Originally published in The New York Times. Photo by Bridget Bennett.
As Michael Bloomberg prepares a presidential run, his history of crude remarks is likely to draw scrutiny. His team said some were “disrespectful.”
It was a cheeky birthday gift for a hard-charging boss, a 32-page book of one-liners compiled by colleagues at his company. “The Portable Bloomberg: The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Bloomberg,” presented in 1990 to the future mayor of New York City, even featured drawings of its namesake in gladiatorial garb.
One remark attributed to Mr. Bloomberg went like this: “If women wanted to be appreciated for their brains, they’d go to the library instead of to Bloomingdale’s.” Another line, purportedly Mr. Bloomberg’s sales pitch for his eponymous computer terminal, said the machine will “do everything,” including oral sex, although a cruder term was used.
“I guess,” Mr. Bloomberg was quoted as saying, “that puts a lot of you girls out of business.”
When the pamphlet resurfaced during Mr. Bloomberg’s 2001 mayoral run, he dismissed the comments as “borscht belt jokes” and said he did not recall saying them. The story line receded after the 9/11 terror attacks, and Mr. Bloomberg went on to win election three times over.
But the comments revealed a cruder side of Mr. Bloomberg, now 77 and a potential presidential candidate, who made his billions in the towel-snapping culture of Wall Street decades before #MeToo became a household term.
Lawsuits portrayed the early days of his company as a frat house, with employees bragging about sexual exploits. Even after entering politics, Mr. Bloomberg’s cavalier attitude caused trouble: In 2012, the mayor, while admiring a woman at a party, urged two guests to “look at the ass on her.” Just last year, he cast doubt on harassment allegations against Charlie Rose, the disgraced CBS anchor. “I don’t know how true all of it is,” Mr. Bloomberg told The New York Times.
On Wednesday, after inquiries from The Times, Mr. Bloomberg’s team issued a statement addressing his history of insensitive comments.
“Mike has come to see that some of what he has said is disrespectful and wrong,” said a spokesman, Stu Loeser, who served as Mr. Bloomberg’s City Hall press secretary and is now advising his prospective presidential bid. “He believes his words have not always aligned with his values and the way he has led his life.”
Mr. Bloomberg is loath to admit fault, and the statement stops short of an apology. But it signals a recognition among aides that his behavior — little-known outside New York City circles — will face heavy scrutiny should he enter the 2020 presidential race, at a time when questions of gender and workplace conduct have taken center stage.
A majority of Democratic primary voters are women. The party is trying to unseat a president who has faced multiple allegations of sexual assault, in a year where a record number of female candidates are competing in the Democratic field. And cultural norms have shifted in the aftermath of the revelations that fueled the #MeToo movement: former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., for instance, was forced to explain his penchant for hugging strangers after several women described feeling uncomfortable with his physical interactions.
Republican lawmakers have said little about President Trump’s alleged assaults, but the left has set a different standard, as former Senator Al Franken discovered when he resigned last year.
“If you have a problem with women, you are not going to be the Democratic nominee,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic political strategist who is unaffiliated with any candidate.
Mr. Bloomberg’s defenders say that his advocacy for women and women’s issues are one of his biggest strengths.
He elevated women to leading roles at City Hall, including Janette Sadik-Khan to transportation commissioner; Amanda Burden to city planning commissioner; and his longtime top adviser, Patricia E. Harris, to first deputy mayor, the first woman to serve in that role. As New York’s mayor and in the years since — he left office in 2013 — Mr. Bloomberg has donated tens of millions of dollars to support reproductive rights and women’s health causes around the world, his aides said.
“To say he’s one of the biggest champions for women in this country and all over the world would be an understatement,” said Jill Lafer, a former national chairwoman of Planned Parenthood, who recalled Mr. Bloomberg making an unsolicited donation of $250,000 to the organization in 2012 after a major donor pulled funding.
In interviews, several former New York City officials said that they had not heard Mr. Bloomberg, who sat alongside his deputies in an open-plan office, make sexist or offensive comments during their time working together. “No one was made to feel any kind of negativity on the basis of any kind of gender or gender orientation,” said Ester Fuchs, a professor at Columbia who was a senior policy adviser to Mr. Bloomberg during his first term as mayor.
