In their own words…
“The people you meet in New York, right?
Just minutes after I crammed into a Brooklyn-bound cab, the driver’s already telling me to move to Kiev. “Everywhere you look,” he says from behind his Plexiglas shield, his thick Ukrainian accent made only slightly more understandable by his wild gesticulations, “in the streets, the plazas – everyone looks like a model.”
He twists around to make sure I’m paying attention. “Everyone!” he repeats.
Everyone has a story. That’s what we’re taught as journalists, and that’s what the other seven writing finalists and I held fast to when we sat in the fourth floor of the Essex House Hotel and were told we had two days to nail down the life of an immigrant in New York. But in the midst of competition, it’s easy to forget that your fellow reporters have stories, too.
Among the writers, we had a firefighter. A Washington beat reporter. An alt-weekly writer. A sportswriter in Reno, Nevada, the Biggest Little City in the World.
We all wanted to win. I wanted to win. Making friends is secondary, I told myself on the train ride up.
But of all the people I met in New York, I won’t remember the sources or celebrities. My recollection of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Big Apple cufflinks will fade. The phone interviews I held in Central Park are just so many pages of notes now. I already can’t remember the Ukrainian cab driver’s name.
But I will remember the writers – my competitors and, yes, after four days of frenzied reporting and writing and wining and dining and commiserating and laughing, my friends.
The Hearst Journalism Awards Championship isn’t about winning. And I’ll tell you this: If you go into the game looking to beat everyone, you’ll have lost, no matter how highly you place.”
Noting a historic California referendum passed Tuesday that eliminates party distinctions from state primary elections, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he’d like to see something similar come to New York City.
California’s Proposition 14, which discards a party-based primary in favor of sending two candidates with the most votes overall to the general election, passed by an 8-point margin, carrying every district except liberal San Francisco and conservative Orange County. Hailing the vote as a “sweeping change,” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the new measure will weaken the sway parties hold over the political process.
Now, Bloomberg says a charter revision commission is examining whether a similar system could work in New York.
“In primaries, only the party faithful vote,” he said. “A very small percentage of the electorate picks the leaders. That’s not what the founding fathers had in mind.”
He drew allusions to his own race for mayor as a Republican in 2001, saying he would never have forced his way past the “Democratic machine” had he not had his personal wealth to fall back on.
“I think without non-partisan elections, someone like me would be absolutely impossible to get elected,” he said.
As it stands, New York voters can only select candidates within their own party in primary elections. Voters who haven’t registered with a party – the so-called “independents,” whose numbers have swelled to more than 750,000 within the city, or 17 percent of all voters – are effectively barred from voting at all.
New York City has toyed with open primaries before. A charter revision commission examined them in 2002 but never put them on the ballot for a general vote. In 2003, an open primary measure was voted down by 70 percent of city voters.
This year, it’s on the table again – and as controversial as ever. At a Bronx public hearing where the idea was briefly floated earlier this month, tempers rose in a discussion commission spokesman Matt Gorton could only describe as “raucous.”
Many fear that minority voters, traditionally allied with the Democratic Party, will lose faith in the electoral process if their candidates aren’t guaranteed a slot in the general election, he said. As in California, detractors in New York argue that sending only the top two primary candidates to the general election gives an unfair advantage to well-funded campaigns – like Mayor Bloomberg’s.
The commission has until September to decide what to put up for a public referendum, if anything. It isn’t married to pushing open primaries, Gorton said, no matter what the mayor’s stance is.
“The commission is eager to increase voter participation and is looking at all the avenues that may achieve that goal,” he said.
Everyone has a theory on why Michael Bloomberg left it all behind.
It was his devotion to New York. It’s because he thought he was needed. It’s because he was bored.
But no one really knows but the man himself, the Boston transplant and Harvard MBA who got fired from his first job, made billions building his second and handed it off to become New York’s longest-running mayor in more than 20 years.
