Commentary Magazine


Bloomberg’s PR Problems

Michael Bloomberg has been a PR genius as New York’s chief executive. The press, as in a Time magazine story, has been known to swoon over the grandeur of his ideas and give him credit for promises alone. But the press-savvy mayor has had a monkey wrench thrown into his undeclared presidential campaign.

While he was running Bloomberg L.P., the mayor was accused of sexual harassment by a female employee. The matter was settled out of court, and it never became a serious issue when Bloomberg first ran for office in 2001. While the New York Times reports that “Bloomberg’s aides have collected data on the requirements for getting on the ballot in all 50 states,” the mayor has been slapped with a lawsuit from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington on behalf of three women who argue they were discriminated against when they asked for maternity leave. “The EEOC said the women’s claims of discrimination due to gender and pregnancy “were echoed by a number of other female current and former employees who have taken maternity leave.”

The irony here is that, as two recent New York developments make clear, Bloomberg masterfully has used public relations to obscure his less than impressive managerial record. In 2003, with cameras rolling, Bloomberg opened the City Hall Academy in the Tweed Courthouse, which houses the department of education. “The opening,” declared the mayor, after alighting from a school bus carrying the school’s first group of children, “demonstrates our commitment to excellence, achievement, and innovation in the public school system.” City Hall Academy was to be a model of the kind of innovation the administration wanted to bring to the schools. Yet, last year the school was moved to Harlem, and recently, without fanfare, it was closed. “It was,” says Sol Stern, who writes on education for City Journal, “just another little gimmick…one of those ideas that was rolled out with press releases for them to prove that they are shaking things up.” “Others,” noted the usually Bloomberg-friendly Times, “say it is, in a way, a parable for the educational experiments of the Bloomberg years, with yesterday’s enthusiasms making way for new imperatives. At several critical junctures the academy had to bow to the next programs in vogue.”

Similarly, when Bloomberg began ramping up his presidential campaign, he unveiled a new plan to reduce traffic and pollution in New York through congestion pricing. It was designed to show that he was the sort of bold, problem-solving leader the country needs. Under the plan, motorists who came into Manhattan during business hours would be charged a fee electronically. Leaving aside the virtues or vices of such a proposal, it is a plan that requires extensive planning to accommodate the increased number of people who use mass transit. But the buses and the subways are already overcrowded, and no such planning was in place. The Metropolitan Transit Authority has been put into hurry-up mode to establish a plan for upgrades in time for Bloomberg to jump into the race next October if he so chooses. But the New York Sun reports that the MTA “is warning in a new report that Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal would cost the agency hundreds of millions of dollars more than the city has estimated.” “There’s no explanation of where they’re going to get that money,” said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Democrat of Westchester. The congestion pricing plan “is in complete disarray. We’re at a point now where the transition from concept to plan has not been made.”

It was perhaps Bloomberg’s bad luck that the EEOC suit came out just after a jury found against New York Knicks coach and general manager Isaiah Thomas in a civil case also involving sexual harassment. But with a bit of good fortune, the sexual harassment case against Bloomberg could be settled before he has to decide whether openly to campaign for the presidency as an independent. If that time comes, it would be nice if the national press began to connect all the dots outlining the discrepancies between Bloomberg’s rhetoric and his substantive record.