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Shrinking Mike
At last week's 9/11 hearings, Bloomberg found himself (again) under the shadow of his heroic predecessor. He's going to have to learn not to let that happen.
From the May 31, 2004 issue of New York Magazine.

By Chris Smith

It was raining, for a change, as Rudy Giuliani strode into the middle of West 12th Street to answer a few questions. He'd just given a masterful and infuriating two-hour-long performance inside an auditorium at the New School before the September 11 commission, ringing the bells of heroism and patriotism once again. After playing this same role dozens of times in the past three years, often for a six-figure speaker's fee, Giuliani has the script down cold. The commissioners deferred to the great man, praising Giuliani's leadership until relatives of the dead couldn't stand it anymore. "Lies!" yelled Sally Regenhard, whose 28-year-old firefighter son died in the Trade Center collapse. "Ask him about the radios!" cried Rosaleen Tallon, whose 26-year-old brother perished. "Why didn't the Fire Department radios work?"

Heckling, rain: Giuliani shrugged it all off. Tanned and immaculate in a pinstripe suit, he stood calm and dry before reporters while a grinning Sunny Mindel, his press aide, shielded him with a mammoth umbrella. Not twenty feet away, Regenhard and other angry family members were getting drenched as they castigated Giuliani. "The ugly truth is that firefighters were sent to their slaughter," Regenhard said. "How is that leadership?"

A little while later, it was the incumbent's turn. The rain was falling harder as Michael Bloomberg met the press after speaking to the commission. No aide held an umbrella. Instead, there was a podium for Bloomberg at the very edge of a canopy covering the sidewalk. A small waterfall dripped off the canopy onto the center of the podium. When the mayor leaned forward so the TV cameras could see him, he got soaked; when he leaned backward, he was dry but shrouded in darkness.

Bloomberg glanced to his left and made eye contact with Sally Regenhard. She waved, smiled, and flashed a thumb's-up. "I don't agree with him on everything," Regenhard said moments later. "But Mike is doing a good job on most things. Better than Giuliani."

"Bloomberg just can't generate positive attention for himself, even when, on the merits, he's done better than Giuliani."

Unfortunately for Bloomberg, neither that endorsement nor the progress he's made in protecting the city can compete for attention with the inflated reputation of his predecessor. When the subject is New York and 9/11, Giuliani is inevitably the star, even if he's answering questions that have all the bite of batting-practice pitching. But the hearings served as a reminder of two political problems that still dog Bloomberg: the immense shadow cast by Rudy the National Hero, and Bloomberg's chronic inability to generate positive attention for himself—even when, on the merits, he's done better than Giuliani. The commission's visit to New York also made it painfully clear that Bloomberg inherited from Giuliani a policy problem far more serious than any symbolism gap: the lack of a simple, coherent command structure for major emergencies.

Midway through Giuliani's appearance, commission chairman Tom Kean pleaded with him for strategy ideas that could be implemented across the country. The former mayor's primary suggestion would be weirdly ironic if it weren't for the gravity of the situation: "The most important recommendation," Giuliani said, "is that cities should have offices of emergency management."

Yet if other cities are to copy OEM, they'd better avoid repeating its spotty history in New York. Giuliani, despite holding unprecedented sway over the city's uniformed services while he was mayor, was unable or unwilling to force New York's famously fractious Police and Fire departments into cooperating on decision-making in large-scale disasters. So in 1996 he made a classic political dodge: Invent a new agency and let it deal with the problem. Two years ago, President Bush employed the same tactic on the federal level when he created the Department of Homeland Security.

OEM's first director, Jerry Hauer, had a solid background in emergency response and counterterrorism. At first, the agency did valuable work, like staging regular drills with city, state, and federal agencies. But there were also grievous errors, like locating the mayor's new $13 million emergency command center at 7 World Trade Center. Things got worse after Hauer left in 2000. Giuliani replaced him with Richie Sheirer, a career caddie to then-Police Commissioner Howard Safir. As OEM chief, Sheirer held no joint drills, and the agency's executive ranks became a patronage perch, as Leonard Levitt documented in Newsday. On September 11, OEM played little role in coordinating the NYPD and FDNY response at the World Trade Center—exactly the sort of disaster that the agency had been set up to handle. In the following weeks, Giuliani even brought back Hauer to help Sheirer.

