Who knew that when Mike Bloomberg's campaign aides last year threatened to spend $80 million on his re-election run, they were playing low ball?
A year to the day after the mayor announced that he was going to seek to overturn term limits to allow him to pursue a third term, his campaign reported to the New York City Campaign Finance Board on Friday that Mayor Bloomberg had already spent $64.7 million on this year's re-election run.
That's well ahead of what he'd spent by this point of the 2005 campaign, when only $46 million had left his coffers. That puts him on pace to spend $118 million on this year's race, and over a quarter of a billion dollars in declared campaign expenditures on his three runs for office.
So far, his opponent Bill Thompson has spent $3.8 million this year. He has been outspent better than 16 to 1.
But whatever you do, don't think that is a big deal.
First of all, it's not even news. Yes, in the past 20 years of New York City politics, there have been two imperfect but very important reforms: the campaign finance system and term limits. But the mayor already deftly neutralized both, with his 2001 and 2005 races and his 2008 term limits coup.
And hey, what's $64.7 million, anyway? A big deal? More than the annual budgets of 42 New York City agencies and offices? More than some 40 countries spend on their military? More than all the other mayoral candidates spent together in 1997 and 2001 combined? More than the combined annual income of 2,000 average New Yorkers? Enough to pay for a year of food stamps for 49,000 people? Oh yeah, so what?
And let's not forget, Bloomberg has said that he has to spend at that level just to get his message out. Despite the millions spent to secure ballot lines from the Republicans and the Independence party. Despite the millions doled out to nonprofits, charities and cultural organizations around the city, doing good and winning him loyal allies in the balance. Despite the backing of the editorial boards. Despite the advantages of incumbency, which are sometimes wielded rather tackily, as Friday, when Bloomberg managed to work into a statement about the tragic death of a young sanitation worker a plug for his environmental policies: "Sanitation Worker Timmins helped make New York City's streets the cleanest they've been in decades, and while collecting recyclables, he was helping us achieve our goal of creating a greener and cleaner City."
What, was Bloomberg supposed to run a conventional campaign this year? How would he have had time? Prior to last summer, Bloomberg had ridiculed the City Council for even thinking about overturning term limits; after all, term limits are what allowed Bloomberg to get to City Hall in the first place. But then, his presidential flirtation came up empty, and Bloomberg's wealthy friends began pushing him to run. The mayor played coy with the press but began laying the groundwork for a flip-flop. He met with the city's press barons to line up their support. He stroked Ronald Lauder, a billionaire whose follow-up to a failed, self-financed mayoral run was a crusade to term-limit those grubby little politicians that have to ask other people for money and can't afford to work for a dollar a year. Then America plunged into a financial crisis, and the mayor had a threat from which he might save the city. In the past year, the number of unemployed New Yorkers has risen 76 percent.
A year ago, the mayor defended his move to overturn two referenda where voters clearly expressed their desire for term limits. Getting rid of term limits wouldn't restrict voters' choices, Bloomberg said. It would give them more choices! Like, for instance, him! Meanwhile, his aides were telling reporters that they'd bury with bucks anyone who dared to run against the mayor. It worked. Anthony Weiner got out of the race. Now Bill Thompson is all that stands between Bloomberg and the third term that LaGuardia, Wagner and Koch enjoyed. Yesterday Thompson was on a radio program talking about housing policy. He didn't offer a lot of specifics on what he'd do differently from the mayor. But Bloomberg's people refused to put someone on air to defend their policy. Why would they? They want to get on the air, they buy ads. Why ride coach when you've reserved all the seats in first class?
Bloomberg's done a lot of good with his wealth. Before upending term limits, his plan was apparently to do even more good when he left City Hall for a full-time philanthropy. By the time he is gone from the world, Mike Bloomberg will have a lot of wonderful things named after him and his family. Unborn generations will benefit from his vision and generosity.
But sometimes wealth isn't admirable or noble. Sometimes it isn't alluring, or impressive, or awe-inspiring or even intimidating. Sometimes wealth is just kind of repellent, even a little sad. Wealth can even be cheap, if it tries hard enough.
There are still 30 spending days until the mayoral election.