Bloomberg's legacy mixed, up for debate

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NEW YORK — When Michael Bloomberg took the oath as mayor nearly a dozen years ago, he was a political neophyte faced with a city still smoldering from a terrorist attack that crippled its economy, wounded its psyche and left a ragged scar across lower Manhattan.

Bloomberg is now poised to leave office Dec. 31 having dramatically reshaped the city, from its government to its skyline. He steered it through a series of crises, both natural and man-made, and his innovative public health policies appear to have added years to residents' lives. The city has never been safer or cleaner, a teeming metropolis transformed into a must-see attraction for more than 50 million tourists a year.

But Bloomberg's approach to governing as the billionaire businessman he is, employing hard data and the free market to drive much of the city's renaissance, sometimes left him without an ability to connect with those who felt left behind. Income inequality grew during his years. The number of homeless has soared. And some ethnic and religious minorities complain that a steep drop in crime has come at the expense of their civil liberties.

As Bloomberg's three terms trickle down to their final days, he leaves as a singular figure with an unquestioned impact but as one whose legacy is still being debated. Polls show his policies are far more popular than the man.

"He is a public-spirited and visionary man of great wealth who took advantage of the failure of politics as usual to deal with extraordinary circumstances," said Kenneth Sherrill, a retired political science professor at Hunter College. "He largely succeeded doing what he pleased and he didn't damn well care what you thought of it."

Despite that power, it was improbable that Bloomberg became mayor at all.

He made his fortune -- now estimated at $31 billion -- from the global financial data and media company that bears his name and had switched his political party from Democrat to Republican to run for mayor. He was down more than 15 percentage points in the polls on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Lame duck Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's popularity soared after the terror attacks, and his endorsement of Bloomberg, combined with panic among voters about the city's safety and fiscal future, propelled the businessman to a narrow win.

He took immediate action to stabilize the city's economy, including raising taxes, which sent his popularity tumbling. The economy stabilized and a tone was set for Bloomberg going forward, a former adviser said.

"He believed you get the data, and you do what you believe is right," said Bill Cunningham, the mayor's former communications director. "It was really like an experiment. Will people like someone who does what they believe in and not based on polls?"

Though diminutive in stature, Bloomberg thought big. The same ambition and innovation that fueled his business was applied to the public sector, and no idea was deemed too bold to try.

Smoking was banned in all bars and restaurants, the first in a series of health innovations that helped change policies nationwide. A hotline, 311, was created to provide real-time information to residents. He wrested control of the city's school system, placing it under City Hall, though his education record remains decidedly mixed.

Bloomberg, 71, declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. He has said he will never again seek public office.