Michael Bloomberg / New York

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GREGORY HEISLER FOR TIME

NEW YORK: Bloomberg at work in his cubicle in the bullpen he set up at city hall

Reluctant Pol
From the moment you enter his office at New York's city hall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 63, wants visitors to know that he is not your average politician—or a politician at all. Bloomberg, you see, doesn't really have an office. Instead, he sits alongside much of his staff in the middle of what is known as the bullpen, a large, former public meeting room now packed with corporate cubicles like a Wall Street trading floor. "Walls are barriers, and my job is to remove them," says the billionaire businessman who made his fortune by building his namesake financial-data-and-media empire. "I wasn't hired to do well in the polls. I was hired to do a good job."

By a variety of measures, from the falling crime rate to the improving economy, Bloomberg has done just that. And he has done it in a post often described as the second toughest job in America—a job he inherited from the most famous mayor in the world, Rudy Giuliani, in the wake of 9/11 and a bearish stock market, no less.

Bloomberg has brought an unprecedented level of efficiency and transparency to New York City government. "The best thing is, he doesn't seem to be making decisions based on a four-year calendar," says Jonathan Bowles, research director at the Center for an Urban Future.

Over the past three-plus years, Bloomberg has trimmed a $6 billion budget deficit (in part by raising property taxes); spurred a wave of new economic development, especially in the four other boroughs besides Manhattan, so often ignored by his predecessors; taken control of the city's ailing schools and instituted a uniform math and reading curriculum, although the jury is still out on how much that will actually enhance students' educations; and improved the city's quality of life by banning smoking from all restaurants and bars, cracking down on noise and creating a one-stop complaint-and-question line, 311.

Perhaps most impressively, Bloomberg has managed to do that while being "the first mayor in a long time who has not been a polarizing figure," as Mitchell Moss, professor of urban planning at New York University, puts it. That is not to say his constituents necessarily appreciate the Republican mayor. In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1, recent polls show that only about 40% of registered voters approve of his job performance. The majority of New Yorkers have also told pollsters they don't want to build a football stadium for the New York Jets on Manhattan's West Side, but Bloomberg is pushing hard for one anyway. In his mind, the stadium, which will double as a massive convention center and could also be the center of the 2012 Summer Olympics, for which New York is making a bid, is the kind of long-term economic bet that great cities, like great companies, have to make. "It is investing for the future," Bloomberg declares, sounding suspiciously like a politician, before adding a key, most impolitic warning, "with no guaranteed return."