NEW YORK (Reuters) - Supporters say New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who appears set to win a third term this week, gets credit for saving the city from the worst of the financial recession but his critics say he did not do enough.
The billionaire Bloomberg worked to have city law changed so he could run again and holds a double-digit lead over Democratic City Comptroller Bill Thompson, in polls leading to Tuesday’s election. Bloomberg argues that his financial skills and experience are invaluable for guiding the city through hard economic times.
Critics claim his Wall Street experience should make him responsible for the city’s fiscal woes as well.
“If he had such experience in the finance sector, it’s too bad that he didn’t bring that to bear a little earlier in the economic crisis that then came down on everybody’s head,” said James Parrott, chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group.
The praise for Bloomberg has focused on fiscal prudence, including saving nearly $8 billion during more flush economic times, overseeing steady reductions in crime and taking over the much-criticized public school system. Campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson said New Yorkers can thank Bloomberg’s “budget leadership.”
“The city is facing a $5 billion budget deficit next year and we aren’t out of the woods yet, which is why the mayor’s leadership is necessary,” he said. “Because of the mayor’s decision to save in good times in order to prepare for bad times, the city’s finances are in far better shape than those of the state or federal governments.”
‘RISE TO THE OCCASION’
Bloomberg was a long-time Democrat who became a Republican in order to run for mayor in 2001 and dropped his party affiliation after being re-elected in 2005. Last year he pushed a bill through the City Council that amended a law and allowed him to seek a third term. In doing so, Bloomberg cited his financial experience, saying, “We may well be on the verge of a meltdown and it’s up to us to rise to the occasion.”
The move was welcomed by business leaders, who wanted to keep the former Wall Street bond trader at the helm, but was denounced by civic groups as a power grab.
“If the argument was because of the economy, then he should have done everything at his disposal,” said Councilman Bill De Blasio, front-runner to be the city’s next public advocate.
If Bloomberg wants credit for creating jobs in the boom years, he deserves blame for the steep employment losses during the worst recession in 70 years, some argue.
Critics say he should be held to account for failing to anticipate the financial crisis and offering generous deals to developers at the expense of average New Yorkers, including refusing to demand more so-called living-wage jobs while granting developers taxpayer subsidies.
Thompson says that under Bloomberg, who founded the Bloomberg LP news and information company that competes with Thomson Reuters, average New Yorkers have suffered the burdens of high taxes and, until recently, rising rents.
“Mike Bloomberg has made our city a wonderland for Wall Street and a dreamland for developers while the middle class, small businesses, entrepreneurs and working families have been shut out and weighed down by the burdens of his misguided policies,” Thompson has said.
Thompson has spent $6 million for his campaign, leaving him greatly outgunned by Bloomberg, who has poured more than $85 million of his own money into the campaign. Bloomberg had a lead of 15 percentage points in a poll released Friday by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.
Rosemary Scanlon, former state deputy comptroller, said the city lost fewer jobs than expected under Bloomberg and that improved schools and reduced crime bode well for economic development.
“In terms of managing the surplus during the good years, I think any of us would have to give him an A-plus,” she said. “By paying forward and stocking up on bills before they come due ... he has been able to buffer the hit this year and next year.”
Others say Bloomberg locked the city into decades of tax breaks for the real estate industry, granted professional sports teams subsidies for new stadiums and failed to get ahead of foreclosures in poorer neighborhoods.
“If he was really the financial expert that was the basis for waiving term limits, tell that to the thousands of homeowners in Brooklyn ... who were sold predatory mortgages,” Parrott said.
Some say it was the federal government’s bail-outs and economic stimulus, not the mayor, that helped cushion the city from recession and bolster the New York’s financial sector.
“You’re looking at an industry that was saved by Washington,” Scanlon said.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Bill Trott