clicking. He has not been pestering New York state, nor Washington, as many believe he should, for a bail-out. He is tackling the deficit with a brutal 18.5 per cent increase in property tax. He has increased income tax, more than doubled parking fines to $105, inflated the cost of traffic offences, put $1.50 tax on a packet of cigarettes (on top of the state tax of $1.50), hiked subway and bus fares, slashed municipal jobs, closed fire stations and told teachers to double their workloads. And now he is contemplating a commuter tax that will charge workers who travel to Manhattan from beyond the metropolitan limits. Recently, New York City marked 10 straight quarters (roughly the length of Bloomberg's incumbency) of economic stagnation, three times the national drop. But dislike of Bloomberg is about more than his punishing bid to balance the books. In the view of the average New Yorker he comes across as lacking savvy and empathy. Last year he managed to have himself banned from the Columbus Day Parade, the annual New York Italian festival, because he planned to walk down Fifth Avenue accompanied by the stars of The Sopranos TV series. The parade marshals objected that The Sopranos sells a deleterious image of Italians as hoodlums. Bloomberg sulked and spent the day with Lorraine Bracco (who plays the shrink) and Dominic Chianese (the uncle) at Dominick's trattoria in the Bronx. Above all, he lacks the vivid personality New Yorkers expect of their mayors. The New York Observer theatre critic, John Heilpern, tells how he once accosted mayor Ed Koch backstage before a performance. 'Have you come to see the show?' asked Heilpern. 'I am the show!' roared Koch. The same can hardly be said of Bloomberg. A newspaper seller on 47th Street and Sixth puts it bluntly: 'Bloomberg's a machine! I hate him!' Worst of all, for a self-professed hedonist, Bloomberg has been characterised as a grudge-laden killjoy in a city that revels in its 24-hour-a-day pleasures. He has banned smoking even in designated smoking areas in bars, pubs, restaurants and jazz clubs, branding all smokers 'stupid'. It was bad enough for tax-milked smokers when they were corralled in a bar or in a sin-bin back room. Now they have nowhere to go but the streets, and New York's winters can be sub-zero for weeks on end. When Bloomberg went on stage at a recent rock concert, 10,000 citizens lit up and blew their illegal smoke at him. A website for disaffected smokers is now working on a class action to sue Bloomberg for his stereotypical slur. Bloomberg's voice as he endorses the lady in red is reedy Bostonian with elongated vowels, especially when he hits key words like 'time', 'crime', 'taxes'. Not for nothing does Lucienne Goldberg, the redoubtable New York broadcaster and enthusiastic smoker, characterise him in a whingeing accent as 'Mr-Nanny-Bloomberg-says-no'. Bloomberg also has a short fuse. A reporter needles him about the tax hikes and Hizzoner can't resist: 'You have to make tough decisions. The alternative to a tax increase was to destroy the fabric of the city, make our streets less safe. You have to stand up for what's right.' He elongates the 'right' for several excruciating seconds. 'I want to talk about the cleanliness of our streets, about our schools, about our firefighters,' he goes on. 'The outlook for our city is better than it's ever been, while cities everywhere else are falling apart.' Then he declares testily: 'Look, I don't answer questions simply designed to write a story about me.' BUT THE STORY OF Mike Bloomberg is amply worth the telling, shedding light on his success, his searing ambition and the possibility, despite the citizens' dislike, of his re-election. He was born on St Valentine's Day 1942, the son of a book-keeper in a dairy in the working-class district of Medford, Massachusetts. His father, according to Bloomberg, never earned more than $6,000 a year. In his youth, Bloomberg says, he acquired the principles of self-sufficiency and public service as a member of the local Scout troop. Taking out student loans and working part-time parking cars, he studied science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore before going on to Harvard Business School to graduate in business administration. In 1966, aged 24, he headed for what he calls 'the Wall Street trenches'. 'In those days,' he reminisces, 'no self-respecting research analyst or banker ever thought of working the phones, actually bringing in the business. Soliciting was undignified.' He landed a job at Salomon Brothers, the most successful securities-trading firm in the US, and quickly 'became the pet of the top executives'. He blossomed as a block-trading superstar, plunging into a power-broker's expense-account lifestyle, taking customers to the theatre, sporting events, lunches and dinners. He remembers ogling, overwhelmed, the flower arrangement in a fancy restaurant. In private though, he counted the pennies. 