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Bloomberg’s “Leadership”

Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote on Sunday about the strengths of an independent ticket for 2008 with Michael Bloomberg as the presidential and Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel as the vice-presidential candidate. Broder cites Hagel on Bloomberg: “A guy like Bloomberg could have deep credibility as a candidate because” he’s a “proven leader.” Leadership, Broder himself goes on to say, “is precisely what Bloomberg demonstrates every day as mayor.” Broder and Hagel have it exactly wrong. As the recent and easily-preventable deaths of two fireman in the Deutsche Bank building fire of August 18th made clear, Bloomberg is a hands-off mayor who—in everything from Ground Zero to subway breakdowns to ferry crashes to repeated Con Ed blackouts to school bus snafus—has been anything but a leader.

Standing on the edge of Ground Zero, the Deutsche Bank building survived 9/11. But it was so badly damaged that the asbestos and other chemical compounds used in its construction spread throughout the building, turning the structure into a toxic pile of rubbish, “a vertical Love Canal.” Though scheduled for demolition, under Bloomberg’s “leadership” all but the top floors of the building are still standing, six years after 9/11.

The building’s owner is the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), a hapless organization jointly run by the governor and the mayor, created to help guide the rebuilding of Ground Zero. LMDC purchased the Deutsche Bank building after 9/11 to take responsibility for its safe and timely demolition. But Bloomberg has additional responsibilities: the city’s Building and Fire Departments (of which he is ultimately in charge) are responsible for making sure that safety standards are met during the stunningly slow process of demolition. Each of these agencies failed in its mission. Had the Fire or Buildings Departments done their job, they would have found that not only was there no plan for how to deal with a fire as is required by law, but that the water system needed to fight a fire had been disabled. But it gets worse. Bovis, the giant construction company given the contract for the demolition, subcontracted it to a mob-run front company (named, weirdly, John Galt, after the name of the architect engineer in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged).

But John Galt had no experience in the difficult task of asbestos removal, and violated safety standards with impunity. Somehow all this escaped the city’s notice until after it sent firefighters into a building veiled in sheathing to keep contaminants (and smoke and fire, as it turned out) from escaping.

But what’s really striking is that, with the exception of one column by Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News, no one has pointed a finger at Bloomberg. Editorials have called for the head of the Fire Commissioner and denounced the LMDC, but Bloomberg has been held blameless. Imagine, for a moment, that the administrations of mayors Koch or Dinkins (or Giuliani), men without $20 billion fortunes and lacking personal friendships with the city’s media elite, had hired an incompetent construction company whose shoddy work led to the deaths of two of New York’s bravest. The press would be in a frenzy, furiously demanding answers from the mayor. But a week after the tragedy, the press has had virtually nothing to say about Bloomberg’s role in the tragedy. Now that’s leadership.


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