Mara Gay: Bloomberg rarely pays a price for breaking the rules

(Jim Mone | AP) Democratic presidential candidate, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaks to campaign workers and supporters in Minneapolis, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, as he opens the first field office in Minnesota and meets with local community leaders and voters to share his vision for the country.

In 2008, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was barred by term limits from seeking four more years in office.

So he got rid of the law and then spent more than $100 million of his fortune to win a third term the next year.

New Yorkers were raving mad. But they reelected him anyway.

“I feel he bought himself the election,” Stav Birnbaum of Brooklyn told The Times in 2009, after voting for Bloomberg. But she added, “He’s doing a really good job.”

Bloomberg has rarely paid a political price for breaking the rules.

He is protected in part because of his reputation as one of New York’s most effective mayors.

And in part because of his enormous fortune.

Now, as Bloomberg campaigns for president, his disdain for convention is once again on display, most obviously in the more than $200 million in advertising that has helped him rise in the polls while participating in neither the Democratic debates nor early primary contests.

He has also asked for, and been granted, approval from the Federal Election Commission to delay release of his personal financial disclosures. The extension — Bloomberg’s second such reprieve — is particularly convenient because it means he won’t be required to make public his extensive financial holdings and potential conflicts of interest until after Super Tuesday, when Democrats in 14 states and American Samoa will hold primaries and caucuses.

Bloomberg has put his billions to good use, generously supporting public health and gun safety campaigns, as well as efforts to combat climate change. And money devoted to defeating President Donald Trump is money well spent. Bloomberg has said that if his own candidacy fails, he is willing to spend $1 billion to back the Democratic nominee, even if it is someone with whom he has substantial policy disagreements. All that is to be applauded.

But some other aspects of Bloomberg’s campaign need to change.

Most concerning, he has misstated his record on stop-and-frisk, the policing tactic that humiliated hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers, overwhelmingly young black and Latino men.

“Now as all of you know, in my determination to reduce gun violence, we employed a common big-city police practice called stop-and-frisk, and that resulted in far too many innocent people being stopped,” Bloomberg said in a speech in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Jan. 19. “And when I realized that, we took action.”

Not quite. The number of stops rose for years under Bloomberg, peaking at 685,724 stops in 2011, according to police data published by the New York Civil Liberties Union. Though it was down slightly the next year to 532,911, it began to significantly decline only in 2013, the year a federal judge ruled the city’s use of the policing strategy unconstitutional.

Throughout his mayoralty, and for years afterward, Bloomberg fiercely defended the policy, insisting it was saving lives, even though nearly 90% of the stops resulted in no charges, and crime continued to fall even after the number of stops sharply declined. He apologized just before announcing his intention to run for the Democratic nomination, a contest nearly impossible to win without robust support from black voters.

This wasn’t the first time he’s mischaracterized his record on the issue. “Nobody asked me about it until I started running for president. So come on,” he said of stop-and-frisk in an interview with Gayle King of CBS in December, weeks after apologizing for the use of the practice in a speech at a predominantly black church in Brooklyn. That will be news to many New Yorkers, starting with the groups that sued the city over the policy, and the dozens of reporters in New York who pressed him on it for years.

Bloomberg has also declined to release from confidentiality agreements several women who brought accusations of a hostile work environment at his company, Bloomberg LP.

Bloomberg has much to offer. But some honesty and humility would go a long way. The last thing America needs is another rich guy who thinks the rules are for suckers.