Mike Bloomberg Defends Himself Against Racism Accusations

Originally published on February 12, 2020 9:51 am

NPR's Steve Inskeep talks to NPR's Mara Liasson and Michael Nutter, national political chair of Mike Bloomberg's presidential campaign, about a 2015 audio tape in which Bloomberg is accused of making racist comments.

Correction: 2/12/20

A previous version of the Web summary said Michael Nutter is the head of Mike Bloomberg's presidential campaign. He is the national political chair.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A candidate who was not on the ballot in New Hampshire is three weeks away from a test. Michael Bloomberg entered the race late. He left the early states to Bernie Sanders, who won New Hampshire last night, or to Pete Buttigieg, who leads the Democratic delegate count after two states, or to Amy Klobuchar, who performed well in New Hampshire, or to other candidates who did not.

Michael Bloomberg is not on the ballot anywhere until Super Tuesday in March when many states vote. Bloomberg gave up the chance for attention in those early states, choosing instead to use some of his own fortune on overwhelming ad buys. But just as his moment arrives, he faces questions about his past. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson begins our coverage. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How has New Hampshire sorted the Democratic field?

LIASSON: Well, it hasn't sorted it very efficiently. If you're Michael Bloomberg and you're looking at what's coming at you, you see one front-runner, Bernie Sanders. He's a strong front-runner, not a prohibitive one, but he has dominated the left wing of the party. Then you see in the lane that Bloomberg is going to be competing in, you see a big muddle. The center left has not coalesced around a single alternative. That's what's good for Bloomberg. But you see the next big battle after these two lily-white states are behind us.

The battle is to put together the coalition that usually wins Democratic nominations, and that's African Americans and white liberals, and that's the big battle. Bernie Sanders has a gigantic organization. He has strength in labor unions. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, who came in second and third in New Hampshire, do not have that. Joe Biden is now trying to recover in South Carolina. So if you're Bernie Sanders, you say, I have a chance.

INSKEEP: Does it seem clear to you that there is room for another candidate, given that several have done well in different ways?

LIASSON: Yes, I think there is room for another candidate just because the race is still so unsettled. And Mike Bloomberg, by spending, you know, over a quarter of a billion dollars so far, has gotten himself into low double digits, so he is that other candidate.

INSKEEP: OK, Mara, thanks so much. That's NPR's Mara Liasson.

Now, just as Bloomberg prepares for his possible moment, an old audiotape surfaced on social media - not so old, really, it's from 2015 - and it has Bloomberg defending part of his record as mayor of New York. Bloomberg supported a long-standing policy of stop-and-frisk, police searching people on the streets, especially in minority neighborhoods. Bloomberg has apologized for supporting that once upon a time. Michael Nutter is on the line. He is Michael Bloomberg's national political chairman for his campaign. Mayor Nutter, I call you mayor because you were mayor of Philadelphia. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL NUTTER: Thank you, Steve, I appreciate it. You know, you keep the title but have no responsibility...

INSKEEP: (Laughter) No responsibility, but you get it for life, you get it for life.

NUTTER: Right, fantastic.

INSKEEP: I want to play some of this tape of Mayor Bloomberg from 2015. And it's not just that he's still defending stop-and-frisk in 2015, it's the way that he does it. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE BLOOMBERG: Ninety-five percent of your murders and murderers and murder victims fit one MO. You can just take the description, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male minorities 15 to 25. That's true in New York. That's true in virtually every city. And that's where the real crime is. You've got to get the guns out of the hands of the people that are getting killed.

INSKEEP: That's hard to hear that, Mayor Nutter, so I'm going to...

NUTTER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Repeat a couple of key phrases.

NUTTER: Yeah, well...

INSKEEP: He's saying you can just take a description, Xerox it...

NUTTER: Sure.

INSKEEP: ...Pass it out to all the cops. The murders and murderers are, quote, "male minorities" 16 to 25 - true in virtually every city, and that's where the real crime is. What do you make of that, Mayor?

NUTTER: Well, first of all, I think, Steve, you know that that was actually an interview. I've read the full transcript from that interview. There's actually another person involved. There was an interviewer, and so there's some back and forth. The tape sounds like they've taken - whoever created the tape took bits and pieces of Mayor Bloomberg's comments at that time and spliced them together. And then they...

INSKEEP: Are you alleging that the thing we just heard did not happen in that order?

NUTTER: Oh, no. No, no. I think if you read the transcript, the actual readout from the transcript itself, what you will find is there is more colloquy, there's more back and forth between the mayor and the interviewer...

INSKEEP: OK...

NUTTER: ...Nonetheless, the words are his...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

NUTTER: ...It is him. I mean, as you said, it's slightly inaudible. But nevertheless, if you walk through the pieces of what the mayor said, it is an unfortunate truth and reality that in many cities, and certainly would be the case in Philadelphia, the vast majority of perpetrators and victims, unfortunately, are often black or Latino males, usually between the ages of about 16 and 25, 16 and 27 - overwhelmingly either black or Latino perpetrators and victims.

