Why Lori Lightfoot may join black elites backing Bloomberg for president

The former New York City mayor’s monied interests are winning him support despite his obstinance (and evasion) on stop and frisk, discriminatory hiring, and other racial justice issues.

Print More

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is reportedly considering joining the many black elected officials — including one of her biggest critics, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush — who are backing former Republican New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.\

I’m not sure if she’s been given pause by the reemergence last week of the controversy over Bloomberg’s aggressive use of stop-and-frisk police tactics during his mayoralty. It hasn’t stopped other African American leaders from stepping up for the embattled but very wealthy candidate. Business executives Melody Hobson — who was appointed vice chair of World Business Chicago by Lightfoot — and John Rogers Jr. hosted a campaign event for Bloomberg in Chicago this week. 

Lightfoot, of course, chaired the Police Accountability Task Force in 2016, which noted “significant racial disparities” and “the perception of abusive police behavior” connected with the stop and frisk — and that nearly 70% of young African American males in Chicago reported being stopped over a 12-month period. “The overuse of investigatory stops has left a lingering, negative perception of the police in communities of color, in part because for people of color, a significant number of those stops also involved actual or threatened physical abuse,” the report concluded.

Bloomberg did apologize for stop and frisk last year — one week before announcing his candidacy. “Over time, I’ve come to understand something that I’ve long struggled to admit to myself: I got something important wrong. I got something important really wrong,” he said. “I didn’t understand the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities. I was totally focused on saving lives, but as we all know, good intentions are not good enough.”

“It is almost unheard-of for a former chief executive to renounce and apologize for a signature policy that helped define a political legacy,” according to the New York Times, which noted that “the reversal left his longtime observers astonished.” 

Some were inclined to find the apology sincere, but the timing was striking — particularly since Bloomberg had steadily and stridently defended stop and frisk over all the years since he left office. Just over a year ago, in January 2019, he offered a “full-throated defense” of stop and frisk, claiming the tactic helped to reduce murders. As he’s acknowledged since announcing his candidacy, that claim doesn’t hold up, since data clearly show that murders were decreasing before Bloomberg ratcheted up the tactic and continued decreasing after use of the tactic was reduced dramatically. But that data was clear a year ago, too.

Bloomberg even said, a few months before that, that courts had found there were no civil rights problems with stop and frisk. In fact the only court that ruled on the program found it violated constitutional safeguards against unreasonable searches and guarantees of equal protection regardless of race.

Then last week a tape was released of Bloomberg defending stop and frisk in a 2015 talk, two years after he’d left office. He gave an explicit defense of racial profiling: “You can just take the description [of murder suspects] and Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male minorities 15 to 25.” And he gave an explicit defense of treating young minority males roughly, though nearly 90% of those stopped were innocent, saying the thing to do was “throw them against the wall and frisk them.”

This threw his campaign into crisis mode, but it handled the situation — by issuing another apology: “I inherited the police practice of stop-and-frisk, and as part of our effort to stop gun violence it was overused. By the time I left office, I cut it back by 95%, but I should’ve done it faster and sooner. I regret that and I have apologized — and I have taken responsibility for taking too long to understand the impact it had on Black and Latino communities.”

I was curious about some of the claims and contacted the Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought the lawsuit that found Bloomberg’s policing strategy to be unconstitutional. “We’re scratching our heads about that,” said Darius Charney, a lead attorney in the lawsuit that challenged stop and frisk, when I asked about the 95% reduction. “We’re having trouble understanding how they got that number.”

They got it by cherry-picking data points, it seems. The Bloomberg campaign told the New York Times the 95% reduction came between the first quarter of 2012 and the last quarter of 2013.

