Ask students what they know about Michael Bloomberg.
Elicit or explain that Michael Bloomberg is a businessman and former mayor of New York who sought the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Michael Bloomberg became a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination on November 24, 2019. By the time he entered the race, the other Democratic candidates had already participated in five debates. Bloomberg not only skipped the first debates, but opted to wait until Super Tuesday (March 3) to actually appear on the ballot. On March 4, Bloomberg announced that he was suspending his campaign after a poor showing in Super Tuesday primary states.
Ask students to read the following backgrounder, which summarizes Bloomberg policies that became issues in his 2020 presidential run.
Reading: Exploring Bloomberg's History & Record
Who is Michael Bloomberg?
Michael Bloomberg was born in Boston to a family of modest means. Before entering politics, Bloomberg had a successful career in the financial industry. The company he founded in 1981 developed computer systems that delivered stock market data and business analytics in “real time.” The terminals proved invaluable to investment firms, which leased them for $20,000 per year.
By 2011, the company had about one-third of the world’s market share. With its success, the company expanded into the media industry, starting or buying such publications as Businessweek. Bloomberg’s media ventures now include Bloomberg Businessweek, Bloomberg Markets, Bloomberg Law, and Bloomberg Government. At about $62 billion, Michael Bloomberg is reputed to be the ninth richest person in the world.
In 2001, Bloomberg stepped down as CEO of the company to run for mayor of New York City. Running as a Republican, he won and won again in 2005. Then, in a controversial move, Bloomberg successfully lobbied the City Council to change the law limiting mayors to two terms. With the limit removed, Mayor Bloomberg won election to a third term in 2009. (The term limit was reinstated by voters in 2010.)
From 2014 to 2019, Bloomberg once again served as CEO of his company while also devoting himself to philanthropic efforts. He has pledged to give half of his wealth to charity. Bloomberg Philanthropies has concentrated its efforts on the environment, public health, arts, government innovation, and education. Bloomberg is also the main funder of the gun control organization Everytown for Gun Safety. In 2018, Bloomberg changed political parties from Republican to Democrat, and contributed money to Democratic candidates for Congress.
Like the other candidates, Michael Bloomberg had ideas and plans for everything from clean energy to college affordability to criminal justice reform. Such stances can be useful in determining what sort of presidents they might make. In Bloomberg’s case, voters also had evidence from his twelve years as chief executive of the country’s largest city. Here we will examine several important elements of his record as Mayor of New York City.
Bloomberg’s Policies as NYC Mayor
Perhaps the greatest criticism of Bloomberg centers on the policing policies he implemented as mayor – and continued to embrace until just before declaring his presidential candidacy.
Under Bloomberg’s leadership, the NYC Police Department greatly intensified its “stop-and-frisk” policy, which had a devastating impact on young people of color, in particular. This policy entails police stopping someone on the street if they “reasonably” suspect that person of a crime. Under previous policies, the person would be questioned and released if there was no “probable cause” to arrest them.
Under Bloomberg’s administration, police were directed to make many more such stops, and in addition, frisk people for weapons if police thought they might be armed. Under these loosened guidelines, the number of such stops skyrocketed from under 100,000 in 2002 to 685,000 in 2011. The vast majority of the stop-and-frisks resulted in no arrests or convictions – but caused much trauma for those targeted. Between 2002 and 2011, only about 12 percent of those stopped were found to be guilty of a crime.
During Bloomberg’s tenure in office, around 90 percent of all the police stop-and-frisks were conducted on people of color, most of them young men. Mayor Bloomberg resisted the many protests of the policy, and it was only when courts ruled against the City that the practice was halted. After this oppressive policy ended, crime continued its steep drop in New York City, belying Bloomberg’s claim that stop-and-frisk had helped lead to the drop in crime during his administration.
Bloomberg continued to support stop and frisk, and even openly defended racial profiling, until shortly before announcing his candidacy, when he said:
Over time, I’ve come to understand something that I long struggled to admit to myself: I got something important really wrong. I didn’t understand back then the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities. I was totally focused on saving lives, but as we know, good intentions aren’t good enough.
On February 13, 2020, Bloomberg issued an apology for the policing tactic. This came after an audio from 2015 surfaced in which Bloomberg is heard describing the policy as a way to reduce violence by throwing minority kids "up against the walls and frisk them."
As mayor of New York City, Bloomberg supported a range of policies aimed at curbing climate change, including congestion pricing to reduce vehicle traffic in Manhattan. (Congestion pricing means that drivers must pay fees to drive in certain areas at certain times as a way of reducing traffic congestion, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.)
Bloomberg strongly supported the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which has contributed to the closing or planned closing of some 300 U.S. coal plants since 2010. Many of the coal plants were converted to natural gas, which Bloomberg embraced as a "bridge" fuel to renewable energy sources. Most environmentalists, including the Sierra Club, now argue for ending the use of natural gas, which is a potent contributor to global warming; Bloomberg too has shifted his position and now calls for an end to natural gas as an energy source.
