In the first of this week’s shows from New York, Tavis talks with Mayor Michael Bloomberg about the challenges his city faces, including education, the economy and immigration.
NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Tavis: But no better way to kick off this week in New York than with – bam – the mayor of New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The influential Independent is serving his third term as chief executive of the Big Apple and has vowed to make education the primary focus of his final term. Mr. Mayor, an honor to have you back on this program.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg: Thank you for having me, Tavis.
Tavis: No better way to start our trip than –
Bloomberg: Welcome to New York. We’d like you to be here all the time.
Tavis: We’re glad to be – we’ll work on that, maybe.
Tavis: Come back more often, at least. Good to see you. Let me start with some news you made yesterday, a couple things I want to get your take on. I caught you on Fox yesterday and was intrigued by your comments when asked about Donald Trump and this birther issue.
For those who didn’t see Fox yesterday, just kind of recap what you had to say about your advice for Mr. Trump in this issue.
Bloomberg: Well, I was asked about Donald. He is a New York icon, a little bit bigger than life. His daughter I know pretty well, married to the publisher of a small newspaper here. Very smart. Donald is Donald – he’s bigger than life. Anybody can run for president, that’s fine.
The birther issue is bigger than Donald Trump, however. There are states that are passing laws regarding verification of whether you’re in compliance with the Constitution that says you have to be born in America. I think number one, this president was born in America.
Number two, this seems to be one of the big issues of some members of the Republican Party, and I said yesterday if they don’t change and start focusing on the big issues – immigration, the deficit, the economy, and we can go on and on – and get away from something as ridiculous as this, they’re going to lose, and they deserve to lose.
What this country needs is the Republican Party and the Democratic Party to focus on the big issues and find some ways to come together. They’ve got to focus on the things that we agree on and stop focusing on the things that we disagree on.
The bottom line is we have an expression in New York City government – “In God we trust, but for everyone else, bring data.” (Laughter) It’s so easy to pick up a sound byte and say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I believe that,” without really thinking.
One of the differences between government and business and why government doesn’t function as well as people think business does – not clear it does, but people think that – is that in business, when you fail at something, when something doesn’t work, you say okay, we’ve learned that that’s not a path to go down.
Same thing in science. In science, a path that turns out to be a dead end is very useful because you don’t devote resources to focusing on that; you go elsewheres.
In government, the press writes it as failure. Well, I never want anybody in my company or in my administration that isn’t willing to try new, risky, untried things. That’s the way you’re going to really make big steps forward. A lot of those aren’t going to work, and if you fire the people that did them, why would anybody do them?
So you want to encourage people to innovate, and the essence of innovation is what government finds very difficult to deal with, but it still can be done. I don’t think we should walk away from it. We’re trying to do it in New York City government and I think to some extent throughout this country.
You just can’t walk away and say we’re not going to try new things, but the answer to your question basically as to why people waste time, start to believe in things like the birther issue, is they don’t stop to think and it sounds like it might be true, and if you don’t know it’s – if you can’t prove it’s not true then a certain number of people will glom on and say it is true.
Tavis: I want to come back – you’ve made some provocative comments here that intrigued me about failure, and I’m in town, as you and I were discussing before we came on the air, I’m in town in part –
Bloomberg: I don’t know why they’re provocative. I think they’re some fair statements.
Tavis: No, they’re fair statements, they are fair statements, but provocative in the sense that they got me thinking about some questions I want to ask you about failure in your own life in just a second.
But one last thing about this birther thing, since you raised it. You referred to Donald Trump as a friend; we know that he is. He is an icon.
Bloomberg: He’s a business friend, you know.
Tavis: I only raise that because I’m curious – a guy who is as smart as he is, when you define this issue, describe it rather, as “ridiculous,” Mr. Trump is a smart guy, so I’m only left with a couple of options for why you think somebody like that would grab a hold of an issue like this.
Bloomberg: Well, I can’t speak why somebody else does things. I’ve got a tough enough time explaining why I do things and say things that sometimes I say, “Oh, did I say that? I wish I hadn’t said it.” So I can’t tell you why he – I think there is a temptation, and I have no idea whether Donald Trump is doing this, but there’s a temptation to try to tell people what they want to hear, and I think that’s a very difficult thing which you learn.
I have. If you ask me what’s the most difficult thing, I remember campaigning, and the first day I ever campaigned this woman looked up at me adoringly and said, “You’re going to win,” and I said, “Oh, that’s great.” She said, “Your opponent’s going to drop out.” I said, “This is easy.”