After the 2001 mayoral election, Bloomberg replaced Sheirer with a crisis-management pro, but a fundamental problem remained: The Police and Fire departments still didn't get along. A new federal mandate required a unified command structure in order to qualify for federal funding, but negotiations between the two departments staggered along for nearly three years. The 9/11 commission seized on this issue even before hitting town, prompting Bloomberg, four days before the New York hearings, to declare a resolution had finally been achieved. Commissioner Jamie Gorelick nevertheless derided Bloomberg's plan for leaving "too many jump balls"—situations where authority would be decided when cops and firefighters arrived at the scene.

While there's ongoing disdain between rank-and-file cops and firefighters, the supposed power struggle between the PD and the FD is now over—and the police won. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly is an unparalleled bureaucratic infighter, and he's been victorious in nearly every battle with the FDNY over funding and operational primacy, a fact that's reflected in Bloomberg's emergency-response plan. During the first afternoon of hearings, when the commissioners were directing nearly every question at Kelly, and Kelly was laboring to make deferential references to Bloomberg, it was easy to forget who was actually mayor.

The next day, Bloomberg tried hard to remind everyone he's in charge (a dance he'll have to repeat in August, when the Republican convention arrives and Kelly's profile rises again). When Giuliani left the hearing, so did the tension in the room; many seats emptied. Bloomberg sometimes sounded like the head of the Chamber of Commerce—"Our status as the world's financial capital, driven not only by Wall Street but our international prominence in such fields as broadcasting, the arts, entertainment, and medicine . . . "—and he repeatedly fumbled words as he read his statement. But the mayor showed that he is slowly learning the dark arts of politicking. After reluctantly agreeing to testify again (he'd appeared before the commission in March 2003), Bloomberg used the spotlight craftily. By beating up on Congress over the lack of counterterrorism money for the city—"pork-barrel politics at its worst"—Bloomberg grabbed some media space.

Not nearly as much as Rudy, of course. Bloomberg spoke to the commission for just twenty minutes, and wasn't questioned. "They had a tight schedule with Tom Ridge appearing next," Bloomberg said afterward. This seemed disingenuous: Surely Bloomberg didn't mind avoiding a public quiz over the new emergency protocol. But Bloomberg could have used the nationally televised forum to explain how, unlike Giuliani's, his administration is methodically improving the Fire Department's radios, and how his emergency command centers (there are now two) won't be located in obvious terrorist bull's-eyes. Bloomberg, however, is unwilling to draw the kind of sharp contrast that would score him these points: He owes Giuliani, eternally, for his election in 2001, and Bloomberg, like the commission, seems to feel compelled to leave Rudy the Hero untarnished.

Bloomberg could also have used a Q&A session to defend his emergency chain-of-command policy, which had been attacked mercilessly the day before. The plan, hammered out by new OEM chief Joe Bruno, doesn't specify who's in charge at every conceivable disaster, but the document is an improvement over the Giuliani system—in which the real authority, in all matters, was Rudy. "The police and firefighters know who should do what," Bloomberg said afterward, standing half in and half out of the rain. "You don't want the second-, third-, or fourth-removed person making the decisions." So even though it's a political problem for Bloomberg to be upstaged by his police commissioner, this is the way the mayor—consistent with his corporate worldview—wants his government to work: Bloomberg allows his subordinates to assume authority over their own areas of expertise, something Giuliani could never do.

"I need to do what's right for New York City," Bloomberg said before coming fully out of the rain. "I'm not trying to win a popularity contest." He will try, of course, in November 2005. And even if he's cleaned up all his predecessor's messes by then, Bloomberg is lucky that he won't be running against Rudy.


© Copyright 2004, New York Magazine

Sally Regenhard,

P. O. Box 70
Woodlawn Station
Bronx, NY 10470

Monica Gabrielle,

P. O. Box 70
Woodlawn Station
Bronx, NY 10470