Elected in 9/11 shadow, NYC mayor deepens the link
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
NEW YORK (AP) — It didn’t take long after his election for Mayor Michael Bloomberg to alienate some of those most closely affected by the Sept. 11 attacks. In unemotional terms, he advocated for a “less is more” approach to a memorial, explaining that rental agents wouldn’t like the area to seem like a “cemetery.”
But the man who once shied away from his predecessor’s suggestion that the World Trade Center site be made into a “soaring, monumental” tribute now leads the foundation responsible for the memorial. He has given at least $15 million of his own money to the cause and will help preside over the opening Sunday of the memorial covering about half the space where the twin towers once stood. As that anniversary approaches, news of run-ins with 9/11 stakeholders appear to have largely faded from public view.
For many, Rudolph Giuliani is the mayor they will forever associate with the attacks. But Bloomberg’s tenure has been entwined with the economic and physical rebuilding that followed, and it will form a part of his legacy.
His time in City Hall will be bookended by World Trade Center milestones — the attacks weeks before his election, and the planned opening of the building once called the Freedom Tower shortly before he leaves office in 2013.
Some argue the billionaire businessman would never have won office were it not for the attacks. In the shocked weeks after the towers fell, he argued that his years building and directing his media empire would help him repair the city’s economy and financial district.
Because of the attacks, Bloomberg’s “resume meant something more than it did before,” said Baruch College politics professor Doug Muzzio. “Also, it made Rudy a saint and made his endorsement of Bloomberg even more important, so the attachment is intimate.”
But while his predecessor became known as “America’s mayor,” early in Bloomberg’s tenure it didn’t seem that he had much interest in such a title.
At first, he upset some victims’ relatives when he did not attend every firefighter’s funeral, as Giuliani had. Then, halfway through his first year in office, he was called insensitive when he told a crowd: “When people say, “Well that’s a cemetery,” that’s not exactly what a rental agent wants to have out there.”
The next year, he angered bereaved parents Diane and Kurt Horning during a meeting where they protested the city’s burial of sifted trade center dust in a landfill. Diane Horning said Bloomberg was “dismissive and abrupt” and implied that he didn’t identify with their cause because he plans to donate his body to science.
And in 2007, Bloomberg sparked a furor when he said that police Detective James Zadroga, who worked on the World Trade Center cleanup, was “not a hero” because his death was ruled unrelated to the toxic debris at the site. He later met with the family to apologize.
The mayor has said that there are simply too many survivors of the nearly 2,800 victims to please everybody. Some relatives contend that he doesn’t consult them on decisions. Christy Ferer, the mayor’s liaison to the victims’ families, says she seeks feedback from an email list of thousands on issues large and small.
“He’s very much a pragmatist and wants to do the most good for the largest number of people while at the same time taking into account the sensitivities of the stakeholders,” she said.
While some disagreements and even legal action by relatives remains, such tensions have abated as decisions on the memorial have been finalized. Over time, it seems the mayor has gotten better at avoiding gaffes, said Hunter College political science professor Kenneth Sherrill.
“He tends not to show his temper as much. He’s a little bit less likely to say, ‘Come on, get used to it,’ or something of that sort,” Sherrill said.
Still, his pragmatic approach seems unchanged, he said.
“Maybe they got used to him,” Sherrill said. “He’s not a touchy-feely kind of guy.”
Whatever Bloomberg’s personal style, his policy involvement in the rebuilding of the trade center and the creation of a national memorial has deepened.
In the early years of his tenure, Bloomberg frequently said he did not have the authority to guide redevelopment. But Joe Daniels, president of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the organization that Bloomberg now chairs, says the mayor changed his approach in early 2006.
The shift came as Bloomberg, fresh off a commanding win in his race for a second term, began raising his national profile — the beginning of speculation about presidential ambitions, although he passed up the 2008 race.
Now, Daniels credits the mayor with spurring progress at the memorial, in one case bringing in a developer who helped scale its cost back. And he says it would not be opening to victims’ families on the 10th anniversary — and to the public a day later — without Bloomberg’s intervention.
Perhaps the mayor’s most vocal moment downtown came last year, when he forcefully stepped in to the dispute surrounding plans to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque near ground zero — saying that blocking the project would be “compromising our commitment to fighting terror with freedom.”
“The government shouldn’t be in the business of telling people who they pray to, where they pray, when they pray, what they say,” said the mayor, whose popularity over the past decade has dropped, then risen, then dropped again for reasons rarely attributed to 9/11 and its aftermath.
Now, a decade after he said his business experience would help in the revitalization of lower Manhattan, Bloomberg is touting the area’s rebirth and is expected to reinforce that message in a speech Tuesday.
“He’s a money man — trying to build up New York City’s financial power and trying to build up the city overall,” said Tobias Garcia, sitting on a bench near ground zero. That contrasts with Giuliani, who “was more connected with emotions ... more compassionate,” he said.
Ultimately, Bloomberg’s legacy is likely to include many other accomplishments, among them instituting a businesslike management style, pushing for better weapons licensing and enforcement, overseeing a decline in crime, banning most indoor smoking outside of homes and requiring the posting of calories on some menus.
And people will, at the least, remember his tenure as a backdrop to 9/11 recovery, Sherrill said.
“He inherited this massive crisis. It had a devastating impact on the city’s economy,” he said. “It was a very daunting problem to negotiate.”
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