Then she said, “I am so glad you’re pro-life.” Well, I happen to be very much pro-choice. I’m not in favor of abortion; I just think it’s a woman’s decision to make. I remember as I turned without pausing and said to her, “I’m sorry, we disagree on this,” the instinct in your mind is should you tell her what she wants to hear? The answer, if you are honest with yourself and if you want to like what you see in the mirror, is you have to say what you really believe.
I’ve always believed that elected officials that get elected, those that really make a difference aren’t saying things the public wants to hear but are saying things that the public believes they believe in.
The public wants elected officials who have character. The public wants elected officials who are willing to stand up and say things, even if they don’t agree with them. Now, I know the polls say no and I know there’s a lot of yelling and screaming, but fundamentally, my advice to any elected official, particularly at an executive level; president, governor, mayor, would be you can’t fake it, particularly if you’re a mayor.
Mayors are very different, because mayors can’t be on both sides of every issue. Mayors have to take an explicit stance. Just go with your gut and say what you believe, and you’ll be fine. If you’re not fine, at least you’ll like what you see in the mirror.
Tavis: The reason why I love talking to you is every time you say something I want to ask three questions, so you’re making me think in these conversations. What you have just said now leads me to this question – we’ve all followed the Cathie Black story, and I don’t want to rehash that.
You made a mistake, you acknowledged that and you’ve got Mr. Wolcott now, so you’re on a new path now. The thing, though, that’s been in my spirit to ask you, though, speaking of your point now, is this question. How do you make a decision to go it alone?
If I’m to believe everything I have read about this, this was a decision that Michael Bloomberg made. There wasn’t a whole lot of input into this. This was your almost unilateral decision.
Bloomberg: Well, number one, I did ask a lot of people – Joe Klein and I and a number of others were part of it. I did talk to a lot of people about whether they’d be interested in the job.
But you don’t go and do a search like this in public. It would just turn into a circus and every pressure group would start pressuring you and you probably would not come up with a good candidate.
I picked somebody, after consultation with some others, who I thought would do a great job. She is a very smart woman. She is somebody who was willing to devote her life to public service, not an easy thing. I don’t know how it is in L.A., but at some of our public meetings on education, people stand up and scream obscenities at you.
Nobody should have to do this, but unfortunately, it’s the real world. She was as classy as could be during the confirmation or waiting for approval, which she needed, and then tried her best. It just in the end turned out to be a fit that I think both she and I decided at this point in time was not going to work, and the most important thing that she thought and said to me again and again was our kids, that’s what I think.
If you both agree that it’s not working and it’s not likely to turn around quickly, you can’t walk away from your basic responsibility for a long period of time to build what maybe you would get to eventually anyways. So we decided it was time for a change.
I did talk to a number of people again, privately, and decided that Dennis Wolcott, who had been part of all of the reforms from the Klein / Black eras and is somebody that I have been one of my deputy mayors from day one, somebody I have enormous confidence in, he was doing a lot of different things in the city which I really needed him for, but I decided at this point in time he was the right person for this job.
While he won’t be able to do everything he did before, I’ll have to find other people to do those things, this is the right guy for right now and I think he’ll be spectacular.
Tavis: Given all the challenges that you face in the school system here in New York, the largest in the country, as we all know, what makes you hopeful that under Cathie Black, Dennis Wolcott, or anybody else, you can actually make headway on these unique challenges?
Bloomberg: Well, we have 10 years of experience of making headway. We have raised the graduation rates something like 27 percent; we’ve cut the intolerable gap between the way Black and Latino kids test and white and Asian kids. We’ve cut a quarter, a third of that out, going in the right direction.
We’ve given parents an awful lot more choice – not just charter schools, but we’ve taken some big schools that weren’t really working, broken them up into smaller schools. We don’t really close schools, what we do is we change the management, maybe break them into smaller pieces, so that one principal can manage a smaller number of teachers.
We have gone into theme schools, which get high schoolers interested, even if that’s not where they’re going to wind up. We’ve made an enormous amount of progress. Arne Duncan, the president’s secretary of education, considers us a role model. The president has said nothing but great things about all of our efforts.
Are we where we want to be? Not even close. Are we a lot better off than we started? Yes. My hope is that we’ll do some more in the next two and three-quarter years, and then whoever comes after us will continue the battle and continue to improve.
If you want to know how to solve society’s problems, you start out with better public education. It’s not the only thing. We don’t have – is the way I describe it – we don’t have the old Normal Rockwell family typically anymore, where there’s one breadwinner and somebody at home, so when the kids come home there’s somebody to say, “Do your homework.”
The families aren’t so necessarily stable that we can make sure that every kid shows up with a good night’s sleep and a meal in his or her stomach. It is a much more complex world than what we had before, but we’ve made an enormous amount of progress and I’m encouraged more than ever before.
