Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is likely the newest entry in the Democratic presidential race, offering himself as the billionaire counter to Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s “socialist” anti-billionaire agendas. Presumably, he’s also aiming to be a stronger moderate alternative to Joe Biden, whose lead on the other candidates — and his perceived likelihood of beating Donald Trump — has been slipping, aided by a series of public missteps, shaky debate performances, and an impeachment scandal that has entangled his son. He also can’t seem to stop behaving bizarrely and offensively toward women.
But instead of a corrective to Biden, Bloomberg is simply a different brand of piggishness. His messaging as the business-minded, exceedingly rational candidate in the field goes hand-in-hand with a type of unctuous paternalism many women find familiar. It might be even more insidious than Biden’s hair-smelling hugs, or even Donald Trump’s “nasty” insults, because it hides behind a veneer of respect.
Don’t get me wrong: Thursday’s New York Times lays out a panoply of episodes where Bloomberg has been accused of the typically obnoxious, demeaning behavior toward women that’s just as straightforward as that of his opponents. Take this remark supposedly attributed to him in 1990: “If women wanted to be appreciated for their brains, they’d go to the library instead of to Bloomingdale’s.” More recently, in 2013 (in an incident recounted in this magazine), he responded to a constituent’s thanks for his work on gun control by gesturing toward a nearby woman and saying “Look at the ass on her.”
But worth taking a closer look at is to Bloomberg’s robust history of being accused of professional sexism. In 1997, an employee accused Bloomberg of saying “kill it,” in reaction to her pregnancy announcement. (He denied making the remark.) Ten years later, multiple employees filed a class-action lawsuit alleging a pattern of discrimination against pregnant employees and new mothers. (It was dismissed in 2011.) And in a deposition for a 2001 lawsuit filed by an employee who said she was harassed and raped by her manager at Bloomberg L.P., Bloomberg said that his standard for believing a victim was “an unimpeachable third-party witness.”
Colleagues told the Times that Bloomberg’s past comments should be chalked up to “the 1970s machismo of the investment banking industry” in which he forged his career. His spokesperson’s response — “Mike has come to see that some of what he has said is disrespectful and wrong” — was similar. Even putting aside the fact that some of the incidents in question occurred as recently as the 2000s (and the year pregnancy anti-discrimination became federal law: 1964), his behavior cannot be written off as part of some bygone era before he became a public servant. It’s actually the opposite: Bloomberg’s legacy as a financial tycoon is central to understanding his top-down, managerial, and deeply, unmistakably patriarchal approach to politics.
Bloomberg’s supporters are quick to emphasize efforts he made as mayor to protect abortion rights in the city, and his company’s supposedly generous parental-leave policies. And yes, Bloomberg has long been a major donor to women’s organizations and reproductive-rights groups (the latter of which also benefit men, of course). But this track record has stopped woefully short of structural reforms that could actually improve women’s lives, especially women of color and poor women. He has denounced progressive policies touted by other presidential candidates like heavy taxes on the wealthy, Medicare for All, gun buyback programs, and the Green New Deal, as “punitive” and “impractical.”
If Biden’s boorishness is his weakness in trying to appeal to Democratic women voters, then Bloomberg’s performative magnanimity is his. His high-profile engagement on the front-end of progressive politics — his $500,000 Sierra Club partnership Beyond Coal, for example, or his $250,000 to Planned Parenthood — is cover for total lack of interest in actually tackling inequality on the back end. It might not be as overtly misogynist as Biden’s Creepy Uncle shtick, but there is a sinister “Father knows best” quality to Bloomberg’s candidacy that we might call the condescension of “The Boss.” As though we should be grateful for what he has decided we deserve. For a cohort of voters mobilized by righteous anger, another type of toxic male leadership isn’t going to work.