One of Mike Bloomberg’s signal accomplishments in New York City was reversing the flow of corruption. In the old days, and in every other city in the world most days, favor-seekers bribe politicians — with cash in envelopes, with legal contributions, or with political support. In Mike Bloomberg’s New York, the mayor bribed you, buying the silence or cooperation of individuals, cultural organizations, and social service groups with hundreds in millions of dollars spent on small personal favors — a legal payment here, a medical procedure there — and charitable contributions.
As a liberal Democrat, Bill de Blasio’s biggest challenge when he takes power in January will not be keeping crime down or funding an ambitious expansion of early education. It will be dealing with the explosion of Bloomberg’s machine after the grease of money is gone and the gears start sticking.
Bloomberg’s wealth, and his generosity, “was protection money. In many ways it inoculated him from potential criticism and stimulated people to do things that they might not have or shouldn’t have done,” says Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at New York’s Baruch College. “Now the pie is smaller and the needs are larger, in the end there’s going to be enhanced conflict. And it’s going to take place in the halls of City Hall. It’s going to be the old days.”
Bloomberg’s close aides have always acknowledged that his wealth was, as much as his electoral mandate, a central source of power. But many observers confuse this civic grease for the straightforward millions he’s spent getting himself elected. The other money has been, for several reasons, hard at times to characterize, a secret lubricant of urban consensus.
That’s in part because the participants in the machine — the mayor, and the recipients of his largesse — have a shared interest in not talking about it.