Q&A: 'People Wanted to Make the City Work'

Nothing can raise--or cut down--a politician's stature like a crisis. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg had been somewhat lost in Rudy Giuliani shadow ever since he got the keys to City Hall. His anti-smoking crusade produced serious blowback from New Yorkers. Then the budget crisis forced Bloomberg to take a chainsaw to a forest of popular city programs and services. Finally, Gov. George Pataki mucked up his fellow Republican's effort to restructure the city's debt load left over from the 1970s fiscal crisis.

By the time Thursday's blackout-another ghost of the 1970s-struck, Bloomberg was game to exercise some leadership. He succeeded. Other than an ill-considered walk to the Brooklyn Bridge, Bloomberg calmed the city's nerves with regular updates, dashes of humor and Rudy-like ubiquitousness. Try as he might when he sat down with NEWSWEEK on Friday, Bloomberg couldn't hide just a little anticipation that recent events may lighten up his middling poll numbers and make him more than the one-termer that critics had been calling him. The one-time engineering student, wearing an open collar, casual purple checked shirt and tanned face, was pleasant and pleased.

NEWSWEEK: Where were you at 4:09?

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: In Brooklyn, having coffee with four or five reporters from some local Brooklyn newspapers, sitting in a part of the restaurant that is all glass, so it was all sun. I didn't know that the lights went out till [an aide] tapped me on the shoulder and said 'I gotta talk to you. Lights are out everywhere, from Canada to New York City.' So I went back to the table and finished the answer to the last question and said goodbye and came right back across the Brooklyn Bridge and was back in the office 15 minutes after it happened.

Had you prepared for this kind of blackout?

Power blackouts are one of those things you always plan for, but they tend to be in small neighborhoods. Nobody ever expects anything this big. We had one 20 years ago and thought we'd never have another one that way. Supposedly the system had been fixed, and clearly that was not the case.

Why was the city's reaction this time different from 1977's blackout?

Communications worked, coordination worked. The other thing that is different from the '70s is that people wanted to make the city work. There is a feeling among the people, a temper of the times, if you will, of cooperation and getting along.

Is there more of a feeling of communal concern after September 11 versus the individual concern of the '70s?

September 11 probably contributed to it. I actually think that it was taking place before September 11. A lot of the dissent that existed in our society and in the city in the '70s is not here today. People want to make it work. People want to come to New York City and stay here. Businesses have downsized because of a national recession, exacerbated by 9/11, but none of them have left the city. So those kinds of things say people are happy here, and they have a vested interest here in order to make it work.

Were you just a little surprised that there wasn't even a car on fire somewhere?

If you had asked me, What's your dream scenario? I'd say absolutely no crime, for example. Well, I didn't get that. But we did have lower crime than we would've had on a normal night. There were still X number of arrests, but it was lower than normal. Fires were above normal, but the fire marshals investigating say that so far a big percentage of them were fires from people using candles, which I had warned about. But no matter how many times you tell people...

Where were you in '77 when the lights went out?

I lived the 17th floor of my apartment building. I walked up and walked down, we cooked outside on a little balcony and had a barbeque on it.

Do remember thinking that the city doesn't feel safe but it should?

I don't remember. I do feel the city is safe now. People used to say, "New York's dangerous, London's safe." Now, it's the reverse. Not knocking London. But if you take the 224 cities in the United States of 100,000 population or more, rank them from highest crime to lowest crime, New York is 203rd down the list. There are only 20 cities in the U.S. that have lower crime on a per-capita basis. And crime isn't the thing. Welfare rolls are down here at a time when welfare rolls are up throughout the country because of the recession. That says something about how well we're dealing with social problems.

Do you think the way you've handled the blackout will help you politically--for instance, in your effort vs. the state to restructure the city's debt?

Oh, I think each of these things is separate. It's my job to convince the governor to find something that is as good as what the legislature voted or to win in the courts. But we're not going to walk away from what the city has gotten and needs. What you have to understand is that the city is the economic engine of the state, and to some extent of the country. We are the capital of the financial markets. I went over and I rang the bell at the Stock Exchange this morning. There were more people on the floor of the Stock Exchange this morning than there are on a normal Friday summer morning.

Did you get a satisfactory answer for why this happened?

No. Nobody's had the time to sit down--and it requires some very smart engineering work to do, to look at a whole big system and see why one thing impacts another. Everybody can look at the individual parts. But why did the whole thing take place in a world where it wasn't supposed to? It'll take months to study that and that's gotta be done at the state or the federal level.

The blackout of '77 hurt Mayor Beame. How do you think your performance with the blackout will affect your future?

I don't think that any one event is as important as sometimes the press makes it. I think that the public will look at anybody's record after a long period of time and judge them based on, in retrospect, how well and appropriately they acted as opposed to at the spur of the moment whether it was politically popular or whether it played well. We live in some very tough times, and every president, every governor and every mayor--and every legislature--is having some very tough choices to make. I feel very strongly that we made the right choices, that the citizens of New York, grumbling maybe, but they stood up and they did what they had to do to keep our streets safe, to keep the city going, to keep it a place where they'll continue to live. And I think that there are a lot of indications that the economy is starting to get better, particularly in New York City because we're so dependant upon Wall Street, which is doing better. And if I'm right, a year or so from now people will look back and say, 'You know, we did the right thing back then and we want to continue to do that.' Walking away from your problems short-term is very easy; long term, it's just not good policy. We've paid the price from the past when too many times that was done. There's been plenty of courageous leadership up until now from previous administrations, and I'd like to think that when you write the history of New York City and look at it from the perspective of history, as opposed to journalism, you will say they made the right decisions and that Mike Bloomberg was part of that and had the courage to stand up. Sometimes it's not easy to pick up the papers and every letter to the editor is against you and every columnist is against you and people are complaining. But I think there's a grudging respect when I'm on the subway everyday. You know, 'Good job, Mike.' One person says that, you have a good day.