Michael R. Bloomberg’s abrupt reversal on his racially polarizing stop-and-frisk policing policy as New York mayor has Democratic presidential primary voters looking deeper into his varied and unconventional record during three terms running the country’s most populous city.
How party regulars — and Democratic black voters in particular — react to the former mayor’s blunt mea culpa will determine whether Mr. Bloomberg’s last-minute, long-shot bid for the 2020 nomination has any viability at all.
Though he gets more attention for his post-mayoral political advocacy efforts, Mr. Bloomberg built a reputation as a data-driven technocrat who oversaw New York City’s post-9/11 economic recovery and who left a legacy that touched on issues including charter schools and easing the Big Apple’s legendary traffic jams.
Both detractors and supporters of the billionaire former mayor said that if nothing else, it’s tough to accuse Mr. Bloomberg of pursuing half measures.
“He put his money where his mouth is, which is a good thing,” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.
It was a data-driven governing style that led Mr. Bloomberg to embrace the New York Police Department’s controversial policing policies as a means to combat crime — a position he now says he regrets.
“I can’t change history,” Mr. Bloomberg told a black church in Brooklyn on Sunday. “However, today I want you to know that I realize back then I was wrong.”
That was a striking about-face for Mr. Bloomberg, who consistently defended the policies amid criticism from liberal activists who said the police street stops disproportionately targeted blacks and Hispanics. Both voting blocs are considered indispensable to any candidate hoping to capture the Democratic nomination and defeat President Trump next November.
He oversaw “a very toxic police force that was not mitigated — that lack of maintenance for an already very problematic police force that [he] inherited from [Republican Mayor Rudolph W.] Giuliani,” said Anthony Rogers-Wright, a policy coordinator for the Climate Justice Alliance.
“That lack of accountability and mitigation is certainly what led to incidents like the late Eric Garner,” he said.
Mr. Garner, who is black, died in July 2014 after a police officer put him in a chokehold on suspicion that he was selling cigarettes illegally. His death has since become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Activists who have long opposed the policy questioned whether Mr. Bloomberg, who is on the verge of announcing a 2020 presidential run, had a true change of heart.
“People aren’t stupid,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, himself briefly a candidate for the Democratic nomination, said on CNN. “They can figure out whether someone is honestly addressing an issue or whether they’re acting out of convenience.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who spoke to Mr. Bloomberg after the church service, welcomed his new position but said it would take more than one speech for people to forgive and forget about the issue.
“Whether it was politically motivated or not, because clearly, he’s getting ready to run for president … it was an important statement,” Mr. Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, said Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Hard to pin down
Mr. Bloomberg built his estimated $52 billion fortune through his eponymous financial services company that has since expanded into a far-reaching business empire.
Politically, he has been notoriously hard to pin down. A lifelong Democrat, he switched to the Republican Party for his mayoral run in 2001. He gave up the GOP to become an independent halfway through his second term as mayor and remained independent during his third term.
Mr. Bloomberg rejoined the Democratic Party last year as he began eyeing a presidential bid.
He would enter the White House race without the typical support base of many candidates for national office.
“I don’t think people loved Michael Bloomberg, but people respected him and they thought that he was an excellent mayor,” said Steven Cohen, a public affairs professor at Columbia University who specializes in sustainability research.
Mr. Cohen recalled delivering commentary on one of Mr. Bloomberg’s past budget briefings during a local television appearance.
“They kept wanting me to criticize him,” Mr. Cohen said. “I said, ‘I want to hire the guy.’ He teaches financial management better than anybody I’ve ever seen. When it comes to communicating information and data, I’ve never seen anybody better at it.”
Mr. Bloomberg was first elected in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks after pouring tens of millions of dollars from his fortune into his campaign.
“He came in after 9/11. The economy was a disaster in New York. The whole area of downtown had been wiped out,” said Sid Davidoff, who was an aide to Mayor John V. Lindsay. “The prospects were glum at best, and he was able to really bring back the city as a businessman and to put it back on its feet, rebuild the area.”
Beyond policing and economic development efforts, health care was a major theme for Mr. Bloomberg, who famously moved to crack down on large soda sizes but also devoted considerable energy to combating childhood obesity and banning smoking in bars and restaurants.
He also pushed for the development of subsidized art studios, expanded bike lanes and more charter schools.
In 2007, he released PlaNYC, a comprehensive development proposal that aimed to cut long-term greenhouse gas emissions in the city.
Mr. Bloomberg ran for and won a third term in 2009 after City Council approved an exception to the office’s two-term limit. Supporters argued that his business expertise was vital to help New York recover from the 2008 financial meltdown.
But Mr. Cohen said the move lost the mayor a lot of support.
“I think that if he wanted to leave on a high note, he would have left after two terms,” he said. “I think mayors in general that go into a third term here have always had problems.”
Mr. Rogers-Wright also argued that the city’s economic recovery was not felt equally across all income levels, races and boroughs.
“The vast majority of the people who benefited from his so-called economic expansion were white people,” he said.
Since leaving office, Mr. Bloomberg has poured millions of dollars of his personal wealth into political causes such as gun control and climate change, as well as philanthropic endeavors.
Mr. Bloomberg’s team recently announced a $100 million investment in anti-Trump digital ads in the key battleground states of Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Some Democrats think it may take a billionaire to beat a billionaire in the 2020 contest with Mr. Trump. On Monday, Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina, cited Mr. Bloomberg’s wealth when he said he is ready to support his potential presidential candidacy.
“He’s got what it takes, and he’s got the resources to take it to Trump,” Mr. Benjamin, who is black, told The Associated Press. “I believe firmly that Mike Bloomberg can win. I think resources are going to matter.”
Mr. Bloomberg put $95 million into supporting Democrats in last year’s midterm elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He also contributed a maximum of $5,400 to former Rep. Dan Donovan, a Republican who lost to Democratic Rep. Max Rose last year in the race for the Staten Island-based seat.
He has poured millions of dollars into gun control efforts through the groups Mayors for Illegal Guns and Everytown for Gun Safety, and in June announced he would put $500 million toward efforts to combat climate change and end coal-fired power plants.
His efforts for gun control have riled gun rights activists, who frequently invoke Mr. Bloomberg as a personification of the anti-gun left.
“Just because you have deep pockets and a fat bank account does not give you the right to say gun owners have no rights,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation. “Nobody appointed Michael Bloomberg as the arbiter of rights and freedoms protected by the Constitution.”
Mr. Bloomberg has also poured more than $3.3 billion into Johns Hopkins University, his alma mater, including $1.8 billion in September for undergraduate financial aid.
Despite the broader criticisms, Mr. Rogers-Wright acknowledged that Mr. Bloomberg has done “amazing” things for Johns Hopkins.
“There can be no criticism about that, from what I understand — making college very affordable for people who don’t make a certain amount of money,” he said. “That’s huge.”
Mr. Sheinkopf said philanthropy isn’t mandatory and that Mr. Bloomberg enlisted himself on that front on his own accord.
“He spends large portions of his own personal fortune to promote issues he feels strongly about,” he said. “He could have retired and sat on a beach and looked at the sun. … He chose not to.”Sign up for Daily Newsletters