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Escaping the long shadow of Mayor Bloomberg

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg met with the medial after a meeting in Washington last month.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press

On a recent rainy evening in Manhattan, hundreds of people packed into a midtown synagogue to see what the future holds for the most celebrated job in municipal politics anywhere in the world.

At the front of the sanctuary sat seven candidates for mayor of New York City. Impressively diverse but relatively unknown, they shared little in temperament or background with the man who has loomed over the city for more than a decade.

They included a gay Irish-American woman who heads the city council, the first Asian-American to win citywide office, and an African-American who used to oversee New York's finances.

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For good measure, there was also a business tycoon who made his money in supermarkets and oil ("I'm not a Mike Bloomberg billionaire," he clarified on a prior occasion. "I'm not wearing a $5,000 suit.")

No one quite seemed to fit the bill. After all, New Yorkers have come to expect larger-than-life characters in their chosen mayor, someone who will make waves not only on the local stage, but also the international one.

Whether they love him, hate him or simply tolerate him, New Yorkers are getting ready for life without Michael Bloomberg. The long reign of the three-term mayor ends in December and so far his potential successors aren't so much running against Mr. Bloomberg as trying to get out from under his very long shadow.

Even after nearly twelve years as mayor, Mr. Bloomberg remains a popular figure, with polls showing that just over half of New Yorkers approve of his performance. He appears to have avoided the curse that has afflicted prior mayors serving a third term – namely that voters can't wait to get rid of them.

At the mayoral forum earlier this week, it took forty minutes before any of the seven candidates mentioned Mr. Bloomberg by name. Only one of them – John Liu, currently the city's comptroller – dared to launch anything resembling a personal attack.

"It's a little hard to knock him," said Basil Smikle, a Democratic political consultant who previously ran for state senate. "How much of what he's done are you actually going to be able to get rid of? Everybody has to walk this very fine line."

In typical outspoken fashion, Mr. Bloomberg hasn't shied away from disparaging some of his potential successors. "Number one they have no idea what they're talking about. Number two, they have no suggestions on what to do. And number three, they just sound ridiculous," he said on a radio show last month, referring to several of the Democratic candidates.

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He hasn't been able to resist trying to recruit people to the job. Last year, he discussed the possibility of a mayoral run with Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. secretary of state, The New York Times reported. He also talked with a New York senator, a local media baron, and a former close aide about joining the race, the paper said. (None of those approached took the bait.)

Those reports proved exceedingly awkward for the person who is considered Mr. Bloomberg's preferred candidate in the race: Christine Quinn, the City Council Speaker. Ms. Quinn has spent her entire career in municipal politics and if elected, she would make history as the city's first woman and first gay mayor.

Ms. Quinn is a Democrat but nevertheless a close ally of Mr. Bloomberg, a businessman who first ran as a Republican before becoming an independent. The two have a collegial relationship and are known to banter "in the way only two tough outspoken New Yorkers can," Ms. Quinn said recently, referring to an anecdote reported in New York Magazine. (To wit: he told her it was time to get her hair dyed, because her roots are showing, and she responded, "Did you wake up this morning being this much of an asshole?")

Mr. Bloomberg hasn't formally endorsed Ms. Quinn, but he has praised her in public. "This woman has made an enormous difference in this city," he said in January, after the report surfaced about his overtures to Ms. Clinton.

Ms. Quinn is the early favourite to win the Democratic nomination for mayor. That's not the prize that it first seems in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by six to one. New Yorkers are perfectly happy to elect Republican mayors – indeed no Democrat has won the office since 1989.

The challenge facing the other candidates is that many New Yorkers don't know who they are. Leslie Getz, 67, a bibliographer and longtime Manhattanite, said she could identify two: Ms. Quinn and Mr. Liu. How about Joseph Lhota, the former head of the subway system, the leading contender on the Republican side, or John Catsimatidis, the supermarket tycoon? "Just names," she replied.

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Although she plans to vote for Ms. Quinn, she gave high marks to Mr. Bloomberg. "If I could vote for him again, I would," she said.

That kind of widespread satisfaction with Mr. Bloomberg's tenure makes it difficult to use him as a foil in a campaign or to run on a theme of radical change.

There's also another reason why the candidates may be wary of criticizing the current mayor. "Since he has an ample treasury, he will remain a feared figure as a lame duck mayor," said George Arzt, a political consultant and spokesman for former New York Mayor Ed Koch. "You never know where his money can be used against you."

While there is admiration for the mayor, Mr. Arzt said, there are also signs of fatigue with Mr. Bloomberg and his sometimes imperious ways. A poll this week from Quinnipiac University asked New Yorkers about their comfort level with various kinds of candidates. Strong majorities responded favorably to the idea of a woman mayor, an African-American mayor, or a gay mayor. The type with the worst numbers? A mayor who is a business executive.

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