Tuesday, January 11, 2005

For Bloomberg, This Speech Is an Election-Year Speech

The New York Times
January 11, 2005
For Bloomberg, This Speech Is an Election-Year Speech

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is to use his fourth annual State of the City address today to begin building what aides describe as a months-long election-year case that the city is finally moving in the right direction and that this is not the time to change leaders.

With crime on the decline, the city's economy rebounding and the mayor pushing ahead with his plan to overhaul public schools, Mr. Bloomberg's aides say they hope the speech will present a compelling case for a second term and help him swipe potential issues away from his likely challengers before they begin to step up their own campaigns. He plans to announce some new initiatives and bring back some others that were popular, like the $400 property tax rebate that he also championed last year.

Among the new initiatives are a vocational program to help high school dropouts and failing students get equivalency diplomas and learn new skills, and a commission to promote diversity in the construction trades.

Mr. Bloomberg's early election strategy goes to the heart of what appears to be his most pressing political problem: even as polls show that a majority of New York City voters believe the city is heading in the right direction, they are not ready to give all the credit to Mr. Bloomberg, whose own approval ratings have not budged much.

Mr. Bloomberg's aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing the speech so as not to upstage the mayor today, said they considered the address, at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, to be a key opportunity to connect the mayor more directly with the city's successes, adding that they took great pains while devising it over the past few weeks.

In an interview Sunday night at a forum sponsored by The New York Times at the CUNY Graduate Center, the mayor suggested that he had brushed aside advice from aides who felt he should avoid extensive new election-year proposals when he already has so much in front of him, from the controversial plan to build a West Side stadium to his effort to overhaul the schools.

"I keep telling the people I work with - they say, 'Look, maybe we should not address any controversial issues as you get close to the election,' " he said. "I say, 'Look, the worst thing in the world would be to compromise your values and lose.' "

He added, "I've got to make sure that our administration doesn't slow down in implementing change and coming up with new ideas."

A senior administration official said the vocational initiative to be announced today would seek to place thousands of struggling students and dropouts into a program to help them obtain equivalency diplomas while teaching them vocational skills and offering them assistance in finding jobs. The official would not say how much the program would cost or what skills would be taught.

The proposal seems to be in keeping with a broader reorganization of programs devised to increase the number of students who earn their high school diplomas and lower the dropout rate.

It would come just a few months after officials closed dozens of facilities aimed solely at preparing children for the equivalency exam without teaching them vocational skills. At the time they said they were seeking better options for students struggling in regular school settings.

Mr. Bloomberg's opponents have been suggesting that he would propose a major schools initiative because they believe him to be vulnerable on the issue. Education advocates will most likely view his new vocational initiative as a safe, if welcome, move and nowhere nearly as controversial as his proposal in last year's State of the City address to impose strict new promotional requirements on third graders.

The city gradually phased out vocational education efforts in recent decades as schools emphasized college preparation and as the city's manufacturing base declined. But education officials have become more open to such efforts under Mr. Bloomberg. Mr. Bloomberg was asked about vocational programs as recently as Sunday night, when a woman in the audience at the forum lamented a lack of vocational training in the public schools.

Before promising to address her question in greater detail on Tuesday, the mayor said, "Apparently 20 or 30 years ago it became, politically incorrect isn't quite the right word, but less desirable to have a track that led towards college and a track that led towards a job when you got out of school."

But, he said: "You could not be more right. There are basic skills you have to have before you can get any job in this day and age."

Administration officials said that proposal would fit well with the mayor's announcement that he is naming a commission to improve diversity in the construction force as the city embarks on some huge projects. That proposal seems to be aimed at emphasizing that the West Side stadium project the mayor has sought would bring jobs to the minority groups that will be so crucial to his re-election.

The mayor's strategists clearly had an eye on those voters when they chose to hold the address in the Bronx, home of one of his most likely opponents this fall, the former Bronx borough president, Fernando Ferrer, a Democrat.

An adviser to Mr. Ferrer suggested that he would be primed to seize on any openings for criticism in the speech today. "I hope the mayor answers three questions," the adviser said. "Does anyone in New York City make the minimum wage, do poor people get better health care than the wealthy, and how would New Yorkers rate the job he's doing leading the N.Y.C. school system?"

Mr. Bloomberg is also likely to hear today from the City Council speaker, Gifford Miller, another likely opponent who has made it clear that he will focus most specifically on the mayor's education policies in his own early run for the Democratic nomination.

Mr. Bloomberg and his aides say they believe that they have accomplished so much in the last three years that their challengers will not be able to make much of a case against him.

During the interview on Sunday, Mr. Bloomberg stopped just short of predicting certain victory.

"I think if I went to the public today, I'd get re-elected relatively easily because all of the numbers are going in the right direction," he said. "Crime down; streets cleaner; schools getting better; jobs coming here; throughout all of the boroughs relations with people with different groups are better than they've been in a long time, and those are things that should matter in the city."

The challenge for the mayor today will be to make sure that those who are inclined to agree with him give him the credit for it.

David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting for this article.