Sadly, the budget realities of a downturn in the economy mean that we have to downsize every agency. Education, we, in order to downsize its share, last November would have had to lay off a bunch of teachers.
I did not want to do that in the middle of a school year so we have that still with us. We put $2.2 billion – $2.2 billion more of city funds into our education system this year alone. Our education budget is roughly $22 billion. We spend $17,000 per kid, which is roughly double the national average. We’ve raised teachers’ salaries something like 43% over the last 10 years.
We used to lose teachers to the suburbs because we underpaid them. We don’t do that anymore. I’d love to pay teachers more, I’d love to have more teachers, but the reality is we’re going to have to downsize. That is going to be very painful and we’re just going to have to work together to get through this.
Tavis: Let me do something I almost never do on TV – it’s bad advice to ask two-part questions, but I want to give you room to connect these things if you want to.
So very quickly, one, was the third term, although successful, has there been a day when you’ve looked back at that decision, particularly given poll numbers now, and thought that you made a mistake pushing too hard?
Tavis: Not one?
Bloomberg: Not one.
Tavis: Between the two of us.
Tavis: Not one time?
Bloomberg: I went third term – it wasn’t that third terms were difficult, because I’ve changed three out of our seven deputy mayors and a good third of our commissioners, so that you have new blood and new ideas and that sort of thing.
I knew it was going to be a phenomenally difficult economic period, and I didn’t want my mind to say, “You walked away at the top. You have been through the good times, get all the credit, everybody loves you.” That was advice from a lot of my friends.
Tavis: But if poll numbers drop, you never think, “I could have gone out on top?”
Bloomberg: Day one, when I first came into office the first year I raised property taxes 18 percent because we had to pay our cops, firefighters and teachers. I closed a dozen firehouses. We just had too many firehouses and in the wrong place. Some of them were sited back in the days when fire trucks were pulled by horses or even people.
And I put a smoking ban in, and my popularity was something like 28 percent approval. As somebody said, I was getting a lot of one-fingered waves in parades. (Laughter) Today, there’s nobody that would turn back the smoking ban. Our work force, we have 330,000 people and nobody’s perfect – you never get 330,000 perfect people, but I would put our work force versus any other work force – big work force – in the public or the private sector.
New York works because of these people that provide the services day in and day out, and firehouses, deaths by fire is at an all-time record low. So if you want to go back and look, three things, controversial, drove your polls down; in the end, we were right, and I think the public will not be happy, like you can see that across the country – every governor, every mayor, in dealing with the new world realities, is going to be blamed for.
The good news is about five years ago, six years ago I looked at the economy and said, “This can’t go on.” We have everybody getting a mortgage, whether they can afford it or not. We have construction industry building houses everyplace, whether they make sense or not. We have the banks loaning money without asking who you are or how you’re ever going to pay it back.
The stock market was going up every day. Everybody was getting wealthy. I said, “This just can’t go on. I don’t know when it’s going to end any more than anybody else does,” and in all fairness, the only person that said publicly that it was going to kind of come to an end was Alan Greenspan with his irrational exuberance speech, which incidentally he gave 10 years earlier or something like that, so it wasn’t quite right then.
But it just looked to me like the good days cannot go on forever, so we started salting money away. Thank goodness we did, because this year that’s going to get us through this and we’ll use the balance of everything we’ve saved next year.
After that, we’ve just got to make sure our economy keeps growing, because there’s no more reserves. People say, “Well, spend the money that you need to get through next year right now.” You can’t do that. You can’t go and hock everything for the current. It’s going to be difficult times. Will the public understand?
The public may be upset, but in the end, you’ve got to, as I said, like what you see in the mirror. You’ve got to do what’s right. Tavis, if there’s one piece of advice I can give a young guy like you, don’t worry about it. Do it. If you think it’s right, that’s what matters.
Tavis: We could debate the Alan Greenspan issue for hours. We won’t debate that, because I got a different take on that with respect to Alan Greenspan and the role he played in crashing this economy, but that’s another conversation for another time.
But what I do want to ask is – and I don’t in any way ask this to cast aspersion on you because I believe it’s possible. I’m just curious as to how Michael Bloomberg processes it, and that is how you, given all that you’ve been blessed to accomplish, financially and otherwise, have empathy for everyday New Yorkers when the economy turns the way it is now. How do you relate?
Bloomberg: I grew up in a household; my father worked seven days a week until he checked himself into the hospital to die. My mother then went to work. My sister and I both had loans in school. I worked all my way through college, had a job all the time. I’ve been hired and I’ve been fired. I came to New York City, I turned down an apartment for $140 a month because my budget was $120, and then the guy who wanted to sublet it said he would put a chit into his company for the other $20 so I eventually took that apartment.
