New York City

How Mike Bloomberg’s record could play well in the primaries

As New York City’s mayor he created groundbreaking health and environment initiatives.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2013.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2013. Spencer T Tucker/Office of Mayoral Photography

Soon-to-be Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will have a hard time convincing the political party he’s joined that he’s worthy of a presidential nomination.

His track record during his three terms is filled with liabilities in a Democratic primary – but it’s also full of progressive, innovative policies and strong results. 

Some of his accomplishments as mayor, such as presiding over dropping crime and a growing economy, may be criticized by some as either good fortune or a double-edged sword that also demonstrates his more conservative leanings. 

But Bloomberg created groundbreaking public health and climate policies, and implemented new multimodal transportation initiatives.

Here are some of Bloomberg’s actions as mayor that will undoubtedly be viewed as assets to Democratic voters:

He revived New York’s economy and budget

When Bloomberg took office in 2002, the city’s economy was still damaged from the terrorist attack that occurred only months earlier, leaving the incoming mayor with a $5 billion budget deficit. Bloomberg, who developed a fondness for numbers early in his career as a Wall Street executive – later making the bulk of his wealth as the founder of Bloomberg LP – took on the task of balancing the city’s budget. 

In his first year in office, the mayor focused on reducing government spending by cutting back on staff, scaling back on city services, eventually raising taxes and borrowing money as well. Raising property taxes by 18.5% in 2003 provided the city with a big boost in much-needed revenue, which made it possible for the city to lower the income tax rate by 7% in 2007, as its economic wounds began to heal. “He very deliberately, early on, made the choice that rather than really jamming down services, he was going to hold the service level and raise taxes,” director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mark Page told The New York Times in 2007.

After the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the city’s economy quickly rebounded. Private-sector jobs increased by nearly 10% in Bloomberg’s last four years in office, well above the nationwide average, according to The New Yorker. Tourism increased under Bloomberg, with an average of 50 million tourists making their way to the city annually by the end of his third term, up from the 32-million national average when he took office. 

About 40% of the city was rezoned under Bloomberg, in order to create more housing and new job opportunities in transit-rich neighborhoods such as Midtown West, Williamsburg, Long Island City and Downtown Brooklyn. Critics, however, point to extremely high prices of all that luxury housing. On the other side, market-oriented urbanists complain that Bloomberg simultaneously quietly downzoned many neighborhoods – typically middle-class parts of the outer-boroughs, such as Bayside, Queens – arguably worsening the city’s housing crisis. 

Bloomberg also made use of an abandoned elevated railway and transformed it into the High Line – upzoning in Chelsea is part of what made the project financially viable. Now a major tourist attraction, it gets an average of 8 million visitors per year. 

By the end of Bloomberg’s third and final mayoral term, the city’s budget had grown by $28 billion, rising from $42 billion in 2003 to $70 billion in 2014, according to Bloomberg’s Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff.

Environmental initiatives

Well before Bloomberg pledged to invest $500 million of his own money to combat climate change, he was creating forward-looking city climate policies in New York. 

In his first mayoral term, Bloomberg pursued a land-buying campaign in the Catskills Mountains in an effort to protect the city’s drinking water supply. (He did also briefly suspend glass and plastic recycling for budgetary reasons from 2002 until 2004, which would make most environmentalists squirm.)

In 2007, he introduced the sweeping sustainability plan PlaNYC. The plan contained 127 projects, regulations and innovations, all with the goal of reducing the city’s production of greenhouse gasses. Not everything proposed in the mayor’s plan took effect, such as his proposed $8-a-day charge for those who drive their personal vehicles below 86th Street in Manhattan, which couldn’t get through the state Legislature. Still, the Bloomberg administration did create new public parks, planted over 1 million trees, revived the wetlands, spent billions on cleaning up the city’s waterways and helped the city significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by swapping high-sulfur heating oil with cleaner alternatives.

After Superstorm Sandy ravaged much of the city, including the Rockaways, Red Hook and Lower Manhattan, Bloomberg set forth several plans to account for future natural disasters caused by climate change. The mayor released a 438-page report in 2013, containing numerous proposals, including one to strengthen building codes that would require building equipment be raised above sea level (which is now required), updating zoning and having damaged housing stock and public housing be rebuilt. The mayor also recommended the construction of flood walls, storm surge barriers and dune systems to lessen the impact of extreme flooding – some sea walls have been constructed, while others are still a work in progress.

Mayoral control of the schools

One of the first things Bloomberg did upon taking office in 2002 was lobby the state Legislature for mayoral control over the city’s public school system, which he was ultimately granted. This gave him greater control over the city’s schools, affording him the ability to appoint or fire the city’s school chancellor, place people on the New York City Board of Education and close schools. Shortly after gaining control he closed dozens of city’s struggling schools and replacing them with smaller schools upon gaining mayoral control in a highly controversial move.

Under Bloomberg, test scores improved and graduation rates rose, many new schools were opened and school choice dramatically expanded, although critics suggest the Bloomberg administration’s test score data may not have been entirely accurate. 

Public health initiatives

Before vaping became popular with teens and then unpopular with politicians, Bloomberg was trying to get New York to kiss nicotine goodbye. In 2002, Bloomberg signed a law that banned smoking in all bars and restaurants – cigar bars for his fellow plutocrats being one of the few exceptions. That same year, both the city and state increased taxes on cigarettes, raising their price 32% from $5.20 to $6.85 – creating the highest combined city and state tax in the United States at the time.

In 2011, Bloomberg banned smoking in public spaces like parks, beaches, pools, recreation centers and pedestrian plazas. 

He was also a trailblazer in banning artificial trans fats in 2005, when he forced restaurants and food vendors to phase them out due to their artery-clogging attributes. In 2008, Bloomberg required calorie counts to be listed on chain-restaurant menus.

Bloomberg also backed a tax sugary sodas in 2010, which didn’t pass. His subsequent ban on large sodas was blocked in court, but he did help bring attention to the risks associated with heavy sugar consumption.

New transportation alternatives

Along with ensuring that the Second Avenue subway line would be completed, Bloomberg also created a fleet of taxis to specifically cater to the outer-boroughs. The green-colored cabs were meant to help even out an the heavy concentration of taxis in Manhattan. They made their debut in 2013, just as Bloomberg’s reign was coming to an end.

The city’s bikeshare program, Citi Bike, is also the work of Bloomberg and debuted in 2013, much to the delight of many New Yorkers sick of unreliable buses and trains.

Bloomberg appointed Janette Sadik-Khan as transportation commissioner, and she began to reorient city policy away from favoring drivers, by adding bike lanes and creating new pedestrian plazas.

A reduction in crime 

During his 12 years in office, homicide rates dropped by 65% and shootings dropped by 55%. The city’s overall crime rate was reduced by 32% over Bloomberg’s three terms. 

Despite the city’s progress, critics continue to take issue with Bloomberg’s encouragement of rigid policing tactics while mayor, such as the widespread use of stop-and-frisk which led to black and Latino residents being disproportionately targeted by the New York Police Department.