Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Latest Stray Words of an Off-the-Cuff Mayor

Comments by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have made it harder for aides to portray him as in touch with ordinary New Yorkers.

When you’re worth $16 billion, it’s all relative. On Monday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg — who owns homes in Bermuda, Florida, Colorado and London; travels the globe on two private jets; and plans to spend $80 million of his own money on a re-election bid — said that President Obama “does not get paid that much.”

That is, if a $400,000-a-year salary, a $50,000 expense account and a $19,000 entertainment budget qualifies as not much. It was the latest puzzling remark in a re-election campaign filled with colorful foot-in-mouth mayoral utterances.

469 thousand, compared to what CEOs and athletes make

Campaign aides to Mr. Bloomberg are seeking to portray him as a sympathetic chief executive in touch with ordinary New Yorkers (witness a parade of commercials featuring a tieless mayor talking about jobs).

Who buys that?

Mr. Bloomberg, however, has not made it easy. Since deciding to seek a third term last fall, he has declared that “we love the rich.” Reaching for an economic barometer, he described dwindling crowds at Bergdorf Goodman, the luxury department store.

He has scolded a disabled blogger, Michael Harris, who uses a wheelchair, for accidentally turning on a tape recorder at a news conference. And, last week, he bitterly rebuked a reporter, Azi Paybarah, who asked about his decision to overturn the city’s term limits law, telling him, “You’re a disgrace.”

Given Mr. Bloomberg’s commanding lead in the polls — he remains at least 10 points ahead of any rival — the missteps suggest that the biggest obstacles to his re-election are his own, unpredictable words.

Of course, New Yorkers have long admired candor from their leaders — and Mr. Bloomberg is nothing if not frank. After parents complained about dangerously hot rubber safety mats on city playgrounds, he responded: “If it’s hot, don’t sit on it.” About crowded subways, and the griping they engender, he once said: “So you stand next to people. Get real. This is New York.”

William T. Cunningham, who served as Mr. Bloomberg’s communications director during his first term, said: “He does not try out phrases. He does not poll his language. He says what’s on his mind.”

He added, “The public cares more about actions and deeds than the stray word here and there.”

On Monday, Mr. Bloomberg had intended to placate critics — or at least, the reporters who cover him — by announcing he would take questions at campaign events. He has previously shunned the practice, forcing reporters to ask questions about his campaign at formal City Hall press briefings. Several testy exchanges have resulted.

But the mayor’s new policy arrived with strict new rules — only campaign questions at campaign press conferences, and only questions about city government at city government press conferences — that touched off immediate protest from reporters.

Then came the mayor’s remarks on Mr. Obama’s pay. Mr. Bloomberg was asked about Republican criticism of the president and first lady for their whirlwind trip to New York on Saturday night, just as General Motors prepared to file for bankruptcy.

Mr. Bloomberg defended the romantic jaunt, saying it would bolster the economy, before adding that the president, whose income puts him in the top 1 percent of Americans, “does not get paid that much” and “lives on a budget.”

Head scratching ensued. Aides said he was referring to the cost of the president’s travel and security (which is paid for by taxpayers.) And later on Monday, the mayor sought to clarify the remarks, saying “The president is worth a lot more than we pay him.”

As for his eyebrow-raising remarks, the mayor had this to say: “I am 67 years old. I am who I am.”

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