New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg sat down with IrishCentral publisher Niall O’Dowd for an hour-long interview at O’Neill’s Restaurant in Midtown Manhattan on last Wednesday, June 17.
Little wonder, because an opinion poll that morning had showed him with a large lead in the latest mayoral race polling.
But the mayor is clearly leaving little to chance in an unpredictable year with an uncertain economy. Politicians everywhere are struggling against a strong tide of voter anger at how the economy has plummeted.
Bloomberg knows better than most that he is still identified as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic town, and that voters could still send a strong message in the November election against the incumbent if they so choose.
Blessedly, he is still a politician who listens to questions, doesn’t come out with rote answers and genuinely appears to think through answers, unlike so many of his counterparts. It made for a lively discussion with the IrishVoice, and one that he clearly relished.
In the end Michael Bloomberg may be the best argument for money in politics. He clearly outshines the machine politicians who make up New York’s core and who make few decisions that do not pander to the mythical base. Bloomberg’s independence allows him to think otherwise.
We began our interview talking about the latest poll numbers.
N’OD: Good news this morning on the opinion poll.
MB: Yes, but the only poll that matters is November 3, I might point out. There’s been a lot of people who were guaranteed to win, who never got there, so it’s a good lesson for all of us.
Someone said to me the other day, ‘Would you be active and do things in your third term?’ and I said ‘Look, I thought my second term was going to be my last term, and we did more in the second term than in the first term. People expect you to do it.
Keep in mind, I’m a workaholic. I haven’t had a vacation in seven years. But it isn’t because I couldn’t take one.
The fact of the matter is I like going to work every day. I even liked going to work the day I knew I was going to get fired from Salomon Brothers. As long as you’re healthy how can you have a bad day?
I think there’s a lot of things you can do, and what I’ve got to do, I’ve said to my staff -- assume we only have a number of days between now and December 31, because that’s when you know for sure -- don’t walk away from controversial things.
Somebody said to me, for example, we should postpone the experiment of closing off Broadway through Times Square and Herald Square. I said, ‘If you ever had an argument to convince me to do it, you just made it,’ that we should just go ahead and not walk away. But I think the public recognizes that what I look for.
I don’t know about the polls, I think it’s how you ask the question. When I walk down the street or take the subway, this morning I just noticed a lot of people smiled, ‘Good morning Mayor, good morning.’ If they didn’t like you, they wouldn’t say nasty things necessarily, but they wouldn’t reach out.
How do you feel at this stage of your career?
I’m 67 years old and I like people. If I didn’t like people I’d be in the wrong job. I love going on the subway, I love walking on the streets, I was at a baseball game the other day. With Brian Williams and his wife, at the Yankee game, which was not a great game because it was not competitive.
But people every place … the Puerto Rican Day parade, great response from one end to the other. I remember the first time I did it, somebody hired some people to boo on both sides.
Everybody is deeply concerned about the economy. Obviously you‘re more than just a mayor, you’re a brilliant entrepreneur yourself. How do you feel?
We have a crisis of confidence, and we sort of create what we’re afraid of. We haven’t been saving for a long time, we’ve been overspending, not being prudent, but nobody wanted to end it, so when they say who’s responsible for the recession, I would say look in the mirror --we’re all responsible.
Nobody wanted to stop people getting mortgages, nobody wanted to stop stocks going up, nobody wanted to stop the ability to buy anything, if you wanted to use your credit card or mortgage your house for some money. So we’re all sort of part of that.
And then all of a sudden everybody realized, for a variety of reasons, but really had nothing to do with the real cause, what came out of it. You have these mortgage products, and lots of the derivative stuff, and then all of a sudden you kind of get scared and somebody says they’re not going to buy it, which meant they didn’t have any value, which all of a sudden created its own reality.
Here people said, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve been living beyond my means. So let’s save.’ And once you start saving, you don’t spend. And then all of a sudden people that are working at the factory don’t have jobs. So that feeds on itself.
And you’ve got to turn that around. How’s that done? The president’s the first that has to do it, he’s the cheerleader in chief, the governors and the mayors I suppose as well. The good news is that New York has continued to invest in it’s future. And so people continue to come here.
Tourism is down a little bit, but most museums report more tourists than ever before. The problem is they’re not spending money in the bookstores. They’re not spending money getting in. But as long as they keep coming we have a future.
And so, the long term question for people that live here and have businesses here, is when the economy recovers -- I happen to think it’ll be earlier than later -- but whenever, will we have the people to let businesses expand? Will we have the transportation system and safe streets so they can go to this restaurant and enjoy it? Will we have good schools that attract people, and cultural institutions?
I think there’s a reason to be optimistic. Now that’s not to say there aren’t people who are losing their jobs every day, losing their houses. House loss here is a lot less than in those overbuilt areas in the warm climates.
