Many of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral actions may make him a liability

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2013.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2013.
Edward Reed/Mayoral Office of Photography
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2013.

Many of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral actions may make him a liability

It’s doubtful he’ll become a favored presidential candidate among Democratic voters.
November 18, 2019

New York City’s former Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg is on the cusp of formally announcing his bid for president as a Democratic candidate, after years of toying with the idea of running.

Bloomberg registered as a Democrat ahead of the midterm elections last year, despite being a Republican from 2001-2007 and then an independent, which will undoubtedly make it more difficult for him to pull ahead in an already heated race for the party’s nomination. It also might hurt his chances that he donated to the campaigns of pro-Trump Republicans in 2018, including New York’s then-Reps. Peter King and Dan Donovan. 

But all of that may be small potatoes compared to the liabilities that can be found in his governing record. 

Many of Bloomberg’s actions in his three mayoral terms could be liabilities in the Democratic field. The NYPD’s widespread use of stop-and-frisk during his tenure, despite Bloomberg’s recent apology, may be the biggest of those. There are others, though, including increasing homelessness and quashing peaceful protests. Collectively, they could be used to paint a portrait of a mayor who cared more about reducing crime and encouraging growth than protecting civil rights or alleviating poverty – a bad look in a party that leans left and includes the large majority of voters of color. Many of these policies are less widely known than stop-and-frisk, but if Bloomberg gains traction, his opponents will try to change that. 

Here are a few of Bloomberg’s mayoral actions that are most likely to give Democrats pause.

Marijuana arrests

Bloomberg oversaw a steep rise in low-level marijuana crime arrests (for possession of small amounts of marijuana). Between 2002 – Bloomberg’s first term in office – 2008, about 261,151 people were arrested for marijuana possession, roughly 100 arrests per day. In 2008, the number of marijuana possession arrests reached 40,383, more than the number of possession arrests that occurred under Mayors Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Giuliani combined, according to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. Arrests for marijuana possession peaked in 2012, with 50,000 arrests. About 87% of those arrested for possession while Bloomberg was in office were black and Latino. In his last year in office, Bloomberg shifted gears and began to limit marijuana arrests. 

Trampling civil liberties

In 2003, the Bloomberg administration refused to grant an anti-war demonstration a permit to march, allowing only a stationary rally. In what would become a regular practice during the Bloomberg years, the NYPD forced protesters into a pen built from barricades. 

Bloomberg actively recruited both national political parties to hold their national conventions in New York, and he attracted the 2004 Republican National Convention. 

About 1,760 RNC protesters were arrested and detained at Pier 57, a temporary holding facility known as the “Guantanamo-on-the-Hudson.” These activists, and some journalists and other random bystanders, were nominally arrested for blocking traffic, but Bloomberg allowed for the “preventive detention” of peaceful protesters. The practice of preventive detention is illegal and such arrests resulted in lawsuits that the city paid out millions of dollars to settle. From the convention’s podium, Bloomberg heaped praise on then-President George W. Bush and endorsed him for reelection. It later emerged that Bloomberg dropped – at the Bush team’s insistence – a sentence from his speech that would have chastised the Republican-dominated Congress for allocating New York less than its fair share of homeland security funding. 

Bloomberg also had a heavy hand in shutting down the ongoing protest, Occupy Wall Street in 2011, where protesters set up camp in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park for roughly six months to protest financial inequality. In a surprise raid, NYPD officers removed all protestors from the park, in an operation approved by Bloomberg. The mayor defended his decision to clear the park, saying its “health and safety conditions became intolerable.” 

“New York City is the city where you can come and express yourself,” Bloomberg said at a City Hall press conference, following the raid. “What was happening in Zuccotti Park was not that.”

The NYPD also illegally spied on Muslims, infiltrating Muslim student groups and placing informants in mosques in an attempt to thwart terrorist attacks from happening. The department was sued by Muslim leaders in 2012, after a damning Associated Press report brought its illegal monitoring to light, forcing the NYPD to pay $47,500 to mosques and business it infiltrated as well as $25,000 to individuals who were surveilled.

An autocratic streak

As Bloomberg’s second mayoral term was coming to a close in 2009, he coerced the City Council into allowing him to run for a third term, despite the city limiting mayors to two terms in 1993. Can you even imagine the uproar that would ensue if a sitting president made a similar attempt to elongate their term? Bloomberg’s power grab confirmed to many of his critics that his ego and sense of self importance were as engorged as his wallet. 

As mayor, Bloomberg also took advantage of his power by appointing former Chairwoman of Hearst Magazines Cathleen Black as chancellor of the New York City school system in 2010, much to the surprise of his own aides. Black’s appointment received serious backlash from the entirety of the city’s school system because Black had absolutely no education experience and required in depth tutelage from city officials on the city’s various education issues upon becoming chancellor. Bloomberg defended his decision to hire Black, stating that her business acumen would lend itself handsomely to her new role. After three months as chancellor and many mistakes made, Black stepped down from her role as chancellor.

