Michael Bloomberg, the business-information mogul who announced his candidacy for mayor of New York last week, is surely the first aspirant to the office whose face is less well known than his corporate logo.
Consisting entirely of his own surname (“a cute, ethnic name,” he has said) set in a robust, rounded sans-serif typeface, the letters snugly squeezed together, the Bloomberg logo has for years now been plastered on bus stops and billboards across Manhattan. It’s above the Holland Tunnel, inside the Delta Shuttle, on the walls of the World Trade Center. Visitors to Bloomberg’s offices in New York and London have spied the gogglelike O’s peeking out at them from coffee cups, containers of bottled water, mouse pads, even the furniture.
In Bloomberg’s vast empire, everything is eponymous. The multibillionaire earned his fortune in the early ‘80s by creating a computer device that provided up-to-the-minute data on stocks and bonds—a device promptly dubbed the “Bloomberg.” A verb, too, was coined by traders who sent e-mail messages on these terminals: “to Bloomberg” (as in, “The brokers ‘Bloomberg’ with each other between meetings.”) In 1990, the mogul founded a news service (Bloomberg News) that gave free financial reports to newspapers, requiring only that articles using the information credit the service by name (thus netting more mentions for Bloomberg). Next came Bloomberg Personal Finance magazine, Bloomberg Radio, Bloomberg Television and, for Latino audiences, Negocios Bloomberg. His ghostwritten book of 1997 was titled Bloomberg on Bloomberg. He is perhaps the only Jew in Christendom who monograms his shirts.
If the business-world craze of the 1990s was branding—the stampede by corporate giants to sear their logos onto various products and their names into consumers’ minds—then Michael Bloomberg was its Wall Street maestro. He has said he wants his name to be as familiar worldwide as that of the ultimate brand, Coca-Cola. (But unlike Coca-Cola, he added, “I am trying to do it in all markets, in a few years, without spending tens of millions of dollars.”) And now he wants to be New York City’s first brand-name mayor or at least to spread the Bloomberg name during a high-profile campaign.
In the last few weeks, New York’s press has twittered endlessly over Bloomberg. Gossip columnists—a disturbingly influential power center in the city’s politics—fawn over him because he parties with ostensibly glamorous socialites you’ve never heard of (journalists have felt no need to clarify for readers the identity of such dropped names as Jayne Wrightsman and Arnold Scaasi). Serious political writers like him because he seems to hail from the Ross Perot-Jesse Ventura school of no-nonsense political outsiders who speak candidly and provide good copy. Compared to such stalwart but drab Democratic workhorses as Mark Green, Fernando Ferrer, Peter Vallone, and Alan Hevesi, or to the aging Republican candidate Herman Badillo (the Harold Stassen of New York City politics), the colorful Bloomberg—a former Democrat running as a Republican—gives metro-beat hacks a reason to dress for work.
For all the accusations that the billionaire candidate means to buy his way into Gracie Mansion, his success will actually depend on the so-called “free media.” Without regular and favorable press attention, Bloomberg will likely go the way of such forgotten Empire State footnotes as Ronald Lauder and Pierre Rinfret. But once Bloomberg casts his lot with the press, how will he hold up?
In recent years we’ve seen a handful of Bloomberg-like candidates: self-proclaimed mavericks devoid of political experience who have nonetheless sought high office, sparked by ego, fueled by money or celebrity. There is a typical trajectory to these candidacies. First, the salty, straight-talking aspirant comes on the scene like a refreshing gust of sea air, seeming bold, honest, and direct in contrast to the wishy-washy career pols with their poll-driven positions and focus-grouped slogans. Backed by an army of well-paid professionals of conflicting ideologies, promising to run the government with the efficiency of a CEO (never mind that cufflink-wearing, limousine-riding, fancy-restaurant-going executives are among the most profligate people on the planet), the maverick catches everyone’s attention as a potentially revolutionary figure.
Then, as the campaign progresses, the maverick alienates one constituency or another with an ill-considered remark. Suddenly, he either has to recant his comments, thereby damaging his reputation for candor, or dig in his heels, thus appearing headstrong and ill-suited for the give and take of democratic politics. Soon the once-vaunted straight talk is uniformly regarded as arrogance or screwiness, and the once-lauded common sense is exposed as a euphemism for not having a clue about government.
So far, Bloomberg is following the pattern. A first round of stories cooed about his rise from modest beginnings in the Boston suburb of Medford, his studies at Johns Hopkins (now home of the Bloomberg School of Public Health) and Harvard Business School (now home of the Bloomberg chair in philanthropy), and his rise through the ranks as a stock trader and eventually partner at Salomon Brothers on Wall Street. In these flattering stories, not even major setbacks stopped Bloomberg’s determined rise: When he was laid off from Salomon in 1981 with a $10 million golden parachute, he used the payday to invest in his little machines, which is how he made his “real” money and, of course, his name.
But already a mini-backlash has begun. Stories celebrating the divorced Bloomberg’s penchant for dating glamorous middle-aged women (“I have more in common with women who are roughly my age,” he was quoted as saying gallantly) have had to contend with publicity about several sexual harassment suits against him, including one in which a female employee alleged that when she informed him she was pregnant, he told her, “Kill it!” (Bloomberg denied the charge and settled the case out of court.) His resolve not to lord his wealth over the other mayoral contenders has slackened, as he blundered with off-the-cuff remarks disparaging New York’s public campaign-finance system, which is both popular and generous.
Meanwhile, he’s realized that Wall Streeters aren’t typical of New York City, in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 5-to-1. After trying to appeal to supporters of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, he’s now realized that the incumbent is only moderately popular (and in many quarters despised) and that there might be some virtue in putting daylight between himself and a man widely seen as rash, loose-talking, arrogant, and tyrannical. Bloomberg has also started refashioning his image to appeal to New York’s working class, campaigning in ethnic communities in the outer boroughs. Even his Web site, www.mikeformayor.com, strains for an unpretentious, folksy look—its URL lacking, uncharacteristically, the Bloomberg brand name.
Veteran New York City pols and pundits have dismissed Bloomberg’s candidacy as a lark. Although Giuliani won two mayoral terms as a Republican, they note, he did so under extraordinary circumstances that no longer pertain and with far more savvy and political experience than his would-be successor. Besides, they point out, Bloomberg remains mired in abysmal poll numbers. A recent survey showed him losing to every Democratic contender by about 40 percent.
Such dismissals are premature. They underestimate the ability of $15 million (which Bloomberg says he plans to spend) combined with the media’s infatuation with a self-styled maverick to spike a candidate’s numbers. People still don’t know Bloomberg. On the other hand, once they do get to know him, they very well may not like him. But that’s just a guess. For now he remains just a name.