Third Term Problems for Bloomberg and Quinn

In October of 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg successfully persuaded the City Council to change the law governing term limits so that he could run for a third term in 2009. The speaker of the City Council at that time, without whose support the change would not have been possible, was Christine Quinn. This law did not make national news and barely resonated beyond the political elite in New York, as most New Yorkers who were thinking about politics in late October of 2008 were paying more attention to the prospect of the presidency of George W. Bush coming to an end, and the likelihood that an exciting Democratic senator for Illinois would get elected president in early November.

Bloomberg, like the late Ed Koch, the last mayor to serve three terms, had a considerably rougher time of things in his third term than he had in his previous two. During his first two terms, Bloomberg, although not without his faults, particularly around the Republican convention in New York City in 2004, nonetheless modernized New York City government, and to some extent New York City itself. Controversial policies like the smoking ban and the expansion of bike lanes, as well as bringing a calmer and less divisive tone to city politics following the mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani, and guiding the City through a period of economic growth, were the signature accomplishments of those eight years.

Had the Bloomberg mayoralty ended after two terms, Bloomberg would have been remembered as a seminally important, and perhaps even great, mayor of New York. Hubris, however, that all too common affliction of politicians, and not just in New York, got in the way. The billionaire mayor, one of the richest men in New York and indeed the world found himself quickly out of sync with the gestalt of most New Yorkers after the recession of 2008 began to frame economic and political life in New York.

The first sign of how out of touch Bloomberg had become came in 2009 when he was barely able to fend off a challenge from an uninspiring Democratic nominee. Bloomberg defeated Bill Thompson in that election by only 3.5 percent, despite being an incumbent and outspending his Democratic opponent by a margin of roughly 14-1.

Bloomberg's third term was not as successful as his previous two, mostly because with the economy struggling for reasons that, in fairness, were out of the mayor's control, the issues Bloomberg stressed and focused upon most no longer resonated with enough voters. Many of those issues, long term planning for climate change, fighting obesity and the like are important, but they were not of top tier import to enough voters. More significantly, in an era where income inequality has become an issue for the first time in years, the image of a supremely confident, albeit very smart, billionaire running the city played very differently than before. In October of 2008 "the 1 percent" was a phrase that had no meaning to most voters, but by 2013, everybody knew what that meant, and that Bloomberg, and many of his supporters, were part of that 1 percent.

The signature issue of Bloomberg's last term in office was not economic recovery, environmental sustainability or even quality of life issues. Rather it was stop and frisk, a crime fighting policy that many New Yorkers perceived as racist, a view supported by a federal judge who ruled it unconstitutional. Bloomberg's reaction to one of the only major defeats of his mayoralty was to defend the policy and suggest that stopping and frisking African American and Latino youths for no reason was the only way to keep New Yorkers safe. Bloomberg's defense of this racist policy further tarnished his reputation during his third term.

Bloomberg also distinguished himself during the last days of the campaign by accusing then front-runner Bill de Blasio of running a racist campaign, presumably because he showed his family in a campaign ad. This further alienated Bloomberg from an electorate, particularly a Democratic electorate, who already found him out of touch with the needs of New Yorkers, particularly New Yorkers of color.

Bloomberg himself was not the only person whose career and image was damaged by his third term. While it is impossible to know what deal was cut at that time, it is almost certain that Quinn, the city council speaker who helped Bloomberg pass through the change to the term limit law, thought that if she helped Bloomberg stay in office, he in turn would help her become his successor. Quinn did not, however, foresee that by summer of 2013 Bloomberg would be extremely unpopular with Democratic primary voters. Quinn's spectacular collapse from front-runner to a distant third in about four months was, at least in part, due to her unwillingness or inability to differentiate herself from the man she had helped secure a third term.

Today, after a Democratic primary in which the strongest Bloomberg critic of all the candidates won a resounding and broad victory, a different picture of Bloomberg's mayoralty, one that is grounded in his less successful third term, is emerging. Ironically, it is now clear that Bloomberg's third term may have cost him his legacy as a great mayor and very possibly cost Christine Quinn the mayoralty as well.