Mike Bloomberg wants to run for president on his record as New York City mayor and philanthropist funding many Democratic causes. But critics are a lot more interested in what he did before that—especially a record of sexist remarks at Bloomberg LP, the Wall Street data firm that made him a multibillionaire.
Fellow presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren shredded Bloomberg at the ninth Democratic debate on February 19, highlighting several secret settlements Bloomberg’s company has made with women charging the firm with discrimination. Bloomberg seemed dumbfounded when Warren asked him how many women have signed such deals and whether he’d free them to speak their minds if they wanted to. Bloomberg basically said no, he wouldn’t.
Bloomberg had been surging in the polls thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in ads, fueling hopes that he could be a moderate counterweight to leftist Bernie Sanders, now the Democratic front-runner. But Bloomberg’s inability to parry legitimate questions on his record regarding women could leave him crumpled in the also-ran pile next to the flagging Joe Biden. Bloomberg has the money to stay in the race till the end, but money won’t buy him the charisma and authenticity he’ll need to convince voters he’s cleaned up his act.
As Bloomberg’s campaign points out, many of the allegations against Bloomberg have been circulating for years, and he’s addressed them before in three campaigns for New York City mayor. But that’s not the same as facing attacks on a national stage from a bloodthirsty, talented combatant such as Warren. Bloomberg looked abjectly complacent, like he didn’t understand why he’d have to answer these questions again.
‘The wit and wisdom’
Bloomberg’s Wall Street baggage stems from a booklet highlighting “the wit and wisdom of Michael Bloomberg,” presented by colleagues as a wry tribute to the boss on his 48th birthday in 1990. The booklet includes at least two slurs against gays and half a dozen crude sexual remarks attributed to Bloomberg. Example: “A good salesperson asks for the order. It’s like the guy who goes into a bar, and walks up to every gorgeous girl there, and says, ‘do you want to f**k?’ He gets turned down a lot–but he gets f****d a lot, too!”
By Wall Street standards, it’s hardly shocking stuff. The intro to the booklet says, “Yes, these are all actual quotes.” But the Bloomberg campaign says in a detailed statement, “Mike simply did not say the things somebody wrote in this gag gift, which has been circulating for 30 years and has been quoted in every previous election Mike has been in.” The statement also acknowledges, “Mike openly admits that his words have not always aligned with his values.”
More serious are several legal complaints brought against Bloomberg’s firm by women claiming a hostile work environment in the 1990s. Bloomberg allegedly complained about women taking maternity leave and encouraged one pregnant employee to have an abortion instead. There may also have been complaints against other male employees at the firm. Some of these led to settlements including nondisclosure agreements that forbade the women from saying what happened or what they got from the firm. Even though this is common in corporate settlements, it obviously looks bad.
If Bloomberg were a fringe candidate, like fellow billionaire Tom Steyer, nobody would pay much attention to this. But Bloomberg became a fat target after topping former vice president Joe Biden in polls and nipping at Sanders’ heels.
To Bloomberg’s credit, there are no allegations against him personally of illicit affairs, sexual abuse or me-too-like crimes. Many prominent women say he’s a fair boss who’s put women in top leadership posts at his company and in New York City during the 12 years he was mayor. And by comparison with Trump—who’s still battling sexual assault charges—Bloomberg is a choir boy.
If he regains his footing, Bloomberg will likely point out that his firm now offers six months of paid paternity leave, far more than most companies. He also needs to find a way of acknowledging past mistakes and explaining how that has made him a better person and candidate, without waffling or pandering. Not easy to do on a debate stage next to practiced vipers eager to pounce.
Bloomberg is doing a better job breaking from the industry that made him rich on policy than on culture. He is proposing a 0.1% tax on most financial trades, the same as Warren. Financial firms hate this idea and say it will raise costs for ordinary investors. It would also raise a lot of money—at least $60 billion per year—which Bloomberg wants to use to reduce income inequality in unspecified ways. Sanders likes a financial transaction tax so much he’d set it at 0.5%, five times Bloomberg’s level.
Bloomberg also wants to tighten rules on banks and strengthen the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Trump has weakened. The former NYC mayor would essentially make life harder for the very firms that have bought Bloomberg’s data machines for decades and helped him build a $60 billion fortune. He also said that if elected in November, he’ll sell his company rather than retain control, as Trump has done with his real-estate firm or put it in a blind trust.
Bloomberg is obviously trying to expand his appeal within the Democratic Party, which is split between billionaire-hating progressives rallying to Sanders and pragmatic centrists who prefer incremental change over radicalism. Bloomberg also needs to persuade voters—especially minorities—that he’s sincere when he renounces the “stop and frisk” policy he supported as mayor. That’s not just words—it’s actions many critics have blasted for abusive treatment of minorities, mostly young black men. Bloomberg defended the policy as recently as 2015.
Bloomberg has become popular in large part thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars of ubiquitous ads in which he completely controls the message. But he has a lot to learn about controlling the message in unscripted debates, press interviews and interactions with voters that will be necessary for him to really challenge Sanders. If the unscripted Bloomberg remains this vulnerable, the Bloomberg surge will end quickly.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: email@example.com. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.