Q&A: Michael Bloomberg talks gun control, empowering cities and Trump: ‘I was a manager; he was not’

Former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recently launched an initiative that will dole out money to help mayors nationwide.
(AFP/Getty Images)

To former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the key to good governing is experience as a manager.

One key to being a good manager, he says, is assembling a solid team. Another is knowing that running for office and governing require different skills.

The billionaire businessman turned politician, who left office in 2013 after three terms, has a new lofty goal: Help cities nationwide run more efficiently.

Last month, his foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, launched the $200-million American Cities Initiative, which aims to empower city governments and mayors to innovate and solve problems, such as gun violence, climate change and addiction.

Bloomberg, 75, recently spoke with The Times about the effort, the differences between businesses and governments, and, of course, President Trump. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s talk about your work on gun control. You’ve been a vocal proponent of stricter gun control laws for much of the past decade. This is an area where we haven’t seen movement from Congress. What does it take to get Congress to pass something like expanded background checks?

We’ve tried to work to get background checks in at the state level because it seems not likely at the federal level at the moment — although, you never know.

I would have told you gay marriage would have been a really tough thing to do and it turned out, in the end, it really wasn’t once enough people thought it was the right thing to do. …I think it is fair to say at a federal level, we don’t seem to be making progress and at the state level it’s a few [gun control laws] each year and, you know, that’s OK — we’re saving a lot of lives.

This year there will be 31,000 people killed with illegal handguns, 12,000 murdered, 19,000 [will] commit suicide. And there have been more people killed with illegal handguns than soldiers that have died since the Revolutionary War through today in defense of our country.

You’re a former mayor — you talk to a lot of mayors. So with this new initiative, what are two major problems you’re hearing from mayors at this moment?

First thing is — president, governor and mayor — those three jobs are management jobs. They’re not policy jobs.

You can’t have a policy on everything yourself, so you have to bring in policy people for some things, and if you brought in policy people for every one of them, that’s fine. I would want you — if you were my mayor, governor or president — to get other views before you implement policy.

But management — “running the railroad,” the way I describe it — is the real job. And the skills to get elected are different from the skills to govern and you have a lot of smart people, honest people, who are elected to office, but they don’t have the experience and the skills and know where to go to get help.

So if we can give them some basic management skills, but also build a network where they have people they can call and say, “Hey this is what I’m gonna do, just tell me, am I off base here? Do you think I’m doing it right and where else can I go to get help?” Those kinds of things — I think that more than anything else — are what mayors want, and there’s an enormous demand.

The skills to get elected are different from the skills to govern

— Michael R. Bloomberg

What are some major issues you’re hearing from people — those mayors?

Well, No. 1, I think it’s fair to say jobs. I would argue that the three biggest problems the world has are climate change, because it can kill everybody. Nuclear war, because it can kill an awful lot of people, and it’s become something to worry about with North Korea and Pakistan. And the third thing is the destruction of jobs.

Now, maybe you want to add opioids and heroin to that. But that’s just growing at the beginning, it’s nowhere near as take-over-the-world the way the other three are. But for the cities point of view — jobs, climate change, drug addiction.

Now that President Trump is in office, are there heightened concerns from mayors? … What about yourself?

I think it’s fair to say there are heightened concerns, because cities depend on money from the federal government. Cities are where people can express themselves to government.

You got to remember a mayor and the local city council are much closer to the public than the governor and the state legislature, or the president and the federal legislature. So if the public is in favor of something, the local officials know it and they get held responsible even if it really isn’t fair to hold them responsible.…

When it comes to climate change, the public is in favor of doing something. They think there’s something going on. They think it’s man-made. They think we should do something about it, and they want their mayors to do it because they can’t get to their governor, or they can’t get to their president.

You were critical of Trump during last year’s election, how would you evaluate his first six-months or so?

[LAUGHTER] I’m shocked that you would say so. [LAUGHTER] … I was asked that at the 100 days, because I remember having that 100-day question back in 2002. I guess it would be April of 2002. I’d been in office 100 days and what I said to the press was, “I built a team.” … And the truth of the matter is, it was the best thing I could ever do.

What Trump has not done, and I told him — the one conversation I’ve had with him — I think and I still think it’s the most important thing: he’s got to put together a team. And every day he doesn’t, it gets harder to do, because people say, “Well, he’s going to be in office less time. Every day he uses up is one less day towards four or eight years, and you know he gets more and more in trouble with some of the tweets and that sort of stuff, so it’s harder to attract people.”

But it’s building a team, because he can’t run every agency. He doesn’t know anything about most of those agencies, and he doesn’t have to know. His job is to get the people and get them to work together and get the right people and to authorize them to do things — to give them authority, responsibility, which is very tough to get people to do in business and very tough to get people to do in government.

You and Trump are both New Yorkers, billionaires and businessmen. You, like Trump, were elected with no prior political experience. What advice do you have for Trump about governing?

I don’t think the comparison is accurate. … I was a manager. I started out working in business, and I managed a few people after a few years and I built up to managing 5,000 people when I ran for city hall.

Today, my experience is having managed 300,000 people and today 20,000 people at my company. I don’t think Donald has had that management experience. His company — at best he maybe managed a 100 people — and I don’t even think that. So we came from very different backgrounds with very different experiences, and what I had said to him is there is nothing wrong with being elected and not having that experience. …

I was a manager, he was not. We’re both New Yorkers, both wealthy. …I had a lot of experience in philanthropy, I don’t think he did. So when you say both businessmen, that’s not really quite fair. We’re different kinds of people.

Is another political run in Michael Bloomberg’s future?

What I’ve said is I might run for the president of my block association — but I’m not even sure of that.

Twitter: @kurtisalee


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