Angry New Yorker

Friday, June 13, 2003
In Poll, Pessimism From New Yorkers Rubs Off on Mayor

Dispirited by job losses, tax increases and service cuts, New Yorkers say they are increasingly pessimistic about their city, according to the latest New York Times poll.

Those negative feelings appear to have colored New Yorkers' views of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Only 24 percent of those polled said they approved of the job he was doing, the lowest approval rating for a mayor since The Times began taking polls on mayoral performance in 1978. It is a drop of seven percentage points since January.

By almost every measure, city residents have a gloomy view of the economy, the quality of life in the city and New York's prospects. Asked to rate the condition of the city's economy, 73 percent said it was bad, and 62 percent said that its condition had taken a personal toll on their lives.

Sixty percent said that they thought life in the city had gotten worse in the last year, compared with 43 percent in a January poll.

The findings represent a sharp turnabout over the last two years in how New Yorkers view their city and their own lives within its boundaries. For example, less than a month after the World Trade Center attack in 2001, 54 percent thought that the city would be a better place to live in 10 to 15 years. A month before the attack, New Yorkers gave the city some of its highest marks in 25 years.

Among those polled over the last week, only 30 percent said they believed that New York City would be a better place to live in 10 to 15 years.

"They're raising subway fares, they're raising rents, the jobs are decreasing," said Belinda Butler of Manhattan, who was laid off from her job as an office manager six months ago. Ms. Butler, 25, said in an interview after the poll was taken, "I do see that the number of jobs available is shrinking, and I see the same positions at lower rates, but it costs more to live in the city, and that doesn't really help."

The citywide telephone poll was conducted among 962 adults last Friday through Tuesday. The margin of sampling error for the entire group is plus or minus three percentage points.

Those polled appeared to link their opinions of the mayor to their own financial problems. For example, among the 59 percent of respondents who said that it is harder to make ends meet than a year ago, 74 percent disapproved of Mr. Bloomberg's performance. Among the 59 percent who said the proposed budget cuts would hurt them personally, 74 percent also disapproved of the job Mr. Bloomberg was doing.

Follow-up interviews with people surveyed indicated that respondents seemed turned off by the measures Mr. Bloomberg has taken to balance the city's budget and by his personal style, which tends to be nonconfrontational, low-key and generally enigmatic. His reputation as an outsider -- by birth or by his income bracket -- appeared to persist.

"He's not a New Yorker, and he's not a fighter," said Stephanie Wilson, 50, who lives in the Bronx. "You have to be crazy to run this town because we're a bunch of crazy people," Ms. Wilson said. "You've got to kick down doors. Rudy's crazy, and he was effective. Bloomberg doesn't have the gusto to really deal with issues in an aggressive manner."

New Yorkers seem to take displeasure in every move taken by the mayor and the State Legislature to face down billions of dollars in red ink; 70 percent of those polled disapprove of the way the mayor handled a roughly $4 billion budget gap.

For instance, those polled were asked about their priorities for city services. The largest group, 30 percent, said they would protect firehouses, some of which have been closed because of budget cuts. In second place were classroom aides in public schools, and a police antidrug program came in third. Only 9 percent said their top priority would be to put off reductions in garbage pickups, and only 7 percent called for preserving library hours. Yet those two services were the ones the mayor restored to the budget last week.

Service cuts were unpopular, and few tax increases drew cheers. Fifty-nine percent of those polled said that a New York state tax increase on people in high income brackets was reasonable, but only 34 percent thought the city's recent sales tax increase was reasonable. And only 20 percent approved of the city's 18.5 percent increase in the property tax.

While 22 percent said raising taxes was their preferred method of balancing the budget, 46 percent said the city should borrow its way out of its troubles.

The mayor's press secretary, Edward Skyler, said the mayor was making tough choices on taxes and spending. "Leadership is about doing what is right, not what is easy or popular," he said. "Under his leadership, crime keeps coming down, the schools are being fixed, housing is being built, jobs are returning and the city is staying a place where people want to live and work."

Clearly, many New Yorkers believe that much of the fate of the city's economy is in the hands of the mayor, even though outside forces like Wall Street and the state and federal governments play a major role. Fifty-three percent of those polled said they believed that the city economy was something that the mayor could "do a lot about."

City residents gave Gov. George E. Pataki a 42 percent approval rating, a far cry from the 82 percent approval rating he received in the city a month after the trade center attack, but far from his lowest rate ever, 26 percent in April 1995. Although the governor did not get high marks for his role in the city's budget, it is clear that more people blame the mayor.

"I feel like the state government has less to do with my life than the city government," said Takemasa Kurita, 27, a graduate student from Astoria, Queens, who was upset about cutbacks in the city's recycling program and potential cuts in the public schools. "The things that Bloomberg is proposing are different from what Giuliani was proposing, and Pataki was in office then as well, so I think these new changes are Bloomberg changes."

Although Mr. Bloomberg has made some attempts to forge close relations with minority New Yorkers, this poll did not show that his efforts were paying off. For instance, his approval rating among whites is 31 percent, but only 15 percent among black respondents and 19 percent among Hispanic residents.

Blacks cared more than whites about the city's unemployment rate, and that group reported a far higher rate of joblessness than whites did.

But even though Mr. Bloomberg can hardly be pleased with his standing in the polls in the last six months, even Democrats concede that it is too early to write him off as a one-term mayor. For example, President Ronald Reagan's lowest approval number -- 35 percent -- was in January 1983 during poor economic times, yet in 1984, he won a second term by a landslide.

Further, the bench of potential Democratic challengers to Mr. Bloomberg appears less than intimidating at this point, with few fresh faces and no one with a comparable financial war chest. However, Mr. Bloomberg's contention that people dislike him because of the economy he inherited and not for other more personal or undefinable reasons would be tested if the city's financial shape improves.

But just like the mayor, most people -- 55 percent -- said they planned to stay in New York in the coming years. This is slightly more than in January, when people were less gloomy about the economy.

"I've lived here all my life," said Kendrick Stovall, 39, a truck driver from Brooklyn. "I've been to England, out of the country, I've been places, and even though you think that New York is so sickening, and dirty, and disgusting, there's no other place that you'd want to live." [ed. note - ah, we all live on as much illusion as we can afford.]

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