WASHINGTON – In 2013, the last year of former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s tenure, Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Democrat who represents parts of Queens in New York City, called the Bloomberg administration’s stop-and-frisk policy “illegal” and “attacks on our communities.”
But in 2020, Meeks endorsed Bloomberg for president, a day after a video of Bloomberg’s past remarks defending the practice, which had disproportionately affected racial minorities, ricocheted around the internet.
In a brief interview with USA TODAY, Meeks said he accepted Bloomberg’s apology for what the congressman called “bad policy” that was “just trying to save lives.”
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“I know you’re just trying to save lives, but it was in a bad way, right, and ultimately he realized it, and he’s apologized for it,” he said.
The Bloomberg campaign is waging an effort to engage black voters despite past controversies about race and criminal justice that critics have slammed as racist and disqualifying for higher office. Meeks’ endorsement, and that of several other black lawmakers, suggest Bloomberg can change minds, something he’ll need if he wants to win the Democratic nomination.
Other than former Vice President Joe Biden, most of the other Democratic presidential candidates have struggled to garner support from black voters — a crucial voter base for the party.
Biden has the endorsement of 18 members of the influential Congressional Black Caucus, a coalition of African American members of the House and Senate. But he’s faltered after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, and polling has shown declining levels of support among black voters, leaving an opening for another challenger in the so-called “moderate lane” of the Democratic primary.
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That presents an opportunity for Bloomberg, whose four CBC endorsements are more than any other Democratic candidate in the race aside from Biden. Plus, in FiveThirtyEight’s average of national presidential polls, Bloomberg sits in third place, behind Sanders and Biden, even though Americans won’t be able to cast votes for Bloomberg until Super Tuesday, on March 3.
‘It’s just not the way that I think’:Bloomberg addresses stop-and-frisk remarks on campaign trail
Responding to past criticism
Bloomberg’s African American supporters were put to the test Tuesday when resurfaced video showed Bloomberg giving a candid defense of stop-and-frisk.
“We put all the cops in minority neighborhoods,” Bloomberg said in the video. “Why do we do it? Because that’s where all the crime is.”
As the video circulated online, it was amplified by a later-deleted tweet from President Donald Trump, who called Bloomberg a racist. Despite the attack, Trump defended the practice as a candidate in 2016.
The Bloomberg campaign released a statement following a prescheduled meeting with over a dozen African American faith leaders defending the former mayor.
“While Donald Trump was calling Mike Bloomberg a racist, Mike was continuing his conversation with African-American clergy from around the country,” the faith leaders said, citing Bloomberg’s “regret” over policies like stop-and-frisk, a program where New York City police officers routinely stopped and searched mostly black and Hispanic men for weapons.
On Thursday, Bloomberg rolled out a 26-state ad buy in network, cable, and local markets about his support for black-owned businesses as mayor of New York. And later that day, he unveiled “Mike for Black America” in Houston, Texas, alongside a group of a dozen black mayors, including the city’s Mayor Sylvester Turner.
In his speech announcing the initiative to rally black voters, Bloomberg apologized again for stop-and-frisk and pledged to “right the wrongs of institutional racism,” telling the crowd, “I know I can’t change history. But what I can do is learn from my mistakes – and use those lessons to do right by black and brown communities who have suffered.”
Despite the controversy over the past comments, Khalilah Brown-Dean, associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, told USA TODAY Bloomberg’s efforts showed “outreach” to black communities, something she thought was important.
“When you have candidates that ignore the realities of race, who fail to engage black voters, or fail to diversify their campaign staff — to have a candidate that is trying to bridge that gap has made some people take notice,” she said.
Brown-Dean noted that Bloomberg had been successful in obtaining the endorsements of current and former black mayors, including standout names like former New Haven, Connecticut, Mayor Toni Harp, who had been the city’s first black female mayor and the president of the African American Mayors Association.
For some voters, she said, the mayoral endorsements might mean they would be “willing to give him [Bloomberg] a second look, but for others “it may be a total turnoff” if they left a city worse off.
Rivals step up attacks
Not all Democrats are convinced by Bloomberg’s apology, though, and some Democratic presidential candidates and their allies have ramped up their attacks on Bloomberg as he has climbed in polls.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who endorsed and campaigned for Sanders, told reporters Bloomberg’s apology on stop-and-frisk was “insufficient,” calling it a “uniquely and largely Bloomberg administration policy.”
“That was my family, and that was my community, and that was my neighborhood, and we know that this was a policy that decimated a lot of families,” she said.
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, in 2013, Bloomberg’s last year in office, 56% of police stops and interrogations were of black people, 29% were of Latinos, and 11% were of white people.
“People lost their fathers, people lost their brothers,” Ocasio-Cortez continued, noting arrest records can’t be “expunged with a tweet”
She acknowledged, though, “I think that no matter what, we’re going to have to unify onto the nominee. There will always be concerns, no matter about party unity, no matter who it is.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus to have endorsed Sanders so far, told USA TODAY that Bloomberg’s apology was “absolutely not” sufficient.
“I don’t think anybody who authorized those kinds of policies should be running for president,” she said.
Rep. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., a CBC member who endorsed Bloomberg, told USA TODAY, the policy was “inappropriate” but Bloomberg had “made demonstrative moves to correct what he did wrong, and that he has policies in place that they do that as well.”
Aside from Plaskett and Meeks, the two other CBC members to endorse Bloomberg were Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., and Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill.
When asked about Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism of Bloomberg, both Meeks and Plaskett cited Sanders’ vote for a 1994 crime bill that critics have said contributed to the mass incarceration of racial minorities.
“The vote was in 1994 — you know, this is 2020, right, and they’re just coming out to say that that was wrong,” Plaskett said.
“None of the candidates have clean hands when it comes to the African American community. Now, all of them have work to do,” Meeks argued.
But just as Bloomberg’s supporters tried to steer their way out of the stop-and-frisk controversy, more Bloomberg comments would emerge.
On Thursday, the AP reported on Bloomberg’s remarks at a 2008 Georgetown University forum where he had said the end of redlining, or the discriminatory refusal of some insurance or mortgage companies to lend or insure homes to racial minorities, had contributed to the 2008 economic collapse.
At a campaign event in Arlington, Va., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told her supporters “that crisis would not have been averted if the banks had been able to be bigger racists, and anyone who thinks that should not be the leader of our party.”
Appearing on MSNBC on Saturday, Meeks said Bloomberg used a poor choice of language in his comments about redlining but was referring to the correct issue.
“The words were wrong, the words were bad,” he said. “The language he used was incorrect because he was not talking about trying to make sure that black people couldn’t live in certain neighborhoods.”
What Meeks said Bloomberg meant was that “Congress pushed the banks to give loans” to people who would not be able to pay them back, like many residents of his district.
The ‘hard facts’
Both polls, which were conducted just before last week’s primary in New Hampshire, where Biden finished in fifth place, showed drops for Biden in black support since the last times the polls were conducted.
Meeks told USA TODAY African American voters wanted a candidate who “can restore some sense of sanity here in Washington, D.C.,” and he believed Bloomberg “can do that.”
Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., a CBC member and co-chair of the Biden campaign, told USA TODAY far more black lawmakers had endorsed Biden than Bloomberg but acknowledged the effects of Bloomberg’s massive spending.
Bloomberg has already spent more than $200 million of his own money on his campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings. The “hard facts” of the situation, Richmond said, were that “you have a guy out there spending hundreds of millions of dollars on messaging and organizing and hiring everybody.”
“It has the potential to cut into everybody’s vote,” he said.