NEW YORK — For months, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has barely been able to contain his disdain for reporters asking him questions about the race to replace him as leader of the nation's largest city.
“These questions aren’t substantive and don’t inform the public,” Bloomberg ranted at a press conference in March when asked if he'd make an endorsement. “If I have something to say, I’ll say it directly to the public, and who I am going to vote for I may never choose to say.”
But even as Bloomberg has remained silent in the runup to next week’s mayoral primaries, two major questions remain: Will he inch off the sidelines to back a candidate he believes will protect his legacy? And will he spend part of his estimated $27 billion fortune to run ads against a candidate he believes might try to undermine his 12 years at City Hall?
It was initially expected that Bloomberg would throw his support behind City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a close ally who led the effort to overturn a voter-backed term-limits measure in 2008 that allowed the mayor to run for a third term. But Quinn's ties to Bloomberg have already been used against her by Democratic primary rivals including Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who has seen his poll numbers surge by positioning himself as the anti-Bloomberg in the race.
Among other things, de Blasio has made inequality in the city a centerpiece of his campaign — accusing Bloomberg and his allies of focusing on the needs of a “chosen few” while being “absolutely insensitive” to the needs of the middle class and the poor.
“It’s a tale of two cities,” de Blasio has said.
And he’s also criticized Bloomberg for his support of the controversial "stop and frisk" measure that allows police officers to randomly search people. Last month, de Blasio ran a campaign ad featuring his 15-year-old son, Dante, who is multiracial, telling the camera that his father is the only candidate “with the guts to really break from the Bloomberg years.”
Bloomberg has repeatedly declined to comment on de Blasio’s attacks, but there have been signs the rhetoric has been getting to him.
In recent weeks, Howard Wolfson, a deputy mayor who is one of Bloomberg’s top political advisers, has torn into de Blasio — accusing him on Twitter of wanting to enact policies that would be a “u-turn back” to the 1970s, when New York was filthy and crime-infested and teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.
And last week, Wolfson repeated those claims in an interview with NY1, accusing de Blasio of wanting to “undo” the progress made in the city under the Bloomberg administration.
“We’ve had the best 12 years of the city’s history in the last 12 years, and Bill de Blasio wants to undo that,” Wolfson said. “He wants to take the city back to a different style of governing, where we had higher taxes, where we had more regulation on business, where we had more permissive policing.”
Echoing what has been Quinn's line of attack, he also accused de Blasio of being a flip-flopper on issues including term limits — pointing out that de Blasio once spoke favorably over overturning the rule before he had mayoral aspirations.
“Consistency on the campaign trail is important. I have been confused as a voter, as a citizen, about his position on term limits,” Wolfson said.
Wolfson’s attack was notable, not just because he and de Blasio have remained friendly since they worked together on Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign. There was immediate speculation that Wolfson was speaking for Bloomberg himself — a talking point quickly embraced by de Blasio, who accused Wolfson and his boss of “fear-mongering.”
“I understand Howard has a job to do,” de Blasio said when asked about Wolfson’s comments. “He obviously is an eloquent spokesman for keeping things exactly the way they are in New York City. ... He speaks well for his boss in defending everything exactly the way it is.”
Wolfson did not respond to repeated requests for comment nor did other press officials at City Hall. But the de Blasio attack illustrated Bloomberg’s tenuous position in the mayoral race and with the public.
While Bloomberg remains generally popular with New Yorkers and polls have found that most voters approve of the programs he’s enacted while in office, his approval rating has slipped as attacks on his leadership have ratcheted up. A New York Times/Siena College poll found voters split on whether they approve of the job he’s doing as mayor — and split on whether New York City is headed in the right direction under his leadership.
For Bloomberg, who is said to be fiercely protective of his legacy as mayor, the race presents a Catch-22: If he endorses a candidate he believes might help protect the programs he championed as mayor, it could be the kiss of death, and if he attacks someone, it could actually help that candidate.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said George Arzt, a longtime New York political consultant who is unaffiliated in the mayoral race.
Wolfson’s attack on de Blasio “didn’t do anything, and in fact, he is surging at the moment,” Arzt said, adding that if Bloomberg were to speak out “it would just help” de Blasio.
In recent weeks, there has been speculation about what Bloomberg might do if de Blasio wins the Democratic nomination. The New York Post, citing sources, has reported that Bloomberg would back Joe Lhota, a former Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman and ex-aide to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is expected to win the GOP nomination next week.
But Lhota and Bloomberg haven’t had the best relationship. Lhota has campaigned against Bloomberg’s heavy-handedness as mayor, criticizing his attempts to enact a ban on large sugary drinks and other health initiatives. Last year, he apologized to Bloomberg after he was quoted in The New York Times calling the mayor “an idiot.”
But politics makes strange bedfellows, and on Thursday, Lhota told “Good Day New York” that he planned to speak with Bloomberg after next week’s primary to seek his support.