How to build on the Bloomberg legacy

Wed Oct 30, 2013 1:44pm EDT

Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg speaks during the opening of the Amazon Fashion Studio in the Brooklyn borough of New York, October 18, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg speaks during the opening of the Amazon Fashion Studio in the Brooklyn borough of New York, October 18, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

New York City is engaged in a highly contentious general election campaign for mayor. One of the fascinating turns in this race is how both candidates have chosen to distance themselves from the city's current mayor, Michael Bloomberg. Bill de Blasio, the Democratic party candidate, has articulated a progressive agenda that might sound to some New Yorkers like 1960s liberalism. Echoing John Lindsay's aspirational New York, de Blasio argues that the city must refocus public policy in support of the American Dream. Government continues to be important in de Blasio's New York, but it must change its focus from supporting the wealthy to doing more for its poor and middle-class population.

Joe Lhota, the Republican candidate who served as Deputy Mayor during the Rudy Giuliani administration, is too smart to run a campaign on his former boss' coattails. After all, Democrats have a 6 to 1 registration advantage in New York City, so the simple math dictates that he needs Democrats and independent voters to win the mayoralty. So, Lhota's message is dark: New York's economic health and civic peace is fragile and we can't revert to those "bad old days" of high crime, economic decline, middle-class flight and a broken city government. Lhota also promises to cut taxes.

While it is not surprising that the campaign rhetoric often sounds anti-Bloomberg, the next mayor must understand that at this critical moment in the city's history, our future will depend on continuing much of Bloomberg's successful policies. I say this because there are an extraordinary number of changes that Bloomberg put into place that are vital for both the future economic well-being of the city, and for achieving the policy goals that both de Blasio and Lhota are advocating.

Here are the aspects of Bloomberg's legacy that must continue under the next administration:

The next mayor must continue to support government that is accessible to individuals and businesses, and accountable for high-quality services.

Mayor Bloomberg developed a technology-driven customer service approach to city government through the creation of the 311 information and complaint service. 311 can be accessed online, through a smartphone app or by phone. The service has been especially effective in resolving quality of life complaints and providing easy access to information on parking, garbage pickup, and the school calendar. Bloomberg pushed for technology investments that moved other city functions online, like the ability to pay parking tickets, property taxes and water bills. His administration also created the annual NYC BigApps competition, which awards up to $35,000 to developers whose digital tools improve city life.

Both de Blasio and Lhota have offered nothing more than clichés with their support for open and responsive government and their commitment to reducing wasteful government spending. They have not specified where government should be investing in order to upgrade its tech capacity or how they will improve the city's ability to monitor and evaluate services.

The next mayor must continue to focus on livability in New York City. This means maintaining Mayor Bloomberg's focus on safety and security, environmental sustainability, and quality public education.

According to FBI statistics, New York City is the safest big city in America. Crime has been steadily declining, with murders and shootings at their lowest historical level. Incarceration rates have also dropped.

On the environmental front, Bloomberg has also made progress. More than 250,000 New Yorkers now live within a ten-minute walk of a park, and the city has over 600 bike lanes, twice the 2006 number. In 2007 Bloomberg introduced PlaNYC, the city policies that promote environmental sustainability in areas such as air quality, housing and transportation. The administration has reduced soot pollution by converting 2,700 buildings from heavy heating oil to cleaner fuels. The city's greenhouse gas emissions have declined by 13 percent since 2005.

Mayor Bloomberg has also reformed the city's public school system. He was the first mayor to gain control of the system from a dysfunctional Board of Education. While the next mayor will surely disagree with some of the Bloomberg administration's educational policies, there is no turning back on mayoral control. Schools are safer, and the dropout rate has been cut nearly in half. Charter school networks like KIPP have been especially successful in low-income minority communities, and have been allowed to replicate their model. Bloomberg also created the largest municipally-funded after-school system in the country, providing a mix of high-quality academic, recreational and cultural activities.

It is a sure bet that both candidates would continue to prioritize public education, but their campaign platforms have been driven more by party ideology than by a thoughtful assessment of Bloomberg's education record. De Blasio has argued for capping the number of charter schools to current levels. He has attacked Bloomberg's charter school policies, arguing that the schools have received favored status while only serving 5 percent of students in public schools. Lhota would double the number of charter schools, provide merit pay for teachers, and use financial incentives to get teachers to take on more difficult assignments. Both candidates would reduce the focus on testing and provide universal pre-K.

De Blasio and Lhota have given high marks to Bloomberg's sustainability policies, but they need to understand that PlaNYC is a work in progress that will require considerable mayoral support for its continued success.

Public safety has been a key campaign issue. The racial implications of the city's "Stop, question and frisk" policy has taken up much of de Blasio's focus; Lhota's campaign warns of renewed crime under a de Blasio administration.

The next mayor must support the continued diversification of New York City's economy.

Economic development, job creation and workforce development have been hallmarks of the Bloomberg administration. The mayor's expansive view of economic development policy helped position the city as the leading private-sector job creator in the United States after the 2008 recession. From 2001 to 2012, the number of businesses in boroughs outside Manhattan grew over four times faster than businesses in Manhattan, in industries such as tech, tourism and bioscience. The administration created Workforce1 Career Centers in all five boroughs, to train and place New Yorkers in private sector jobs. It has also supported a citywide network of business incubators in affordable work spaces.

Both candidates give Bloomberg credit for diversifying the city's economy and promoting the tech sector, but neither has demonstrated a real understanding of Bloomberg's transformational governing model. Lhota must move beyond his tired proposals to cut business taxes to spur economic growth, and de Blasio's abstract discussion of income inequality will not produce the economic growth to lift up the city's low-income population to the middle class.

No mayor can be successful if the city's democratic institutions and public services do not function effectively for all New Yorkers; if the city does not remain economically viable, and if the city does not continue to make itself more environmentally sustainable. Bloomberg used technology to improve the way that the city delivers services. He harnessed the creative ideas and technical expertise of every sector — businesses, universities and non-profits. A true sign of his success is that for the first time in 60 years, more people are moving into New York City than out of it. The majority of New Yorkers value Mayor Bloomberg's accomplishments. Let us hope that both of our mayoral candidates are smart enough not to confuse the rhetoric of a political campaign with the real work of governing.