Now elected to a third term, the shorter-than-you’d-expect executive with Big Apple cufflinks and a hint of Boston in his voice has come a long way from 2000, when he first started telling friends and colleagues it might be time for a change. Under his rule – and he does rule, with firm-handed leadership that accepts criticism but seldom compromises – New York has seen a drop in crime, a rise in prosperity and a slew of civic policies that have called the rest of the country to action. The agenda of progress in the city, critics and supporters both agree, is set in large part by Bloomberg.
“Once you have momentum, you build on it. You attract people who have an interest in making sure the city works, the schools get better and crime keeps coming down,” he said. The mayor is comfortable here, talking before the press in another corporate boardroom some 44 stories above the ground, fiddling with his coffee cup. “The people who just want to sit around and do nothing, this is not the city for you.”
But what drives Bloomberg? What compelled the high-powered billionaire, heading one of the largest financial news organizations in the world, to leave the business he built and accept a career in public service?
The answer is lying in plain sight, friends say. Look into the geometry of his life and a pattern emerges, centering on 20-year spans – the half-life of a Bloomberg career.
Born on Valentine’s Day to an immigrant bookkeeper and his wife in Medford, Mass., Bloomberg said in his autobiography that he quickly learned the lessons that would make him a success in business. Think beyond yourself. Work late. Don’t forget your friends, and treat them well: The Bloomberg’s always ate off the plates most families reserved for special occasions.
An engineering major at Johns Hopkins – he switched out of physics because he didn’t want to take German – Bloomberg set himself up for a meteoritic rise at the Harvard School of Business, eventually landing a job at Salomon Brothers.
His work there ranged from the mundane — counting securities by hand in a sweltering bank vault – to the extraordinary — becoming a partner at the firm when he was just 30 years old. Then he was gone, swept up in a change of leadership. After nearly 20 years, he got $10 million and a kick out the door. He was 39.
From there, the pattern shifts. He built his financial information company, first called Innovative Market Systems, later renamed to simply “Bloomberg.” He made computers that did things nobody had seen before: calculate financial projections, compare statistics in a flash, feed the world’s financial news to one screen. It wasn’t long before he started his own newswire, built a radio and television network, became a billionaire. It only took 20 years.
Now he was 59 years old. That was when he invited veteran political operative Bill Cunningham out to lunch, sending the pattern spinning once more. Looking back, Cunningham can see it was almost fated to be.
“The more he thought about it, he had pretty much decided that after 20 years of running his company, he wanted to do something else,” he said.
Do the math, Cunningham says. Every 20 years, Bloomberg makes a change, a life-altering shift. In his twenties, he joined Wall Street, before it was popular to do so. At 39, he left his company to start his own, bringing the Street out of the paper era in the process. And at 59, amid much speculation, he announced his bid for mayor.
Bloomberg, friends say, is pushed by an insatiable urge to move forward, to explore. New York University professor Mitchell Moss, who first met the mayor in the ’80s, said his campaign was motivated by all the usual altruistic reasons: he had the administrative chops, he saw upcoming fiscal troubles, he wanted to push the city past partisanship. But Bloomberg also enjoys a fight, he said.
“When he decided to do it, everyone thought that it would be a natural victory for one of the four Democrats,” Moss said. “His decision to run was high-risk.”
At times, some wondered if Bloomberg’s restless drive had put him in over his head. Primary Day fell on Sept. 11, 2001. Any thought of the election was obliterated by 9:03 a.m., when United Airlines Flight 175 and a second explosion over downtown Manhattan proved to the world that the morning’s tragedy wasn’t an accident. Bloomberg was a trained pilot, flew planes and helicopters in his free time. He knew it wasn’t an accident.
Cunningham came up to him in his glass-walled conference room, squeezing past staffers transfixed by the disaster unfolding on his 18 monitors. The adviser asked one question: Do you still want to run?
“More than ever,” Bloomberg replied.
The polls were close, but they were decisive. The 20-year cycle began anew.
Now, leaning back in a press conference among the clouds, Mike Bloomberg is only 10 years into the fourth phase of his life. He’s not running for a fourth term, he says – or for president, as has been rumored — but the pattern of his career makes that hard to believe.