'I took the subway to work, I went to free concerts in Central Park and my most romantic dates were beer and pizza with a girlfriend late at night on the Staten Island ferry [five cents round-trip, food and drink extra].' He began to make 'unconscionable amounts of money', but lived in the same one-room studio for 10 years and didn't own a car. The key to his success, he believes, was making himself 'indispensable on the job'. He rose, as he does to this day, at 5.30am, went jogging, and reached work, as he does to this day, by 6.30am, staying until everyone else had gone. He has now transformed the office areas at City Hall, placing himself at the hub of an open-plan system he calls the Bull Pen. He comments that you can't have mastery over your existence, 'but you can control how hard you work'. He never had a 'budget' for his career, he says; he stayed 'flexible'. So he made a crucial move in 1979 to running Salomon's information systems after block-stock trading became unprofitable. He was a fast learner in the expanding business and technology of financial-news servicing. When he was sacked from Salomon two years later, following the company's merger with a publicly held commodities trading firm, Phibro Corporation, he was given a $10m golden handshake. He used his severance pay to fund his entry into the financial information business, putting it into his famous desktop information monitors, called 'Bloomberg boxes'. Taking on Reuters, Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, his service and its hardware became crucial for businesses seeking accurate, up-to-the-minute stock prices and market analysis. Soon he was expanding into allied radio, television, print news and internet sites. Today Bloomberg's service has 165,000 subscribers worldwide, more than $2 billion in annual revenue and 8,000 employees in 100 offices, including 2,500 in New York. By the mid-1990s he had joined the clan of the global super-rich. But he continued to project strangely conflicting signals. He threw lavish parties and made much of his ownership of a private jet and houses on Manhattan's Upper East Side, in London, New York state and Bermuda. Having separated 'amicably' from his wife, who bore him two daughters, he began squiring women such as Diana Ross. He listed his hobbies as 'dining, theatre and chasing women'. He even acted out an action-man fantasy: he took helicopter flying lessons, albeit crashing his machine when it ran out of fuel. But the true picture was his workaholic, 12-hours-plus-a-day application to business. His critics in the Bloomberg workplace saw another side to the jet-setting playboy: a control freak who kept tabs on his employees with surveillance cameras and who read their e-mails. He was not so much stubborn, he admits, as 'pig-headed', with a temper to match. He had a kind of style, albeit weird. Every Bloomberg office has an aquarium to soothe jagged nerves, and in New York he likes to preside over the popcorn machine to keep his workers happy during snack breaks. As for chasing women, he has been the target of three sexual-harassment suits: dismissed, withdrawn and settled. In Bloomberg's case, as in Schwarzenegger's, the allegations failed to cast doubts on his political aspirations. Today, after a string of girlfriends, he seems settled in a steady relationship with lofty brunette Diana Taylor, the New York state banking superintendent, who towers head and shoulders above her tycoon beau. Then there is another side to him: his patent generosity and freely given commitment to public service. By the mid-1990s he had become a serious benefactor to universities, hospitals, child welfare, performing arts and Jewish causes. Until last year he served as chairman of the board of trustees of Johns Hopkins University. And there have been countless minor gestures of largesse. In the aftermath of September 11 he personally paid for the McDonald's closest to ground zero to stay open around the clock to feed rescue workers free of charge. His giving, however, is hardly discreet, nor does he boast pretensions of saintly altruism. As he quips, frankly: 'Give some back and you'll wind up with more!' As more than one literary Bloomberg watcher has commented, he is the embodiment of the ruthless heroes of the late bestselling novelist Ayn Rand, who advocated the idea that a man's unfettered ego is the fount of human progress. 'It is those few that move the world,' she wrote, 'and give life its meaning - the rest are of no concern.' The key to Bloomberg's mayoral candidacy, meanwhile, lay with a crucial question: who was to continue Rudolph Giuliani's leadership? Giuliani turned round a collapsing, crime-ridden New York in the mid- to late 1990s. Giuliani, a determined, snappy New York lawyer, with, according to Koch, delusions of supreme righteousness, claims he had an awakening when a potential tourist in London drew his attention to a brochure featuring survival advice in New York. One suggestion was: 'Avoid making eye contact.' Giuliani reckoned you'd have to be crazy to visit a city 'in which you can't look at people', and transformed New York during his incumbency, from 1994 to 2001. 'By January 1, 2000,' says Giuliani, 'New York had become the safest large city in America. It bustled with economic activity. Young families were raising children here. Tourists and convention- eers were setting records for visitors. New York City had again become a place where it was okay to make eye contact.' Giuliani's achievement involved zero tolerance of crime, an expanded police force, the enforced removal of street sleepers, huge expenditure on roads, slum clearance and renovation. The murder rate fell by two-thirds, overall crime by 57 per cent and shootings by 75 per cent. There were 1,200 fewer reported rapes in 2000 than in 1993; burglaries tumbled from 100,933 to 38,155, and thefts by a similar number. But there was a price: the enormous, swelling deficit. Who was going to keep Giuliani's transformation steady while avoiding bankruptcy, a disaster that faced the city in the late 1970s? Bloomberg, boosted by his billions, presented himself as the selfless heir apparent. Giuliani, crucially, endorsed him: surely New York called for the world's toughest, most ruthless and successful business tycoon. Then came September 11, followed by Giuliani's continuation in office, with Bloomberg's approbation, until January 1, 2002. It is easy to understand the jaundiced attitude of New Yorkers towards Bloomberg. He's hard to relate to. Last August he encountered his first crisis, with ample potential to show humanity and reassurance, when the big blackout shut down the city and state for 36 hours. His performance was feeble. Sleeves rolled up, he positioned himself close to Brooklyn Bridge to encourage the army of pedestrians leaving the city. 