Still, Mr. Bloomberg’s boorish reputation in the 1980s and 1990s was a potential stumbling block even in 2001, when he first took a run at political office. Biographies of Mr. Bloomberg, along with contemporary news reports, have described the company in those days as a hotbed of brusque talk that was often demeaning to women.
One lawsuit, filed in 1997, accused Mr. Bloomberg of reacting poorly upon learning that an employee was pregnant. The employee alleged that Mr. Bloomberg told her, “kill it,” referring to her baby, before grumbling about the number of pregnant women at his company. Mr. Bloomberg denied making the remark; the case was settled with no admission of guilt. In 2001, Mr. Bloomberg’s staff said he passed a polygraph test concerning the comment, though the results were not released.
A class-action lawsuit filed in 2007, alleging a pattern of discrimination at the company against pregnant employees and new mothers, was dismissed by a federal judge in 2011 for lack of evidence.
Mr. Bloomberg — who once described his dating life as a divorced billionaire as “a wet dream” — was married for 18 years to Susan Brown, with whom he has two daughters. He has dated his current companion, Diana L. Taylor, since 2000.
Some friends and colleagues of Mr. Bloomberg say his crude language developed during his upbringing in the 1950s, his college fraternity years at Johns Hopkins and the 1970s machismo of the investment banking industry, which was dominated by men.
Generational differences, however, can be politically perilous in 2019, when the Democratic left is attuned to candidates’ language about gender relations and issues involving harassment and assault.
In a 1998 deposition, Mr. Bloomberg was asked about his threshold for believing a rape allegation; “I guess an unimpeachable third-party witness,” he replied. The case for which he was deposed, involving a saleswoman who said that she had been harassed and raped by her manager at Bloomberg L.P., was closed in 2001 after the saleswoman’s lawyer missed a court-imposed deadline.
Mr. Loeser, the Bloomberg spokesman, said on Wednesday that the “third-party” comment came in the midst of a hostile deposition. “That’s not what he believes,” Mr. Loeser said.
Mr. Bloomberg’s supportive remarks last year about Mr. Rose suggested another potential trouble spot. Mr. Rose, who was close with the mayor, taped his PBS talk show at Bloomberg L.P.’s Manhattan office tower, and he dated Ms. Burden, one of Mr. Bloomberg’s highest-ranking city commissioners. In late 2017, Mr. Rose was fired by CBS after being accused of touching various women inappropriately, making sexually provocative remarks and walking around naked in front of some of them.
Asked by The Times last year about the #MeToo movement, Mr. Bloomberg brought up Mr. Rose unprompted. “You know, is it true?” Mr. Bloomberg said of the allegations. “You look at people that say it is, but we have a system where you have — presumption of innocence is the basis of it.” He said that only a court could determine the veracity of such misconduct claims.
Mr. Bloomberg’s aides point to his remarks at a 2018 event for Emily’s List, which supports female political candidates who are in favor of abortion rights. “Thanks to so many women who have courageously spoken out, the #MeToo movement has shone a spotlight on sexual assault, abuse and harassment that, disgracefully, society has tolerated for a very long time,” Mr. Bloomberg said at the time.
His team also noted Mr. Bloomberg’s efforts as mayor of New York to promote abortion rights policies, like requiring city hospitals to instruct resident doctors on abortion care. Bloomberg L.P. now offers 26 weeks of paid parental leave to a primary caregiver, along with benefits for gender-transition surgery.
Still, Ms. Marsh, the Democratic strategist, said that as a candidate, Mr. Bloomberg would need to prepare for a more stringent spotlight than he may be used to.
“He has to wrestle with the fact that voters are not looking at him as the mayor of New York, they’re not looking at him as the philanthropist who has done many good deeds,” she said in an interview. “He’s now going to be measured in a way he’s never been measured before: Can you be president after Donald Trump? And that comes with a whole different sort of tests.”
Maggie Haberman contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.