Homelessness worsened 

Despite proclaiming his intention to dramatically lower the number of New Yorkers experiencing homelessness in 2004, the city’s homeless population surged under Bloomberg and hit an all-time high at the end of his tenure. Before he took office, the city’s homeless population had never gone above 30,000 – in his second term that number ramped up to 40,000. In 2013, an average of 48,533 people were seeking refuge at the city’s homeless shelters on a daily basis. 

In a critical misstep Bloomberg terminated the city’s Section 8 voucher program in 2005, that enabled residents to find affordable, permanent housing, causing homelessness to spike. The mayor replaced the program with the Advantage housing assistance program in 2007, though Bloomberg ultimately cut the program leaving New Yorkers struggling to find permanent residence few resources to find secure housing. Gotham Gazette, reviewing his record on homelessness, concluded, “the administration’s often-documented poor management of the city’s public housing system, the discontinuation of giving homeless families priority for Section 8 vouchers, and the de-funding of rental assistance programs suggest the mayor simply made bad decisions.”

The billionaire mayor looked especially out of touch in 2013, when he falsely asserted “nobody's sleeping on the streets.” (Approximately 3,200 people were, in fact, sleeping on the streets around that time, according to the city’s own count.)

Stop-and-frisk

Stop-and-frisk, a policing tactic that enabled officers to stop and search people suspected of engaging in criminal activity – often on flimsy pretexts – existed long before Bloomberg, but when he took office in 2002, it became increasingly used.

During Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor, the NYPD recorded 5,081,689 stops, which disproportionately targeted people of color, specifically members of the city’s black and Latino communities. In 2009, black and Latino New Yorkers were nine times more likely to be stopped by the police than white residents, according to a report published by The New York Times

Bloomberg defended the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk, arguing it helped keep weapons off of the city’s streets. He suggested that reducing its use would result in an uptick in crime – which has since been disproven. Only 14 out of 10,000 stops resulted in the confiscation of a gun, the Times reports

In 2013, a federal judge deemed the tactic illegal, stating that it violated the constitutional rights of minorities, though she did not order its termination. At the time of the judge’s ruling, Bloomberg suggested the judge did “not understand how policing works.” On November 17, Bloomberg apologized for his record on stop-and-frisk, even though he publicly supported the practice as recently as January

Looking out for business’ best interests, instead of people’s

Critics say Bloomberg favored business interests over those of the working class. As mayor, he enthusiastically backed using public funds for mega-developments that some view as corporate welfare, including a largely unwanted sports stadium on the West Side of Manhattan. Even his progressive bona fides, such as creating a bike-sharing program are often privately managed.

In 2012, Bloomberg vetoed the New York City Council-backed “living wage” bill, which would have guaranteed workers a minimum wage of $11.50 per hour or $10 per hour with benefits on projects that received over one million dollars in public funds. The mayor argued this would thwart job creation, even though the bill would have affected only 400 to 500 workers.

In 2013, the mayor also vetoed a Council measure to provide one million workers with a minimum of five paid sick-leave days per year, as he believed it would burden businesses. "The bill, which will impose significant new costs on employers and create a vast new bureaucracy, is bad for the city's economy, and it will harm the very people it seeks to help," Bloomberg said in a statement, explaining his reasons for blocking the measure.

The mayor’s decision to block paid sick leave also hurt then-Council Speaker Christine Quinn, in the 2013 mayoral primary race against Bill de Blasio.

Bloomberg also encouraged high-end private development, including laying the groundwork for Hudson Yards – a neighborhood comprised of luxury high-rise buildings, designer shops and restaurants run by celebrity chefs – which the right-leaning New York Post has touted as his greatest legacy. Hudson Yards was developed by Stephen Ross who notably held a fundraiser for President Donald Trump this summer, much to the dismay of progressives, some of whom are boycotting Ross’ businesses. Hudson Yards has been criticized for catering to the city’s upper crust and using an investors program for out-of-towners intended to encourage investments in poor areas of the city.

A failure to make a deal with the teachers’ union

Negotiations over the New York City’s teachers’ union contracts remained unresolved as Bloomberg left office in 2013, when he happily handed off the negotiations to incoming-Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The city’s teachers’ union had been working without contracts since 2009 and in 2010, Gov. David A. Paterson signed a law that stipulated that school districts needed to replace their old evaluation systems in order to access state and federal funding. Soon after, the city’s teachers’ union and Bloomberg began going back and forth, unable to agree upon a new evaluation system, which was required to access about $450 million worth of state and federal funding. By not coming to an agreement, the Bloomberg administration put the city’s teachers at risk of losing state and federal funding, signalling the possibility of staff and program cuts throughout the city. Bloomberg’s inability to come to an agreement signalled his disdain for the teachers’ union and unions in general, which is ironic considering how many Democratic presidential candidates are pining for union endorsements.

Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
is City & State's web reporter and social media editor.
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