'Walk slowly,' he counselled them. He was greeted with neither humour nor affection. 'Why is he standing there?' asked one passer-by. 'Hey, Mike, fix the power!' yelled another. But by the evening, he could take comfort from the fact that there had been no looting or violence: the usual accompaniment to blackouts. Giuliani's transformations were holding. Recently, and with a view to his re-election, he has been trying harder. Stung by criticism of his woodenness, Bloomberg has been packing his day with visits to city peripheries. I followed his helter-skelter progress for a day or so. I had been assured he had started the day at 5.30am with his usual jog, and had been at his desk by seven. By 9am, accompanied by a breathless press corps, he had descended 180 metres below the surface of Manhattan at 100th Street to announce the start of construction on a 13-kilometre leg of a tunnel. Eventually it will run almost 100km and help supply New Yorkers with more than 4.5 billion litres of water a day. Standing beneath a drizzling leak, wearing wellington boots, a hard hat and an oilskin, a sleepy Bloomberg announced dispassionately: 'This is the largest public-works project the city has ever undertaken.' The juggernaut continued. Off we went to the Bronx. At 10am we were at the Dr Daniel Hale Williams Middle School, where Bloomberg told a class about the importance of applying themselves. At 11 he met the new cardinal archbishop of New York, Edward Egan, to tour a children's home supported by a Catholic charity. By 11.30 we were in the Bronx Middletown Plaza Senior Center. 'What do you think of the mayor?' a reporter asked an old-timer. 'He's okay,' came the considered answer. 'But then, I don't smoke.' An hour later he was presiding over a topping-out ceremony at the Bronx Fulton Fish Market. Then it was back to City Hall for a series of finance meetings in the Bull Pen, before a race to Yankee Stadium (the Bronx again) to attend game two of the American League Championship series: the Yankees versus the Boston Red Sox. And let there be no mistake: Bloomberg, a lifelong Red Sox fan, is now a lifelong Yankees fan. By the end of the day he looked ready for his weekend, but there was no stopping. On Saturday it was council meetings from dawn until dusk, and on Sunday it was the Hispanic Parade down Fifth Avenue. I marched in step with Bloomberg and a bevy of photographers and New York reporters, from 44th Street up as far as St Patrick's Cathedral. He carried a little Stars and Stripes flag, which he waved like a wand. Half the people lining the street greeted him with stony stares, and there were a few catcalls and raspberries. But one in five gave him a boisterous 'Yo! Bloomberg!' He shook his little flag in recognition. He is doing badly in the polls, but there is more to re-election in New York than the opinion of ordinary folk at mid-term. There is the perception of party affiliation, endorsements and the sheer power of money to buy media saturation. Bloomberg may be presenting himself as a nonpartisan fixer, but he is increasingly seen as a Democrat by popular acclamation. Giuliani loyalists in the white working-class districts of Staten Island, Queens and south Brooklyn are deserting Bloomberg in droves, infuriated by his homeowner tax hikes and cigarette duties. But his crusade against smoking, and the perception that he will reduce the deficit and keep the streets safe and clean, are pleasing to most Democrats in Manhattan. Before the Hispanic march, Bloomberg gave a lunch for his former election rival, Democrat Mark Green. Green was signalling he would not stand against Bloomberg in 2005, simply because Bloomberg has hijacked his Democratic support base. Meanwhile, some heavy-hitters have come round to Bloomberg as he enters his third year of office. Former New York state governor Mario Cuomo, who once supported Green, reckoned in a recent interview that Bloomberg's performance has been 'spectacular'. And Koch, mayor from 1978 to 1989, and still a kingmaker, appeared on a local television programme saying Bloomberg had miraculously overcome his lack of a common touch. 'He's sensational. I heard him talk at a dinner,' said Koch, 'and I sent over a note saying I'd like the details of his speaking coach.' It was Koch who said in 2001 that the mayorship of New York was not a task for on-the-job learning. He's now prepared to eat his words. There is no questioning Bloomberg's pig- headedness, dedication and, above all, fiscal genius. Slowly, and in the nick of time, he is learning to be a little human, cutting down on the gaffes, pressing the flesh in the poorer New York boroughs. The rest may be a question of the depth of his pockets. And about that there are no doubts.