George Will / Dec. 14, 2008

Running for Mayor of New York

PROVINCIAL, adj. Limited in perspective; narrow and self-centered. – American Heritage Dictionary

NEW YORK – It is a New York frame of mind. As the presidential campaign began, this city, which fancies itself the final word in worldliness, actually thought its mayor, Michael Bloomberg, could and should be a contender, an opinion he seemed to share and certainly did not discourage. West of the Hudson, this quaint nonsense mystified: If the nation wanted to be governed by a New York mayor, Bloomberg’s predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, was available. Giuliani spent $65.4 million winning one delegate.

John Catsimatidis, a grocer, might run next year against Bloomberg, the 25th richest American (net worth $11.5 billion, according to Forbes, before the current unpleasantness), and the richest American ever to hold public office – 10 times richer, in constant dollars, than was Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Catsimatidis says New York needs someone who knows the “streets” and “neighborhoods” and can appeal to the immigrant grocers, bodega owners and others in this city that is almost 40 percent foreign-born.

Forbes says Catsimatidis’ $2.1 billion net worth makes him the 220th richest American. Such is life in the simmering melting pot: Any child can grow up to be a billionaire, thereby meeting what seems to have become the threshold qualification for mayor.

Born in Greece in 1948, Catsimatidis was 6 months old when his parents moved to America and into a $48-a-month apartment in Harlem. His father, who had been a lighthouse keeper on a Greek island, became a busboy whose insufficient English prevented him from becoming a waiter. Still, son John got to New York University. To, but not through. While working part time in a family friend’s grocery – buying produce at 4 a.m., then on to classes – he opened his own store at Broadway and 99th Street, made some money, enjoyed that experience, left NYU, began opening and buying other stores, then the buildings they were in, and after branching out into oil, airlines and other stuff, the next thing he knew he was rich enough to be restless, a condition that, in the very rich, sometimes is a precursor of a political itch.

Bloomberg was a liberal Democrat until in 2001 he scratched his itch by becoming a Republican, thereby avoiding an inconvenient Democratic primary. Bloomberg won the Republican nomination and the election, all for $72.5 million. Re-elected in 2005, but not summoned to the presidency, he convinced the City Council – not a Herculean task – to alter the law, enacted and reaffirmed in two referendums, limiting mayors and council members to two terms. Bloomberg thereby became an advertisement for term limits as prophylactic measures against arrogance.

Speaking of which, Bloomberg then decreed that the city’s parlous financial condition – his administration has hired more than 40,000 new city workers since 2004; spending is up about 50 percent during his tenure – required him to cancel the $400 rebate checks that usually are mailed in October to 600,000 homeowners, many of them of modest means, some of whom were New Yorkers before Bloomberg arrived from Boston and before he airily announced that living in New York is a luxury. Bloomberg has no power to unilaterally cancel the rebate without the complicity of the City Council, which is supine but not suicidal. Nevertheless, the checks have not been mailed, but as this is written, several council members are asking a court to order the mailing.

Plunging Gotham into consternation about what to do with kitty litter and dirty diapers, Bloomberg has decreed a 6-cent “fee” on plastic shopping bags in order to save the planet from, well, plastic. Then his staff acknowledged that the fee would be a tax, requiring Albany’s approval. Perhaps Bloomberg should just ban the bags, as San Francisco – of course – has done.

Catsimatidis, ample in girth and sartorially rumpled, works out of his empire’s unimperial headquarters above a Lexus dealership on 11th Avenue. After becoming Bill Clinton’s buddy, Catsimatidis became a Republican in October 2007 – do you see a pattern? – but might run only if Bloomberg’s politics of hauteur and talk of increased property taxes, tolls on East River bridges, and other annoyances so curdles the public’s mood that the mayor decides against running.

Catsimatidis has some interesting ideas for middle-class developments built around the city’s distinctive infrastructure, its subway system, and if the less-harmful billionaire wins, Catsimatidis will have acquired Gracie Mansion. This is “post-partisan” politics. Do you like it?

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group 

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