Why Is It So Hard to Find a ‘Mainstream Seoul City Mayor’ Like Bloomberg of New York?

Having lived as a resident of New York, I’m starting to realize what a great mayor Michael Bloomberg was. I’ve seen several New Yorkers who “wish he was the mayor forever.” A retired civil servant who worked for 40 years noted that “Bloomberg was neither a liberal nor a conservative, but mainstream.”* This praise points out that he cared little about partisan lines but only cared about the city of New York and New Yorkers. At first, I thought this was just another case of “the good ole days,” but the more I looked into New York, the more I understood this “Bloomberg effect.”

Last year, the number of tourists in New York City hit an all-time high of 56.4 million, the fifth consecutive record since 2010. Studying that momentum, Bloomberg was at its origin. When Bloomberg first took the office in January 2002, New York City, was a place plagued with post-9/11 shock and fear of additional attacks. The number of tourists, which was 36.2 million in 2000, dropped to 35.2 million in 2001. He offered his vision of “the era of 50 million tourists” and worked hard on it.

When the global financial crisis of 2008 was expected to negatively impact the number of tourists, he launched the first global multimedia promotion campaign, “This is New York City,” in January 2009. He shouted to the world: “In difficult economic times, more people are postponing trips and planning ‘staycations’… No city on earth can match New York’s incredible energy and diversity… So what are you waiting for? This is New York City – your city – and now it’s at your fingertips.” He poured $30 million into this campaign in the first year. The following year in 2010, he launched an online one-stop tour service system called “nycgo.com.” The number of tourists finally resumed its growth trend when the number reached 48 million in 2010. Then, in 2011, the number finally reached the goal of 50 million, surpassing it by an extra 0.9 million.

Silicon Alley in Manhattan has grown to rival Silicon Valley on the West Coast, challenging its singular status as the cradle of IT firms and job creation. Behind this creation stood Bloomberg as well. He openly declared that he will “turn the Wall Street-centric New York into ‘Digital City.’”* The Roosevelt Island Project by Cornell University Engineering Campus was indeed a sight to behold. American entrepreneurial experts all agree that “without Stanford, there would be no Silicon Valley. For Silicon Alley to thrive, there had to be a great engineering school nearby. Bloomberg understood this important fact.”*

Of course, this is not to say that Bloomberg was a faultless politician. He changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, and from Republican to Democrat. If he were a politician in South Korea, he‘d be called a “migratory bird.”** He spent over $250 million on his three elections, so he qualifies as a “not-so-clean” politician. He even hired his sister and daughter as the city’s civil servants without going through proper procedures. No doubt, this is an abuse of the power of his office (even though he only paid them a yearly salary of one dollar, like he paid himself). Yet, he did not use New York as a means to get his next office, or as a stepping stone to something else. He dedicated himself to New York. He kept his promise that “the position of New York Mayor will be the last public service position I will hold.”*

In contrast, how about what the “mayor of the Republic of Korea,” the Seoul city mayor, is doing? Since the precedent was set with the Seoul city mayor becoming the president, are people considering the position of Seoul city mayor as a stepping stone to the presidency? Is that why one mayor risked his position for a local referendum on a free school lunch policy? How should we interpret the situations where people yield the position of Seoul city mayor and accept the yielded position? Why is it so difficult to find a “mainstream Seoul mayor,” who cares nothing about the left or right, or even up, i.e., the presidency, but pledges that the job of mayor will be his or her last public service and dedicates himself or herself to the city?

* Editor’s Note: These quotes, while accurately translated, could not be verified.

** Translator’s Note: South Korean term for politicians who change their party affiliations often.

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