News Analysis

NEW YORK — Incumbent Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been portraying himself as a shoo-in during this election season, but his record-breaking campaign spending suggests his team may not be so certain of victory. In addition, critics charge that his use of millions of dollars of his own money gives this billionaire an unfair advantage over his opponent, Democrat Fernando Ferrer.

Bloomberg set a record for a municipal campaign in 2001, spending $74 million. At $47 million so far, he seems poised to break it this year. In 2001, Bloomberg said he needed to spend so much because he was unknown to New Yorkers. But many now ask why, after nearly four years as mayor, he needs to spend so much money.

Critics say Bloomberg needs a powerful public relations campaign to cover a bad record, adding that his team knows that while his support may be a mile wide, it is an inch deep.

New York is a city beset with problems for working people: runaway housing costs, high unemployment — nearly 50 percent of African American men are unemployed — and low high school graduation rates. Opinion polls show all of these issues are top priorities for New Yorkers. But during his four years as mayor, Bloomberg has not substantially reversed these negative trends.

While city schools are failing children, “Mayor Bloomberg thinks the schools are good and getting better and he’s spending millions of dollars to tell you so,” Ferrer said recently.

“I don’t know why Bloomberg is spending millions touting test scores but remains silent as perhaps two-thirds of our kids fall behind or are lost completely,” Ferrer said later, at an event where he unveiled his education plan. Ferrer’s plan would produce an additional 50,000 high school graduates, establish an eight-year mechanism to bring NYC up to the national average in graduation rates and ensure that high schools prepare students for college or jobs.

Ferrer has also proposed comprehensive plans for housing and jobs. In August, Ferrer said if elected, he would allocate $8.5 billion to build 167,000 affordable apartments. By contrast, Bloomberg would spend $3 billion dollars and build about 100,000 fewer apartments.

Critics inside and outside the Ferrer campaign say that in an open debate, Bloomberg is helpless against such issues. They add that this is why he will only agree to two debates, notably snubbing one at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. (In 2001, Bloomberg criticized his opponent for only agreeing to two debates, and argued for more.) The critics also say Bloomberg’s strategy is to spend millions of dollars on media advertisements and direct mailings to drown out Ferrer’s arguments.

While many agree with Ferrer that Bloomberg’s excessive campaign spending is a sign of weakness, another overlapping group contends that it is fundamentally anti-democratic.

Bloomberg is paying out of his own pocket, while Ferrer — no billionaire — relies on the city’s campaign finance system. “The campaign finance board of NYC is basically set up to give people of moderate financial means a chance to be competitive in the electoral process,” said Sam Delgado, Ferrer’s Northern Manhattan coordinator.

The problem, Delgado said, is that the campaign finance board sets limits for candidates and caps how much an individual can contribute. While a candidate can get matching funds from the city, these are nowhere near what Bloomberg can afford.

In essence, many say, Bloomberg is trying to use his wealth to buy the election. Community organizations have said, in fairness both to the people and to Ferrer, the mayor should abide by the terms of the city’s campaign finance system.

The Ferrer campaign says that currently they have no chance to get the same kind of news coverage and bought-and-paid-for PR as Bloomberg, so they must mobilize a grassroots army.

Ferrer recently told the press, “It is offensive and obscene that the mayor is spending this kind of money and at the same time refusing to debate.”