At a time when corporate jets, executive bonuses and Wall Street excess inspire anger and resentment in a nation struggling against a recession, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg will likely spend tens of millions of dollars on another lavish campaign this year.
When Bloomberg shattered records and blew $85 million on his re-election in 2005, the world looked very different. There was no talk of bank bailouts, $920 billion stimulus packages or waves of home foreclosures.
The city wasn't facing thousands of layoffs and budget cuts in the billions. Back then, Bloomberg was deciding what to do with a record $3.5 billion budget surplus.
But now, the former Wall Street worker is preparing for his third big-spending campaign at the same time as he tells New Yorkers to brace for tough times and "do more with less." Under his budget knife, senior centers are losing funding, dental health clinics are closing, firehouses are reducing staffing, city workers are losing their jobs.
The former CEO, whose wealth is estimated at $20 billion, has staked his candidacy on what he believes is his unique ability as a financial whiz to protect the city from fiscal ruin during the downturn.
His Democratic opponents are already making an issue out of Bloomberg's heavy spending during these dark economic times, but it's too soon to know how it will play with voters. The mayor himself acknowledged during a budget address last week that New Yorkers are worried about money.
"The public is afraid," he said, "and they're not willing to go out and buy a new car, invest in a business, spend money."
'Lack of connectedness'
Bloomberg has faced criticism about his campaign spending before, but not against the backdrop of a nationwide recession and devastating local economic downturn. The Democrats competing in a primary to run against him rely on fundraising and public matching funds.
"On the one hand he's telling everyone to tighten their belts and then spending an obscene amount of money — that speaks to a lack of connectedness with working people and what they're going through in this economic downturn," said Eduardo Castell, campaign manager for William Thompson Jr., the city's comptroller.
Political analysts said it's hard to tell how much voters will care. In past public polls, Bloomberg's campaign spending has not bothered them.
A survey taken just last month by Quinnipiac University found that a majority, 54 percent, actually believes Bloomberg's self-financing frees him from being influenced by lobbyists and special interests.
The poll found that 40 percent said it gives him an unfair advantage and gives the appearance of buying re-election.
Maurice Carroll, director of the polling institute, said he doubted the tough economic climate would affect voter sentiment about Bloomberg's eye-popping spending.
"Should he spend all that money trying to get elected when he's laying off hospital workers? It may look callous, but it's two different pockets and voters understand that," Carroll said. "He's not some irresponsible playboy — he's spending it on what he thinks matters, and that's on staying mayor."
Bloomberg has also won over many New Yorkers with his generous philanthropy, giving away more and more each year. In 2008, he was ranked ninth in the nation by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, donating $235 million to charities in one year.
He has also spared no expense for his campaigns.
He throws multimillions at advertising, polling and microtargeting, which is when candidates use a range of data to target their messages to different blocs of voters.
Free flights and food
He pays his campaign workers' parking tickets, shuttles them around on his jet or helicopter and ponies up for nice office space that makes people more willing to work longer hours.
He buys their meals — and we're not talking cold pizza and stale coffee. In 2005, Bloomberg spent more than $50,000 keeping offices stocked with sodas, instant soup, nuts, candies, pretzels and coffee, and more than $70,000 on a service that let his staffers order any kind of takeout and have it delivered.
He hires the best strategists, pollsters and staff, and pays them big bonuses.
This year, his team includes several high-profile Democratic strategists who might have gone to work for one of his opponents. Instead, he nabbed them up first.
Asked last week if he was trying to "clear the field" and weaken the competition, Bloomberg said there were "probably a few other Democratic consultants in the country that we haven't hired."
"I think even I don't have the kind of money necessary to hire them all," he added.
On Thursday, when asked by reporters if he would agree to limit his spending this year, he dismissed it as a ridiculous idea.