Byline: Philip Delves Broughton In New York
EIGHT years ago, I went to interview Michael Bloomberg when he was just the richest man in New York. Rumours were spreading about his political ambitions but he had yet to announce he would run to be mayor of New York.
We met in the Park Avenue headquarters of Bloomberg LP, the firm he founded in 1986 after being fired from Salomon Brothers. A shoe-shine man had just finished polishing his tasselled loafers. Bloomberg rested his feet on a coffee table and riffed teasingly about his ambitions.
New Yorkers admired a self-made man, he said. Especially a stupendously rich one. The last thing the city needed was another party hack. After all, he explained, there was no Republican or Democratic way to pick up garbage.
Bloomberg has turned out to be a stunningly popular and successful mayor of New York City. And he has done so on his own terms. He has refused to temper his acerbic personality or compromise his privacy. He has used his fortune as a kind of nuclear arsenal, obliterating political opposition by outspending it. And early next month, barring some unforeseen disaster, he will be elected to his third consecutive four-year term.
It is a lesson which merits close study by Boris Johnson, an equally idiosyncratic figure, and his administration.
When the two men first met last year in London, Boris was still getting settled. Bloomberg presented him with a crystal apple from Tiffany. Boris gave him a Tshirt showing a map of the London Underground. Bloomberg's main advice to Boris was to focus on assembling a top-notch team. A couple of weeks ago, the two met again, in New York. Speaking at Columbia University, Boris was his florid, bombastic self, talking up London, while Bloomberg was more aloof.
But behind the superficial differences, they share one important trait: neither conforms to any political template. Bloomberg remains in character and at heart an ornery, Wall Street trader, foulmouthed at times, a jerk in certain ways, but lethally effective.
In his office, he keeps a couple of embroidered cushions which read: "Don't start with me. You will not win" and "It's my world - deal with it". When political aspirants ask him for advice, he has been known to reply: "What you should do is go out and make a billion dollars first, and then run for office."
Last week, he was assailed for taking a helicopter from Manhattan to New Jersey to a U2 concert. Bono is a friend. Environmentalists and political opponents booed him for his hypocrisy in championing environmentalism and then burning up fuel to get to a rock concert. "You know, there's other ways to get around and ... some are more energy efficient,'' Bloomberg said sarcastically. "I could have walked and swum across the rivers as well. That would have used less."
This, after all, is a man who keeps two top-of-the line Dassault Falcon 900s on hand for his personal use, for business and to travel to his various homes in London, Palm Beach, Vail and Bermuda. In Manhattan, he owns a mansion on the Upper East Side. When he became mayor he passed up the official mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion, on the grounds that his own house was nicer.
The mayor of New York has far broader powers than the mayor of London. Bloomberg controls the police department, the schools, public transport, parks and has broad fiscal powers. His annual budget of $60 billion is roughly triple Boris's. Some of these powers he inherited but some he seized, notably the education system. For decades, New York's schools had been held prisoner by unions and higher levels of state government.
In his first year, Bloomberg won control of them. He introduced rigorous new testing, raised pay for teachers and promoted the development of independently run charter schools. Test scores have risen, children are being better educated in nicer buildings and parents no longer live in fear of sending their children to city-run schools. …