It was a one-room studio. I lived there for 10 years. I’ve been very lucky, and I give away most of my money. To say I don’t live well is ridiculous, but I haven’t had a vacation in 10 years, not because I can’t take one; because I like what I’m doing. I really do want to change the world.
I have two daughters that are the loves of my life and I want to leave them a better world, a better country, a better state and a better city.
Tavis: My time is just about up. I think you’ve arrived at the right place on this immigration issue. That’s my own assessment. But how did you arrive at that position on immigration?
Bloomberg: This country was built by immigrants. Almost nobody that you and I know that is any more than three generations, maybe four generations, American. We are competing in a global world. If we don’t get more immigrants to come here, whether they are seasonal workers in agriculture or whether they’re doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, with great academic credentials.
We need people from all around the world. We need entrepreneurs, we need students that we’re educating in our schools that we then throw out and we should make sure they can stay here.
If we don’t have the new flux of immigrants, nobody’s going to create the jobs for the Americans who are currently out of work. It’s once again, you go back to why do people believe the birther issue – why do people believe that immigrants are bad for the economy when you look, America became a superpower based on it.
America, that’s the whole essence of what America is. If you have one farm worker, typically they create three jobs with higher compensation and higher skills – the people that pack, the people that ship, the people that inspect, the people that sell, that sort of thing.
If you have one engineer or scientist, they typically create five jobs down the chain. So you’re working from both ends. What we shouldn’t do is let people who want to come here make the decision themselves. America should be in control of its own borders, but at the same time we have 11 million people here who are here – they broke the law, no argument about that; anybody that says they haven’t is ridiculous.
Having said that, we were all complicit in it. In 1986, Congress had immigration reform, deliberately did not fund any enforcement of it, and so it was the typical government ways of saying to those who wanted tough immigration laws, “I passed the great immigration law.” It was also the way to say to the person who didn’t want anything, “Don’t worry about it; it’s got no teeth.” So everybody is happy.
We went from two million to 11 million. If you want to go from 11 million undocumented to 20 million, I can tell you what to do – no comprehensive immigration reform. It’ll keep growing. Right now the undocumented group is getting slightly smaller because of the economy going down. When they economy picks up, people will come.
They’ll either come across one of our two long borders or our two long coastlines, or they’ll come, which is what half of them do, with a visa and over stay.
Tavis: Got just a minute to go. I’ve been very impressed over your tenure as the leader of this city, certainly as it parallels to President Obama’s national service, that you’ve been friendly with him – if not a friend, certainly friendly – and you’ve also been able to critique him when you think he needs to be critiqued. How have you managed that balance?
Bloomberg: Because I think you just say what you really say, and you don’t say it in a nasty way. If I had something very serious to say, I would say it to him personally, or his chief of staff, Bill Daly, is an old friend. I know a number of people in his senior administration, his closest advisers, and I’ve said to them, “I think the president should be doing this or doing that.”
When people say, “What do you think about something he or our governor does,” I say, “Look, the president’s got to represent 330 million people. Our governor’s got to represent 18 million people. I’ve got to represent eight million people, and I’m supposed to be fighting for the things that are important to New York.” That’s my job.
The governor’s job is to fight for a different group, the president’s for a different group. What I find strange, we all – whether you agree with this president or not, whether you voted for him or want to vote for somebody else or want to run against him, whatever it is, the most important thing is that this president, for the next two years, is successful. We need a successful president. That’s the future of our country.
Tavis: Does he deserve a second term?
Bloomberg: He’ll have to make the case to the voters, and I –
Tavis: Do you think he deserves a second term?
Bloomberg: I think he has done – let me answer it this way: He has done as good a job as virtually any new president the first two years. Lots of things he could have, would have and should have. That’s always going to be the case.
He’s done it differently than the last guy, differently than the next guy. He’s got to make a case to the voters why he’s the right person going forward. But once the voters get the opportunity to listen and make a decision, then we should get behind the president.
So we should be behind this president, even if you’re a candidate to run against him, which I am not, but I think those out there on the Republican side, when one of them said – I don’t know if it was a candidate, but one of the commentators said, hopes he fails, that’s sick.
We need this president to be successful because our futures are all tied to the success of America, which means America’s government, which means, in essence, the president.
Tavis: I am honored that you would come sit for these questions, and no better way to be welcomed to this city than to have the mayor come by and say hello, so Mayor Bloomberg –
Bloomberg: Thank you, we’d like you to spend a lot of money while you’re here. We need the sales tax revenues to pay those teachers. (Laughter)
Tavis: – I am honored to have you here.
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