Meet A Mayoral Candidate XI

April 30, 2010

It’s Friday so let’s Meet A(nother) Mayoral Candidate!

This week: Michael Bloomberg.

What? Wait? Who? Michael Bloomberg?! What are you talking about? Enough already with the New York kick. Are you talking, Michael Bloomberg, that Michael Bloomberg? He’s not running here, is he? Can somebody actually be mayor of two cities at the same time?

No, no. Michael Bloomberg’s not running for mayor of Toronto but he probably could if he wanted to. I mean, who’s going to say ‘no’ to the 8th richest person in the United Stats?

We’re just taking a little break this week in the Meeting A Mayoral Candidate in order to explore a couple issues about electoral reform using the New York mayor as a jumping off point. Don’t worry. We’ll be back next week with our regular post highlighting one of the lesser known names in Toronto’s mayoral race.

When you’re talking a strong mayor system, New York City has, I think, what would be called a very strong mayor system. The position is a branch of municipal government all on its own, the executive branch to be exact, separate from the city council, much in the way that the American president is separate from Congress and governors are distinct from state legislatures. While mayors of Toronto have just recently been given modest powers to name committee chairs (and therefore the majority of members of the executive committee), in New York the mayor has a much wider reach of appointees who oversee the running of the city.

In Toronto, as a voting member of the council, the mayor can more readily steer the agenda toward the floor of council to be voted on but ultimately the position amounts to just one vote of 45 albeit the most prominent vote. Unless a mayor can muster 22 councillors to vote with them, a simple majority can override a mayor’s wishes. Not so in New York. While a mayor there doesn’t even vote with the council, they can veto any law that arrives on their desk from council and if the council then can’t muster up a 2/3s majority to override the mayor’s veto, the bill dies. So a mayor of New York can shape the debate with only 1/3 of council+ 1 behind them.

Michael Bloomberg himself brings a couple interesting things to the table. He takes no pay aside from a $1.00/year token sum. He does not live at Gracie Mansion, the traditional home of New York’s mayors. He’s taken no public money to finance any of his 3 election campaigns and reportedly spent over $70 million of his money to win the office back in 2001 and again in 2005.

To some, this makes him beholden to no one. Owing no favours, he governs with the city’s best interest at heart. A beneficent ruler, you might say, the ultimate philanthropist. Hopefully the next billionaire who decides to buy the office is as enlightened as Michael Bloomberg.

So beloved by his subjects electorate that when Bloomberg decided the two term limit was for mere mortals like Rudy Giuliani, the council extended him an additional term and the voters agreed by re-electing him in 2009. What happens in 2013 when Bloomberg comes to the conclusion that his work is not yet done as mayor of New York? Another special dispensation? Why go through the whole motion of setting term limits as a device to curtail career politicking if you’re simply going to ignore them when you have someone in office you particularly like or, at least, don’t yet loathe?

In the hyper-partisan world that is politics in the U.S., Michael Bloomberg is something of an oddity. He is a Democrat turned Republican turned Independent who seems to be working well with a city council that is heavily, heavily Democratic. Maybe that’s a sign that party affiliation at the municipal level doesn’t matter. At least, not if you’re ultra-independently wealthy like Michael Bloomberg.

So what does all this tell us about the varying types of governance at the municipal level which is something the Better Ballots folks are in the process of exploring here in Toronto? Do we really want people financing their own way into politics even if their intentions are honourable? Doesn’t that just lead us back down the path to a past where wealth and status trumped everything else including any sort of party system that might be in place? Democracy bought by few people to represent those without deep pockets.

This is especially troubling when paired with a strong mayor system. The richest person in the race gets elected and, fingers crossed, they’ve sought office for the best, most noble of reasons. And if they haven’t? Well, term limits aren’t going to spare us if they can just be ignored especially if other like minded politicians have also purchased elected power. It all seems unhealthy and a step back to a time that was not very conducive to a full and equal participatory democracy.

And yet, New Yorkers still seem quite happy with their mayor. Hardly the case here in Toronto. Maybe we’re not the big fans of democracy we like to think of ourselves as. All that we’re really looking for is a benign autocrat. A rich uncle who will know what is best for us and will act accordingly.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr