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What’s a crusading billionaire to do? Michael Bloomberg ponders next act

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke to the Sikh Cultural Society in New York last week in the wake of a shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh temple.


One recent Thursday, not long after noon, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrived at a blood collection centre in downtown Brooklyn. He sat at a small booth and filled out the requisite form, then lay back in a white reclining chair, composing his features into something between stoic and stern.

Cameras whirred and clicked, careful to catch every detail of the mayoral donation. Would he miss all this once his time as mayor is over? "I'll still give blood," he said. Would he miss the cameras, then? Mr. Bloomberg fixed his questioner – this reporter – in the eye. "I don't think so," he replied dryly.

Already that morning, he had presided over a graduation ceremony for three hundred new correctional officers, posing for photos and dispensing nuggets of wisdom ("You are going to make mistakes," and, "Don't apologize too much").

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Even earlier, he paid a visit to Jamaica Hospital in Queens, where a police officer was recovering after being shot in both legs. Mr. Bloomberg challenged the country's leaders to explain what they would do to tackle gun violence, a call he has repeated ever since the mass shooting in Colorado in July. By the time his entourage returned to Manhattan, it was after 2 a.m.

Such is the daily grind for New York's mayor, a larger-than-life job that attracts the brash personalities to match. Mr. Bloomberg's stamp on the city is unlike any other. His causes go well beyond the city's economic vitality and public safety right into matters not usually considered mayoral territory, like what New Yorkers eat and drink.

His next avatar

At the age of 70, Mr. Bloomberg is in a position without precedent. He is entering his final stretch as mayor, joining a small cadre of legendary leaders of the city – just three others in the past century – who won three successive terms. He commands a staggering fortune, thanks to the eponymous media company he founded. And, as his schedule shows, he appears to have the energy of a younger person who remains willing, as an associate put it, to "work like a dog."

So what's a crusading billionaire to do? Retirement is not an option for a man of Mr. Bloomberg's ambition, no matter how appealing the possible retreats (the mayor owns homes in Bermuda, Vail and the Hamptons). Elected office also appears to be out: Mr. Bloomberg explored then discarded the notion of a run for president.

Instead, Mr. Bloomberg is crafting a post-mayoral future that could be as unusual as his time in office. At his disposal is a potent mix of money, fame and political know-how that he can use to shape policy.

For a sense of what he will pursue, look in his backyard. New Yorkers know that while Mr. Bloomberg has a bit of Bruce Wayne in him – he likes his privacy and pilots helicopters – he is also every bit a champion of causes. His zeal for making people's lives better is usually matched with an equal certitude that his methods are correct.

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Over the past decade, he has prevented New Yorkers from smoking in bars, restaurants and parks. He has banned trans fat in the city's eateries, obliged fast-food restaurants to post calorie counts, mounted a campaign against excess salt and is moving to restrict large sizes of sugary drinks. To promote breastfeeding, he is making baby formula less accessible in hospitals.

Beyond his commitment to public health, he has rallied funds and political power to combat gun violence and climate change. He is a key player in promoting immigration reform and innovation in local government.

In his next avatar, Mr. Bloomberg is likely to pursue those same priorities, people close to him say, but on a broader canvas. "You look at Bill Clinton and say, 'This is a life that Mike Bloomberg could have,'" a friend says .

Granted, Mr. Bloomberg is not a former president, but he "has a very large foundation, immense personal wealth, one of the largest media and data companies in the world," the friend said. "Why can't he be a version of Bill Clinton out there on the issues he cares about?"

Some of that transformation is already starting. Take Mr. Bloomberg's recent activism on gun control.

The advocacy group he helped found, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, broadcast a 30-second advertisement during the Olympics. It featured survivors of the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., demanding a plan for ending gun violence from President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee.

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Mr. Bloomberg "is the leader of the gun-control movement today," said Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at the University of California who wrote a book on the battle over gun rights. "No one is more out front on this issue."

Taking stands

Mr. Bloomberg, who is officially an independent, has never hewed to the usual script for politicians, either in his views or his personal life. He is Jewish, divorced, pro-choice, pro-immigrant and in favour of gay marriage. He is also fervently pro-business. Before founding his data-and-media giant, Bloomberg LP, he worked at Salomon Brothers, overseeing the firm's equity trading and its information systems.

People in New York appreciate politicians who take a stand, said William Cunningham, a veteran strategist who worked on Mr. Bloomberg's first campaign. "Toughness is what New Yorkers like, even if they disagree with you," he said. "Mike's not going to duck and run for cover," he said.

Indeed, New Yorkers can veer between affection and annoyance on the topic of Mr. Bloomberg. His end-run around the city's term-limit law – it was overturned to permit Mr. Bloomberg a third term – still rankles. But his final term has not proven nearly as rocky as some predicted it would be. According to a poll taken by Quinnipiac University in June, 50 per cent of the city's residents approved of his performance.

During his tenure, he has rallied his peers to work together in a kind of fraternity of policy wonks. Cory Booker, the charismatic mayor of Newark, N.J., described Mr. Bloomberg as the "Obi-Wan Kenobi" of American mayors in an interview with The Globe last year – that is, if the Star Wars sage had "a bit of a temper."

Mr. Bloomberg can use such political networks and his considerable chequebook in his next act. He has already announced that he will give away most of his estimated $22-billion (U.S.) fortune. "He doesn't have a committee so he can move very quickly," notes a person close to him. "He's picking spots where he feels very confident that his view is the right one. You don't see him weighing in on the Syrian crisis."

Mr. Bloomberg has never hesitated to apply mayoral muscle to improve the health of New Yorkers. Smokers and libertarians howled each time he curtailed smoking, but the restrictions now feel normal and other cities are replicating them. The American Cancer Society recently credited the controls with helping to lower the incidence of lung cancer in New York.

Mr. Bloomberg is taking his anti-smoking fight global. In March, he travelled to Singapore and announced he would donate $220-million to combat tobacco use in developing countries, where the majority of tobacco-related deaths occur. Overall, he has committed more than $600-million to the cause.

Back home, he is pushing the envelope yet again. His move to ban sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces from restaurants has provoked stiff opposition. "What will the government be telling me next? What time to go to bed? How big my steak should be?" asked city councilman Dan Halloran at a recent hearing.

Mr. Bloomberg has faced such criticisms so many times that the tabloids are running out of epithets (already used: "Bloomberg's Nannyville," "Mayor may I" and "Nanny Mike").

Public-health experts applaud Mr. Bloomberg's boldness in tackling what they consider an epidemic of obesity. "What you see in New York today will be what you see in other places soon," predicted Kelly Brownell, a psychology professor at Yale who is an expert on nutrition.

Still, the father-knows-best style of policy making can produce discomfort. "We can agree that it's a good idea not to drink yucky calorie-filled sickening sodas," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "But we could also suggest that it's none of his goddamn business."

Back at the blood centre in Brooklyn, Mr. Bloomberg rested briefly after the needle came out of his arm, sitting down at a table piled with snacks. Fernando Sandoval, an employee of a nearby Subway restaurant who also had just donated blood, jokingly offered to buy the mayor a nearby bottle of apple juice. The two men chatted. Then the mayor allowed himself an Oreo. Trans-fat free.

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