He has to move forward. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be Bloomberg.
“I’m suited for hands-on, doing things,” he said. “I look in the mirror, want to be able to do something. I have two daughters, I want to leave them a better world.”
Sometimes, Carlos Chavez can’t help but think of his mother. Sitting in a cramped basement office beneath the Transfiguration Church in Brooklyn, sandwiched between files, maps and the buzzing of bare fluorescent bulbs, the face of a stranger is just too familiar, the story too similar.
It’s been more than 30 years since she left him behind in El Salvador to seek a better life in America, a young mother who faithfully sent home money and pictures to remember her by. But in the eyes of a new immigrant, he still can’t help but be reminded of the sacrifices she made to earn a green card and eventually bring him to the United States.
“I’ve seen people crying when they get their green card,” Chavez said. He’s a soft-spoken man, now 35 and still not comfortable with his English. “When they feel that power, they say, ‘I did it, I made it.’ I see people cry like they won the lottery.”
Chavez is an adviser at Central American Legal Assistance, a small non-profit that helps New York City’s documented and undocumented immigrants navigate the sometimes-bewildering channels of U.S. immigration policy. Founded in 1985 amidst a surge of refugees from El Salvador and other Central American republics, it fields a team of four attorneys and five support staffers to a steady stream of wary-eyed clients.
Many are illegals seeking to start down the path to becoming documented. As one of the 10 pro bono immigration legal offices in New York City listed with the Department of Justice, CALA is an alternative to the notarios, unscrupulous “immigration consultants” whose shoddy paperwork ends up getting their clients deported more often than legalized.
Chavez sits at the desk by the front door. Sometimes, he’s the first friendly face immigrants have seen in a long time.
He remembers his boyhood in El Salvador fondly: playing soccer with his cousins, learning life lessons at the feet of his grandmother. He remembers how he learned to ignore the bodies in the street, the deadly consequence of the violence between the U.S.-backed government and left-wing guerrillas.
He also remembers when his mother, finally a legal resident thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 amnesty edict, sent for him in 1993. He hadn’t lived with her for nearly 15 years.
She had crossed to the United States by land over several months in 1978, working in Mexico to save money for the perilous trip across the desert. The teenage Chavez, on the other hand, made his trip in six hours by plane. When he landed, he had something his clients – many of who paid thousands of dollars to guides who promised to help them cross the border, only to turn them over to the Border Patrol – want dearly: legal status.
“I didn’t even pay attention to what I got,” he said. “Sometimes, you don’t know what you got until you’ve lost it.”
Unfortunately, much of Chavez’s job is saying no to his clients. No, he cannot just give them working papers. No, they can’t get a green card without a valid reason – asylum, temporary protected status, etc. No, they cannot do nothing and just “believe in God.”
After 10 years at the clinic – he can hardly believe it’s been so long – this quiet man in khakis and a simple button-down can get tired of saying no. But he saves his blame for the United States, which he thinks has made a massive bungle of an already unfair immigration process.
“From my point of view, the U.S. government should legalize all of the undocumented right now. That is a priority for me,” he said. “They can pay taxes, they can feel more secure here. They don’t want to pay taxes. Why? ‘Maybe tomorrow, they send me back to my country.’ ”
Amnesty: It’s been more than twenty years since the federal government has even come close to making such a decisive step. Recent attempts have died in Congress.
But it’s owed to all the people who fled oppressive regimes supported by American tax dollars, Chavez believes. It’s owed to the undocumented workers who work for below-minimum wage pay, glad for any money they can get.
And it was owed to his mother, who risked so much to find a better life, and who died of cancer barely two years after being reunited with her son, leaving him alone and bewildered in a strange country. Indeed, it’s owed to him, the El Salvadoran teenager who grieved his mother’s death, then put himself through college and became a husband, a citizen and an advocate for his people.
“Sometimes I feel sad. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to cry. I think about the past, about my mom,” he said. “Immigration is a big issue in the United States now. But you have to remember: This country was built by immigrants.”