NY school chief out, but mayor still faces hurdles

AP News
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Posted: Apr 08, 2011 5:40 PM
NY school chief out, but mayor still faces hurdles

A wealthy former media executive with sinking poll numbers whose public missteps have alienated some voters: It's a description that fits both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his outgoing schools chancellor, Cathie Black.

With Black's resignation newly in hand, observers say Bloomberg now faces the challenge of turning around a faltering third term that has been shaken by dissatisfaction with a botched blizzard cleanup, accusations of mismanagement of city contractors and even his handling of a signature issue, the city's budget.

At stake is Bloomberg's ability to remain a powerful force as he heads into the last leg of his mayoralty. On Friday, the countdown clock that the mayor keeps at City Hall to mark the time he has left read 998 days.

"By definition, he's a lame duck," said Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College. But, he added, "You can be a lame duck who people are not willing to trifle with. And you can be a lame duck that can be ignored." For Bloomberg to make sure that he's the former, "he has to become more popular."

That could be a challenge for a mayor whose course has been rocky since he launched a controversial effort to overturn term limits that were about to kick him out of office. He spent $109 million of his own money on the campaign but won by fewer than 5 percentage points.

In recent months, Bloomberg's standing with voters fell as fast as the snow in a major December blizzard that stranded ambulances, overloaded emergency lines and left deep snow that went unplowed for days in some streets. A long-term payroll project resulted in fraud charges against four city consultants, who were accused of stealing $80 million from the city before authorities noticed a problem.

A recent poll found Bloomberg's approval ratings had fallen to their lowest level in eight years, with more than half of city voters disapproving of his job performance.

After arguing that his financial expertise made it vital that New Yorkers bring him back for a third term so he could tackle the economic downturn, another poll released last week found that more than half the city's voters disapprove of how he is handling the city budget, which has been squeezed by state and federal cuts. Bloomberg plans to cut more than 6,000 teachers from the city payroll and to reduce funding to police, fire and other agencies.

Black's appointment also proved to be fodder for critics, who said that the mayor had chosen her secretively and without a formal search. Some members of his administration were surprised at the selection of the former Hearst Magazines chairwoman, who had no previous experience in education.

Bloomberg said her private-sector experience would make her a success, but Black quickly ruffled feathers. When parents heckled her, she heckled them back. She joked at a public meeting that birth control could fix school overcrowding.

On Friday, a day after Bloomberg announced her departure, Black told Fortune magazine the experience "was like having to learn Russian in a weekend _ and then give speeches in Russian and speak Russian in budget committee and City Council meetings."

The mayor's uncharacteristic decision to pull the plug on a controversial appointment was a necessary step in restoring voter faith, Sherrill said.

"There was a lot of bad news in a short period of time, and their fates were linked," Sherrill said. "He had to uncouple them."

Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, said that while the mayor had been wise to correct a mistake quickly, the episode could make the billionaire seem out of touch.

"It's going to be suggested that he's lost his touch, that he made his selection from his socio-cultural world based upon business criteria that were inappropriate to the decision," Benjamin said. "He'll take some hits."

Pollsters have alternately called the mayor's predicament "third term-itis" and the "third-term blahs." He is contending with a public advocate and city comptroller who have declared their independence and a City Council that recently passed much of a package of bills stemming from the day-after-Christmas blizzard that the mayor had objected to.

Though he cannot run for a fourth term, Bloomberg has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars _ and perhaps millions _ launching campaign-style TV ads and sending mailers touting his independence and budget accomplishments. His administration says the ads are geared toward pressuring state legislators to aid the mayor's agenda, but they're also being viewed by the same voters who have been losing faith in the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent.

Bloomberg has dismissed suggestions that Black's brief tenure is a sign that his third term is running off the rails.

Still, he remains focused on the future of his administration. In an appearance Friday on WOR radio, he spoke of how it will become more difficult to keep City Hall employees from leaving for private-sector jobs as his third term continues.

And he said for the second day in a row that he planned to accomplish more in his third term than in his second.

"We did more in our second term than our first term, and we will do more in our third term than our second term," he said. "Some of the things aren't sexy, but focusing on economic development and focusing on reducing expenses are exactly what we need here."