Bloomberg’s plans for preventing and mitigating climate change were considered ambitious for an American mayor. Since then, as the urgency of the climate crisis has grown, activists have called for more sweeping changes, including a “Green New Deal” that calls for a swift transition to renewable energy, combined with social programs to ensure that this change is not made on the backs of low-income people and workers. Bloomberg is on record opposing the Green New Deal, which he says has no chance of passing, and has proposed his own plan for transitioning to renewable energy.
Housing and Development
Mayor Bloomberg inherited a city still reeling from the 9/11 attacks. He made it a priority to rebuild the city’s reputation and increase its attractiveness for tourism and business development. Under Bloomberg the city saw multi-billion dollar projects for office complexes, luxury apartments, parks, waterfront improvement, stadiums, and tourist attractions. Much of the city was rezoned to allow for demolition of warehouses, old factories, and other remnants of an industrial age. Traffic was reduced as bicycle lanes proliferated. Green spaces replaced graffiti-decorated storefronts.
The new look was accompanied by higher housing costs and gentrification that caused enormous distress for low-income families. During the time Bloomberg was mayor, median rents increased by 19 percent. The number of homeless families housed in shelters rose by 80 percent. Despite drastic cuts in federal aid for public housing, Bloomberg cut the budget for public housing, leaving the subsequent mayor (Bill de Blasio) to deal with over $30 billion needed for urgent repairs. Bloomberg takes credit for 170,000 units of affordable housing units, but according to the Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development, many of those units actually required a higher than median income. (The median income is the point at which half the population earns more, and half the population earns less. In New York City, the median family income is about $60,000 per year.)
When he was mayor of New York City, Bloomberg set out to remake the NYC school system, applying some of the same principles of private enterprise that had guided his business empire. His first move was to get control of the schools back into the Mayor’s Office. In 2002, at his request, the state legislature passed a law that eliminated the Board of Education and local school boards and gave virtually all authority to the mayor. Bloomberg then broke precedent and hired as school chancellor a media executive with no experience in education. The Mayor and Chancellor Joel Klein moved aggressively to reshape the school system:
- The number of charter schools went from 22 to 195. (A charter school is a publicly funded but independently run school that is exempted from some of the rules governing public schools.)
- Decision-making was taken from local boards and principals and highly centralized in Bloomberg’s administration.
- Schools were given grades on performance and over one hundred under-performing schools were closed down.
- Bloomberg created a privately-funded team of consultants, most with corporate—and not education—experience to design the transformation of the school system.
- Bloomberg’s team instituted extra merit pay for highly-rated teachers and worked to fire low-rated teachers.
Bloomberg touts a rise in test scores during his tenure as proof that his policies worked, while critics note that teachers were required to devote massive time to “teaching-to-the-test.” Graduation rates climbed by more than 40 percent under Bloomberg, and dropout rates declined. But school segregation deepened, and “creation of new gifted programs and selective high schools also introduced inequities,” the education publication Chalkbeat reported. Bloomberg’s social promotion ban got rolled back after it became clear that being held back repeatedly was harming some students.
Many criticized Bloomberg’s educational strategy as top-down and hierarchical. A Quinnipiac poll in 2012 showed that 61% of New Yorkers disapproved of his handling of the public school system (though 68% thought history will view his mayorship positively).
Money in Politics
Bloomberg’s entrance into the Democratic presidential race raised concerns about the role of money in our political process. From the very beginning, Bloomberg made no secret of the fact that he would use his wealth to full advantage.
In the first quarter of his campaign, Bloomberg spent $188 million. (Joe Biden raised one third of that in all of 2019.) As of February 21, 2020, Bloomberg had spent over $500 million on advertising. He spent over ten times more on television ads than Democratic rival Bernie Sanders. He has spent a great deal of money on staffing as well. His pay of $6,000 a month for field organizers is about double what the other candidates are offering. In addition, the campaign has hired hundreds of “influencers” to say positive things about Bloomberg on social media. He also promised to keep his campaign working for the Democratic nominee even if it is not him.
Many people in the Democratic Party decry the influence the extremely wealthy have over the election process and government in general. Money allows candidates to buy advertising, pay campaign staff, produce campaign materials, rent offices, buy equipment, fly from state to state, and all the other necessary expenses of running a national campaign. This electoral cycle has featured three billionaires (Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and Donald Trump).
Money works its way into politics even if it’s not wealthy individuals funding their own campaigns. Millionaires exert their power and influence by making large donations to super PACS (political action committees) which then support candidates or causes. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision overturned campaign finance laws to make it legal for corporations and individuals to donate unlimited amounts of money to super PACs.
- Looking at Bloomberg’s policies as a whole and individually, what group or groups most benefited from the policies? Which groups were most harmed?
- Why do you think Bloomberg garnered so few votes in the primaries he entered, after all the money he spent to promote his candidacy?
- Some campaigns, like Bloomberg's, are self-financed by wealthy candidates. Others are financed with large contributions from political action committees and corporate donors, others by many small donors. How might a candidate's source of funding affect their policies or their way of governing?
- Should the political process be changed to allow ordinary citizens to have more of a chance to win political office? What kind of changes might make that possible?