I think the way the mayor - the way Mayor Mike conveys that information, you know, could have been better, more empathetic and with more context to what's going on. But if you look at the data, if you look at the actual information, whether in New York or Philadelphia and many other cities, it is an unfortunate reality that much of what he said is, in fact, true. And what the mayor was trying to do...

INSKEEP: You're saying that what is true is that people of color live in neighborhoods that have higher crime rates. And we could talk about all the social reasons that that might be...

NUTTER: Sure.

INSKEEP: ...Or why the police would find more crime or go looking for more crime in those particular neighborhoods. But let's talk about the context in which Bloomberg would have been making that statement, Mayor Nutter. He's talking about this policy of stop-and-frisk...

NUTTER: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Of police stopping people on the streets of New York, in his case, or in many other cities. And what's happening there is not that police are looking at statistics and finding the race of particular murderers in the past. They are drawing conclusions about the individual in front of them based on their race. That was the criticism of stop-and-frisk.

NUTTER: Right. And that is a criticism of stop-and-frisk because if you utilize that constitutionally allowed tactic or strategy properly, you have to have an articulable reason to stop an individual. And in addition, you have to have a reasonable suspicion that the person either has or is about to commit a crime and that you have an additional reason to think the person may present a danger to the community or to yourself as a police officer. Some movement of...

INSKEEP: It seems not to have always been used under those limited ways, right?

NUTTER: Say that again?

INSKEEP: It seems not always to have been used within those limitations, am I correct?

NUTTER: Exactly, and therein lies the problem - that some of the officers - I'm not going to paint with a broad brush but that some of the officers took shortcuts. Some of the officers may have used the allowable tactic beyond what the standards are and created an environment where the relationship between the community and the police was totally disrupted, completely offensive and damaged the kind of interaction that citizens have with police officers.

People want to be safe, but they don't want to be abused. And that was, as Michael said numerous times - and that was his failure in recognizing that while crime is going down - a good thing - bad things were happening out on the streets of New York. And he, as a leader, has taken responsibility for that...

INSKEEP: Can I ask about...

NUTTER: ..The effort was always about public safety. But unfortunately, in the pursuit of public safety, some bad things were happening. And Mike failed to see that, realize that, understand that early enough...

INSKEEP: Let me just ask, if I...

NUTTER: ...For which he's apologized.

INSKEEP: Well, he has apologized, we should acknowledge that...

NUTTER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...And he apologized again yesterday after this tape recirculated.

NUTTER: Yes.

INSKEEP: But I want to ask about one part of this, Mayor. When he was first running for president, he was asked by Gayle King of CBS about this...

NUTTER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Policy. And he says, nobody asked me about this until I ran for president, suggesting it was never controversial in the past. That's just an obviously false statement. It was very controversial during his time as mayor. In fact, he backed off the policy while he was mayor. Why did he make that false statement?

NUTTER: So I wasn't in the interview, I don't know the context of the back and forth between them. And quite honestly, it's never been clear to me if he completely understood the question the way that Gayle was asking it. I don't know whether he was saying no one asked him at the time or no one has asked him recently until he started running for president. So...

INSKEEP: But you would agree it was a matter of much debate at the time, right? While he was mayor, this was a - there were other opinions. It wasn't an uncontroversial policy at the time.

NUTTER: I mean, I'm certainly aware that there were - I mean, you know, I was doing my job in Philadelphia at the time. But, you know, there were certainly, as I recall, protests in New York. I mean, you know, I didn't follow New York activities on a day-to-day basis, but certainly there were people protesting. There was a lot of activity in New York, and the same was going on in Philadelphia and in other places. So, I mean, maybe it was a misstatement, maybe there was, you know, some back and forth that he didn't completely understand. I wasn't in the interview so...

INSKEEP: Got you.

NUTTER: ...I mean, it's kind of hard for me to, you know...

INSKEEP: Understand. Let me ask about one other thing in the...

NUTTER: ...Know what was on his mind.

INSKEEP: ...In the minute that we have, Mayor Nutter. Michael Bloomberg has made an active effort not just to apologize, but to appeal to black voters. What is he trying to say to African Americans and other people of color? What is his message to them now?

NUTTER: I think the message is, you know, somewhat similar to what his message was as mayor of New York. First and foremost, people want to be safe. And the responsibility of any government - local, state or federal - is to make sure that people are safe. But beyond that, him recognizing some of the damage that was contributed to in New York, and now he's running for president of the United States.

So you look at the Greenwood Initiative in the speech that Mike made in Tulsa, Okla. He's talking about tripling black wealth. He's talking about 100,000 new black-owned businesses with employees, a million new African American homeowners, which, of course, homeownership helps to build up wealth and generational wealth.

And so Mike is running for president now, he's not running for mayor of New York - that's a different kind of job, a different position - and is making clear to the African American community and the Hispanic and Latino community that not only does he get it but that he can use the power of being president of the United States of America to heal some of the wounds and make things better for people.

INSKEEP: OK. Michael Nutter, former mayor of Philadelphia, thanks so much.

NUTTER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.