There are people who are worried about health care, and don’t have insurance, and there is all of that. But I think we’ve done the right things, and we’re not walking away from those who have problems.
Let me ask you about Ireland, because the economy there is one of the worst in Europe now.
I know. I remember my company, I was one of the few people that didn’t speak Gaelic at some point! We had the Neils and Siobhans, and then when the Irish economy improved, a lot of them went back, and when I go to Ireland they show up at the events to say hello, now with five kids. They’re like Orthodox Jews, they have so many kids!
And now they’re starting to come back. But now they have visa problems they did not have the last time, and that’s one of the differences.
I argue that this country is committing national suicide. We should open the borders, not close them. And you need to open them in tough times more than you need to open them in good times. And government has to lead, and I don’t think most of our leaders are willing to do that.
I don’t have any easy answers for Ireland. It has some great natural advantages. Gaelic notwithstanding it is an English speaking country, and English is the business language of the world, so that gives you a real advantage.
It is a place where education is valued. When we used to hire people, they were all from great schools, well-educated, and it (Ireland) has a work ethic.
And they play hard too. There’s a – I don’t know how you say it in Gaelic -- a joie de vivre. That maybe something that’s long term and may carry them through this.
I think peace in Northern Ireland is the best thing that happened. They can’t let themselves go back on that. They just have to at all costs … I don’t care what any one crazy person does, the elected officials and the non-elected officials, leaders, opinion makers, have to just work together and say, ‘Calm down, I know one of us just got killed by the other side. But we’re not going to start this war again. Peace is what we all need.’
In fact my company opened an office in Belfast, a tiny office, but down the road Belfast will be a center. Belfast is not going to be a business center if there’s no peace. You can’t take people there, nobody’s going to want to work there. But if there is peace, it’s a great place.
Do you see the global economy coming back soon?
Yeah, but the U.S first. And we all say, there’s conventional wisdom that this mortgage problem was the beginning of the end, and it was an American problem, there was overexpansion everyplace.
Look at the Middle East. They’re building 3,000 tall buildings in places where there’s no reason to go. There’s no water, it’s so hot you can’t go outside, why would anybody want to go there?
We are as guilty as anybody. Alan Greenspan talks about irrational exuberance. He didn’t do anything about it because the politics were ... if you’re doing good business and he walks in and says, ‘Stop doing business because you’re going to over-expand.’ I don’t think so.
Immigration is an issue in the Irish community. The downturn in Ireland has led to a lot of new people coming over here. You’ve spoken out as you said already about illegal immigration, and opening the borders. What practical ways can you think of to do this?
Well in New York City, I have an executive order that we will not ask your documentation status for any government service, unless the federal government requires it, or you get arrested.
What nobody quite understands about the undocumented, and I think it’s true no matter where they come from, all the conventional wisdoms of Lou Dobbs -- who has done an enormous amount of damage to this country – the undocumented have very low (rates of) crime. Why? Because they don’t want to go near the government.
Undocumented pay taxes. Why? Because their company deducts and there’s no place to send the refund. Undocumented don’t use our schools very much. They tend to be young people coming here who don’t go and have families. They tend to send money back home.
Undocumented don’t use our hospitals much. Why? Because most of us use three quarters of our medical expenses in the last three years of our life, and these are young people who come here. And the argument that undocumented take jobs away from Americans is just not true. You cannot get Americans generally to do these jobs.
Now you can say wait a minute and pay them more, but if you did that, yes, more Americans would take them, but the organizations couldn’t survive. Golf courses can’t survive if they have high-cost grass cutters.
To answer your question on what do you do, it’s the elected officials. They are cowed, and it’s not Republican or Democrat, it is to some extent geographical.
Here in New York City you would never hear somebody complain about immigration. On the other hand, you don’t have to go very far, just go to Nassau and Suffolk counties, and Westchester, although Nassau and Suffolk seem to be the worst, and you can see …
who the hell cuts their lawn? Who the hell builds the things?
It’s all undocumented. It’s like people who believe in creationism. I always wondered, what doctor do you go to? You want a doctor that doesn’t believe in science?!
What I can do for local government is make sure that we welcome immigrants, and that people understand how valuable they are.
You’ve been to Ireland several times. What’s your lasting memory?
Well, I did have a six and a half hour dinner at Bono’s with Penelope Cruz sitting across the table from me -- I’ll remember that! Javier Bardem was there but I didn’t know who he was!
Bono’s a great guy. It was his daughter’s birthday, and back in New York it was my oldest daughter’s birthday, so he grabbed my phone...
Your daughter had an Irish boyfriend?
That’s the younger one. She dumped him. The latest one is English who was born in Philadelphia. She’s in Europe, and wants to go to Ascot because he’s in the horse business. She said, ‘Where do I go to buy a hat?’ I said, ‘Your mother’s English, call her and ask her.’