RELATED:

Stop-and-frisk down 80% in Chicago but Black and Latinx people still hit the hardest, judge finds

But if you take the number of recorded stops in the year when it peaked — 685,724 in 2011 — and compare it to 191,851 stops in 2013, Bloomberg’s last year in office, that’s a 72% decrease. That comes after a more than 600% increase from the start of Bloomberg’s first term in 2002 to the 2011 peak. If you take the entirety of his time in office, recorded stops increased by 97%, from more than 97,000 in 2002 to almost 192,000 in 2013, according to data analyzed by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Bloomberg also took credit in his statement for reducing incarceration rates, but a study has found that felony charges went down as a result of “broken windows” policing, which targeted minor crimes, and stop and frisk, which targeted people who weren’t guilty of anything at all. Meanwhile nearly a half-million people, 87% of them black or Latino, were charged with minor marijuana violations under Bloomberg  — a huge increase due specifically to stop and frisk.

Charney took issue with the suggestion that Bloomberg “inherited” a tactic which he had in fact escalated drastically, or that he “cut it back” — that is the reduction at the end of Bloomberg’s last term had anything to do with a change of direction on his part. Charney noted that opposition to stop and frisk was mounting at the time, and the police union was playing up the court case and telling officers they could get in trouble for bad stops. But Bloomberg continued to defend stop and frisk — as he did for years afterward.

The decision came in August 2013, and Bloomberg spent the final four months of his term denouncing the judge and her decision and promising resistance, Charney said. When the decision was announced, Bloomberg responded, “You’re not going to see any change of tactics overnight.” He filed an appeal (the next mayor dropped it) and sought a stay of the judge’s order — though the order didn’t ban stop and frisk, but merely required police to follow constitutional standards of reasonable suspicion and avoid racial profiling. 

The judge ordered a pilot bodycam program. Bloomberg called the idea of cops wearing body cameras “a nightmare.”

In those same months, the New York City Council passed two measures, one creating an inspector general for public safety and the other increasing protections against racial profiling, Charney said. Bloomberg vetoed them both. The council overrode his vetoes.

As for “taking too long to understand the impact [stop and frisk] had on black and Latino communities” — Bloomberg wasn’t slow, he was willfully obstinate. It didn’t take time and reflection, it took consultants (who probably labored long and hard to get him to shift his stance) and a presidential campaign.

Because the voices were there. Bloomberg had to exert effort to ignore the complaints of police, including courageous dissident officers, or the stories of youth about the psychic impact of being stopped on a regular basis or about being stopped on the flimsiest pretext and subjected to abusive language and threats.

Some of New York CIty’s black leadership is sticking with Bloomberg — like Rev. Calvin Butts of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church, whose economic development corporation received a $1 million donation from Bloomberg. As New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams explained, “Bloomberg has extremely deep pockets.”

But plenty of black New Yorkers are unwilling to forget his record. Like Charles Blow, with an impassioned exposé of Bloomberg’s disregard for the well-being of black youth, or Shaun King, who called the stop-and-frisk regime “the closest thing the United States has gotten to Jim Crow or Apartheid South Africa since the American civil rights movement.”

Bloomberg on redlining, Central Park Five and diversity  

Bloomberg ran into another problem when a video surfaced in which he blamed efforts to end redlining for the 2008 financial crash — after “Congress got involved” and, according to him, pushed banks to make loans to people with inadequate credit. He was criticized for ignoring the racist nature of redlining, but his whole analysis shows a skewed understanding of the issue. Indeed, he’s repeating conservative talking points which represent what community advocates call a myth that the Community Reinvestment Act caused the financial crisis.

The CRA required banks to provide “safe and sound” services in all parts of their communities. The housing crash was caused by predatory lending, which targeted African American communities with high-priced, unsustainable mortgages, even for borrowers who would qualify for traditional products. Most involved refinancing, not home purchases, and most by far came from institutions not covered by the CRA.

Bloomberg’s assertion represents an attempt to blame low-income homeowners for a crisis that was caused by Wall Street, Jesse Van Tol of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition told the New York Times.

In fact, when the New York City Council passed a measure to rein in predatory lending, Bloomberg vetoed it. When his veto was overridden, he went to court to block the bill.

