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NEW YORK — Mayor Michael Bloomberg was trailed by a small army of reporters as he showed up Tuesday morning at a public school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to cast his vote in an election to determine his successor.
“Mommy, why are all those cameras here?” a boy asked, as the mayor and his entourage passed him on his way inside the polling room.
“That man is probably on the ballot,” his mother replied, not immediately recognizing the outspoken billionaire mayor who will leave office next month after three terms at City Hall.
But she wasn’t the only one. Moments later, as Bloomberg picked up his ballot, a poll worker looking to cross his name off the voter roll apologetically asked the mayor to remind her of his first name.
“Michael,” he politely said.
If Bloomberg was bothered by his sudden lack of celebrity, he didn’t show it. But it was a notable oversight in a city where Bloomberg is likely to go down in history as a transformative leader — thanks to his efforts behind popular health initiatives such as a ban on smoking in New York’s restaurants and parks and establishing hundreds of miles of bike lanes.
Yet, it was also surprising, because although Bloomberg was not on the ballot this year, the race to replace him has been almost entirely about the public’s mixed feelings about him and his record at City Hall.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, easily defeated his rival, Republican Joe Lhota, in part by campaigning as the anti-Bloomberg.
Among other things, de Blasio has vowed to raise taxes on the rich to fund early childhood education programs as a way to remedy income inequality in the city — which he says has increased under Bloomberg. He’s also said he will undo the city’s stop-and-frisk police tactic — a controversial measure directed overwhelmingly at black and Hispanic men. Bloomberg argues stop-and-frisk has made the city safer; de Blasio says it’s racial profiling.
De Blasio’s expected win has been viewed as a repudiation of Bloomberg’s record at City Hall — even though polls suggest that the public isn’t necessarily tired of Bloomberg’s policies, they are just tired of him.
Bloomberg never formally endorsed a candidate in the race for mayor — though in the Democratic primary he clearly favored City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a close ally whose bid for mayor faltered partly because of her role in helping overturn voter-backed term limits that allowed Bloomberg to seek a third term.
In the last weeks before the primary, Howard Wolfson, a top aide to Bloomberg, publicly criticized de Blasio, suggesting the Democrat wanted to “undo” the city’s progress under Bloomberg and take the city back to a time when it was virtually ungovernable.
And just before the primary, Bloomberg himself spoke out — suggesting deBlasio had run a “racist” campaign by playing up his multiracial family. He also criticized his rhetoric on income inequality as nothing more than “class warfare.”
But when de Blasio won the Democratic nomination, Bloomberg stopped talking. He announced that he would not endorse in the race — perhaps not surprising since Lhota, a former aide to ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, had once called the mayor “an idiot,” a remark he later apologized for.
As the race wound down, Bloomberg insisted he instead would focus on ensuring a smooth transition with his eventual successor — no matter who it was. He echoed that argument Tuesday when he declined to tell reporters which candidate he voted for.
But asked about de Blasio’s criticism, Bloomberg insisted he wasn’t bothered by it.
“I’d love to tell you I listened to it, but I did not. I didn’t read most of the articles. I didn’t see most of the ads,” Bloomberg said. “And in any case, what some people say during campaigns is often not what they say later on. They say one thing for primaries and another thing for the general election and another thing afterwards. The real issue is not what they say during campaigns. The real issue is what they do when they get elected.”
Those close to Bloomberg insist the mayor is telling the truth on that point — moved in part by his admiration by previous administrations and how they have worked with successors, even in spite of political differences. They say he is looking more toward his own legacy than dwelling on debates about how people feel about him now.
“Bloomberg is not a person who looks backwards. He is not about sour grapes,” says Bill Cunningham, a former political strategist for Bloomberg who worked for the mayor during his first term at City Hall. “He understands how politics works, and his only answer to that is to look forward and work right up until the very end toward his goals. Only then, when his term ends, will he stop and look back. It is all moving forward and moving on.”
And Bloomberg has already indicated he's thinking about life past City Hall. While he'll continue his political activity — including a personally funded super PAC that has spent millions to boost political issues such as gun control and efforts to control climate change — Bloomberg also has said he wants to ramp up his philanthropic efforts, telling reporters he's admired the charity efforts of former Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.
But Bloomberg clearly cares about his legacy at City Hall — repeatedly saying he hopes to go down in history as one of the city's best mayors. Asked on Tuesday if it was “bittersweet” to vote in the first mayoral election in more than a decade that didn’t include him on the ballot, he insisted he didn’t miss it.
“Funny thing is, it never occurred to me,” Bloomberg said.
But the mayor did seem more nostalgic than usual. Bloomberg, who at times has been criticized as unemotional and distant, spent minutes shaking hands and posing for photos with his fellow voters. He also lingered for several minutes chatting up a group of mothers running a bake sale to benefit the school — discussing everything from sports to the Broadway show “Kinky Boots,” which he heartily endorsed.
“Have you seen it? You should see it,” Bloomberg declared, mentioning how much he liked singer Cyndi Lauper’s Tony-award winning score.
When the subject turned to the Yankees, the mayor seemed shocked when one of the mothers told him she’d once camped out overnight to score tickets to one of the team’s World Series games.
“You have to do it once,” she said, adding that she had admired the prime location of his seats at the games.
Bloomberg shook his head and said he won’t be so lucky in the future.
“I won’t be mayor anymore,” he said.