But I think, seriously, you walk away with a feeling of determination, rational, reasonableness. When I drive down the street, I look for a few things. I think how many blocks can you go before you see a piece of trash in the streets? And do people have smiles on their faces?
And you see a lot of smiles in Ireland, and in the North. Nobody has got this grimace on their face, the nasty look, they seem reasonable. But nice people.
It’s a western place, friendly, typical, hard-working. My former wife is British. Her father was a career officer in the RAF and he used to talk about the difference in people in the U.K. They don’t move very easily if their job is an hour away. They’d say, ‘Oh there’s no jobs.’
(In Ireland,), it’s not a culture where they sit back and depend on the government to do things. There’s an understanding that you’re responsible for your own success.
So are you convinced that they will come out of this recession?
Yeah. Something will happen, I don’t know when. I just don’t know what it takes to get Ireland out of this. They don’t have a lot of the over-building Spain has. Spain has got a much bigger problem.
They do have the advantage of a culture and the language. The only danger in Northern Ireland is the peace thing.
But overall, it’s an exporting country and if the rest of the world slowly stops buying things, because the leverage of a smaller country, they get badly hurt.
I’m more optimistic on America in the very short term. Actually England has a bigger problem that Ireland. It’s not obviously in percentages, but England has a lot of over-building.
What are your priorities for your new term, if you are elected?
Number one -- continue the schools, and the one thing we can do to eliminate or ameliorate most of our social problems is a better education.
Somebody once said to (New York City schools chancellor) Joel Klein, “They’ll never fix education until you end poverty.’ And he said, ‘No no, you got it wrong, you’ll never end poverty until you fix education.’
And I think the latter is true. The former is what advocates who want to send money want to believe, but that’s not the case. And so keeping with education, we have reduced by 50% the gap between between black and Latino kids and white and Asian kids.
And you can say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not black, I’m not Latino.’ Well, those kids are going to be the voters of tomorrow and they’re going to be the ones supporting Social Security, so you have a big public interest in improving the public schools of today. That’s one thing.
Continue to keep crime down. And during the Dinkins years, the murder rate got up to 2,200 a year. Now it’s down to 500. And Giuliani made some big strides.
And we continued to diversify, tried to get us away from Wall Street, not that we don’t love Wall Street, but you want to have other industries. So we are a bigger fashion capital than Paris, we have double the number of fashion houses here. The media capital of the world. Getting to the information technology, biotech, right down the list.
If you keep improving the services, people will stay here. We are increasing the percentage of New Yorkers who are getting college educations, and the reason as much as anything is the immigrants. Immigrants that come here instead of anywhere else.
I was at a reception recently with a Haitian group, and they were bragging, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that in our hospitals there are a lot of Haitian doctors?’ And yes, that’s great, the trouble is that Haiti needs doctors desperately. It just tells you, people will go where they see opportunity, where the government is helpful.
Life expectancy in New York City is now greater than the country as a whole, and it has gone up 15 months in the last seven years. The papers will write about somebody getting killed, one person, that’ll be the headline story, but if you think about it, 15 months is 1 1/3 years times 8.4 people – that’s an enormous number of man years that you have.
That comes from lower crime rate, lower murder rate, smoking cessation, bars on windows to keep kids from falling out, better response time by ambulances. We put GPS on ambulances, which cuts 30 seconds of the average response time, which is a big deal.
What’s your proudest achievement?
My daughters. I have to say that! Well it is in all fairness.
I guess the schools, because if I told you coming into office you could reduce crime you’d say okay. I’d say maybe you could do it, I doubt you have the skills, but I could conceive it.
If I told you you were going to make big improvements in the schools system, you would have said no. Too big, too intractable. Unions, politics, kids coming from families where they don’t value education and that’s just the way it is, and so you have to come back to that.
Ray (Kelly) has done a great job. They said, ‘Before you go make sure you have a list of everybody in your administration that’s Irish.’
But it’s not just the Irish, it’s everybody. It’s hard sometimes. If you had to pick one thing that Ray Kelly did to bring down crime, I would argue it was making sure that diversity of our police department reflects the diversity of the city.
It’s management, leadership, it’s all of those sort of things, but if the community thinks that you understand them, and if you do understand them, a lot of other stuff gets done. And you’d be fighting a lot of battles if you didn’t do that. So now somebody get killed and a tragedy, you don’t see people rushing to the streets.
Al Sharpton has been very stabilizing influence behind the scenes which is good, and Ray reaches out to him, I reach out to him. Some people say, ‘How can you talk to him?’ Because we need the help. I think out of that comes so many other things.
Same in Northern Ireland.
Yeah. And when you look at the big cities in America, it’s not. Inner city tends to be lots of minorities, and the police departments are not. And I’ll show you how far we’ve come. The last class we swore in -- about 1,200 cops, and they were born in 58 different countries. But one of the most fascinating things? Not one from Ireland. A lot of Irish Americans but no Irish. That was as impressive as the 58 countries.