This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.
As the nation grappled with the first wave of Covid-19 lockdowns in March of 2020, a lot of public officials were desperate for information. Did they really have to start canceling sporting events, concerts, even schools? And for how long was this going to last? What about vaccines, herd immunity, experimental treatments?
Everyone, it seemed, had answers but not necessarily facts. The public posturing coming from the Trump administration seemed to shift every day. Few cities had fully considered how to confront a pandemic, and it wasn’t like the plans from the 1918 flu pandemic offered best practices that could be easily replicated.
So, in a remarkably unsexy manner, Bloomberg Philanthropies swung into action, tapping the research and emotional support network it had quietly been building for city leaders for more than a decade. By the end of March, the data-based arm of billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s charity operations was organizing weekly calls with mayors, public health chiefs, and politicians to help thousands of officials trade information and ideas—and even blow off some steam in some cases.
More from TIME
In a moment that lacked an obvious playbook, Bloomberg Philanthropies provided a lifeline to local leaders across the country. Yet that barely scratches the surface of how this quiet giant has shaped public policy throughout the country.
More than 250 cities are currently getting some level of help through the former New York City Mayor’s giving arm focused on government. Since 2017, hundreds of leaders, including more than half of the nation’s big-city mayors, have churned through the leadership bootcamp he sponsors run out of Harvard University. (The latest cohort of 120 city leaders from six continents announced on Monday is its largest class yet.)
In the ten years since he ended his tenure as New York City mayor, Bloomberg has become best known in the political space for his efforts promoting anti-gun violence and climate legislation, stances that in some right-wing circles have made him something of a boogeyman. But the focus on those more conspicuous endeavors ignores the area where the media mogul is arguably even more influential: the ninth-richest man in America has emerged as the nation’s mayoral tutor.
“We do a really robust amount of leadership and skills building to help the mayor solve problems back home,” says James Anderson, the head of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ government innovations programs. “But the network that’s been created as part of this is an equally powerful force for change.”
As The D.C. Brief has written plenty of times, mayors are some of the most responsive politicians in America. City council members and county commissioners are often anonymous bureaucrats, but everyone knows who the mayor of the town is. And there’s no escaping complaints about potholes while picking up potpies in the grocery store or hearing about overflowing bins at the recycling center while running an errand.
It may seem obvious in hindsight that the pandemic was going to yield a mental health crisis, but these on-the-ground leaders were often the ones who spotted it first, well before it became part of the discussions here in D.C. What started as an anecdotal observation quickly became front-of-mind for future calls among mayors—and on their staff meetings back home.
But mayors also can be some of the least prepared to actually run their cities. The skill sets that make good politicians aren’t necessarily the same ones called for to run a bureaucracy that can rival some states in budgets, demands, and competing interests. And it’s a skills gap that voters, acting as city H.R. chiefs, often choose to ignore. Which is why it’s worth noting that Bloomberg—who ran New York as a policy-minded technocracy for three terms—is backfilling a lot of that with hard data collection, vetted research, and access to a network of a cohort that can often feel isolating on its own.
Bloomberg officials aren’t ones to brag, but the data speaks for itself. With the new class—including the mayors of Los Angeles, Tallahassee, and Providence, R.I— 275 mayors and more than 400 top top aides have gone through the program at the year-long Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative in the last six years.
Although Bloomberg Philanthropies funds public health, arts, education, and environmental programs—to the tune of $1.7 billion last year alone—the government efforts are what probably are seen every day in your cities. For instance, investing in bicycle lanes has been a long priority for Bloomberg himself, and thus his charities. And the Bloomberg-funded crash course seminar for new mayors has provided a template for leading a cumbersome city that, with the right resistance, can gum things up for the new team and allow career staffers to simply run out the clock until the next elected arrives.
That’s not to say that any of this is easy, even with Bloomberg U’s informal alumni network.
“There is no major problem that a city hall can solve on its own. Collaboration is fundamental,” says Anderson, who started working for Bloomberg in City Hall and moved with him to the foundation. “Very few cities have done the math to think about what kind of capacity do we need internally to summon, nurture, feed, maintain complex collaborations over time? That is a skillset and a competency that is absolutely required in this day and age.”
Most of the mayors who enter into his group’s Harvard program, he says, “don’t have the skills and the capacity on hand to do the type of complex collaboration that this moment requires.”
To be sure, New Yorkers still bemoan the Bloomberg era, aspects of which subsequent leaders have worked to unwind. But there’s no denying that his cold-eyed cost-benefit analysis was usually grounded in facts, however inconvenient. That same approach is now quietly setting the agenda in city halls from coast to coast.
Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.
- Taylor Swift Is TIME's 2023 Person of the Year
- Meet the Nation Builders
- Why Cell Phone Reception Is Getting Worse
- Column: It's Time to Scrap the Abraham Accords
- Israeli Family Celebrates Release of Hostage Grandmother
- In a New Movie, Beyoncé Finds Freedom
- The Top 100 Photos of 2023
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time