There’s more, too. Attention is just starting on Bloomberg’s resistance to the lawsuit filed by the Central Park Five, teenagers wrongfully convicted of rape in 1990. Though physical evidence linking them to the crime was questionable, they confessed after lengthy interrogations without legal representation, but recanted within weeks. They were exonerated in 2002 when a serial rapist, tied to the crime by DNA evidence, confessed. 

The five filed suit in 2003, Bloomberg’s first year in office, charging malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. Bloomberg fought the suit for his entire three terms, maintaining that police had done nothing wrong. It was settled for $40 million shortly after Bill De Blasio became mayor.

Asked about the case by CBS, Bloomberg said “there was an awful lot of evidence presented at the time that they were involved” — though by the time of their lawsuit that wasn’t true — and added, “I’ve been away from it for so long, I just really can’t respond because I just don’t remember.”

Another lawsuit Bloomberg fought for his entire time in office hasn’t gotten as much attention. According to Charney, who was a lead counsel in this case too, prospective black firefighters filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2002, alleging that the department’s hiring test was discriminatory. The fire department at the time was roughly 90% white male and less than 3% black — the least diverse fire department of any major city in the country. 

The EEOC concluded the department’s hiring practices had an adverse effect on black applicants, but Bloomberg refused to negotiate a settlement, Charney said. The federal justice department sued the city in 2007, and a judge found that, faced with an “abysmal track record of hiring black and Hispanic firefighters, the Bloomberg administration dug in and fought back.” 

“I’ve chosen to fight this,” Bloomberg bragged at the 2009 confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, defending the tests and claiming that outreach efforts had produced a “substantial increase” in minorities joining the department. (At the time, FDNY was 3.14% black, lower than it had been in the 1990s.) But at a deposition a month later, he claimed to know little about the case

The deposition “revolved around Bloomberg’s snarky disregard for meddlesome restraints,” according to Wayne Barrett of The Village Voice, who described Bloomberg’s performance as disdainful and dismissive stonewalling. Again, the suit wasn’t settled until De Blasio took office. Since then, FDNY has appointed “the most diverse class in its history,” according to CCR.

Let’s skip over a discussion of Bloomberg’s “prolific and well-documented” history of sexism, his record of opposing a minimum wage increase, or his past support for cuts in Social Security. He’s apologized for all that, or will soon.

How is someone with such a consistent record of disregard for the rights of black people a serious candidate for the Democratic nomination? Of course, part of the answer is money. He’s rising in the polls among black voters thanks to unprecedented TV spending. He’s even running an ad featuring former President Barack Obama singing his praises, despite Bloomberg’s past criticism of Obamacare and of Obama himself.

And some voters who fear the current president think with that all that money, Bloomberg is the guy to beat Trump — though not all agree.

Money, including philanthropic money, can also buy an awful lot of influence among political elites. Journalist Blake Zeff spells out Bloomberg’s methodology, which includes giving millions to local candidates and to nonprofits and community groups which then provide him legitimacy and cover. The Intercept’s Lee Fang calls it a political machine for the 21st century, pointing out that Bloomberg is spending a billion dollars a year outside the campaign finance system. “This type of money hasn’t been seen in American politics before,” he said in a recent interview. It’s all in service of what conservative columnist Ross Douthat calls “Bloombergism,” which he defines as “elite thinking perfectly distilled: Social liberalism and technocracy, hawkish internationalism and business-friendly environmentalism, plus a dose of authoritarianism to make the streets safe for gentrification.”

Bloomberg’s money has also helped him line up the support of a number of mayors, many of whom have gotten multimillion-dollar innovation grants from his Bloomberg Philanthropies — or have attended Bloomberg’s City Leadership Institute at Harvard.

Indeed, Mayor Lightfoot attended Bloomberg’s boot camp for mayors last year. We may see what she learned there in the coming days.