Blacks on Bloomberg

Leaders Offer a Surprising Mix of Praise and Put-Down

"The jihad is over," says Councilman Phil Reed. "It was nasty for so long. You now have an administration you can dialogue with," smiles Queens assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry. "After Giuliani, anybody is a breath of fresh air," contends Congressman Charlie Rangel. "The animated enmity is not there," concludes Reverend Al Sharpton. Even Councilman Charles Barron, the most strident black critic in City Hall, concedes, "Bloomberg has a way with people that's disarming."

A Voice survey of 19 black leaders—including 13 elected officials—uncovered a unanimous sense of relief about the first two years of the Bloomberg era, a post-Giuliani consensus that the racial tone of the city has at least minimally improved.

Many go beyond the Giuliani comparison to praise Mayor Mike in terms that surprise, at least when compared with the extraordinarily high negatives Bloomberg gets in polls of black voters. "I have as much to do with City Hall today as I had under Dave Dinkins," says Sharpton, who concedes "there's been a lot of reaching out" by Bloomberg aides and a "different use of the bully pulpit" by the mayor himself. "I've had no personal disappointments," adds Rangel. "He's a decent human being."

Even Councilman Charles Barron (right), the most strident black critic in City Hall, concedes, "Bloomberg has a way with people that's disarming."
photo: Jeff Day
Even Councilman Charles Barron (right), the most strident black critic in City Hall, concedes, "Bloomberg has a way with people that's disarming."

Praising the mayor's education "commitment," Congressman Major Owens says: "You have a mayor who's come to straighten things out. We appreciate the priority of resources; they're in proper perspective." Wilbert Tatum, whose Amsterdam News ran a featured editorial for years demanding Giuliani's resignation, claims that Bloomberg hasn't been attacked "in the last 100 issues" of the weekly. "Questioned? Yes. Attacked? No." Councilmembers Yvette Clarke, James Sanders, and Robert Jackson, as well as Assemblyman William Scarborough, also added praise, with Scarborough claiming that Bloomberg "recognizes that you can't govern a city by shutting out a major part of it."

Two other councilmen, Brooklyn's Kendall Stewart and Queens' Leroy Comrie, recounted personal stories about the mayor's openness. Comrie says Bloomberg "invited me to talk to him" when Alberta Spruill, a 57-year-old black woman, died of a heart attack in May after narcotics police broke down her door and tossed a flash grenade into her apartment based on a false drug report. "He was serious in his intention to be honest and aboveboard and he ultimately conveyed that to the public. He's a compassionate guy." Bloomberg apologized for police conduct at the Spruill funeral. Stewart has watched the mayor listen: "The mere fact that he listens first gives a feeling of respect and breaks the ice. It's more humanistic."

As positive as much of the commentary is, it's unlikely to translate into cross-party endorsements in the 2005 mayoral race, and several leaders described grating misgivings about his governance. "His policies are the same as Giuliani's," charged Barron. "What percentage of the budget goes to communities of color that are in the greatest need? Why attack City University students? Subway riders? His affordable housing plan is for middle-class people." In the Spruill and other police cases, Barron says: "Heads should have rolled. That was reckless endangerment. In the next breath, he says 'She's gone' and we should move on. He gets away with it."

Clarke, the Flatbush councilwoman who chairs a committee overseeing the fire department, insists that Bloomberg has "paid lip service to integrating" a department 91 percent white in the front lines and 97 percent white at the supervisory level. Noting that the department has been "refilling" its ranks with new hires, Clarke says "people of color and women are nowhere reflected in that," adding that if the mayor was truly "outraged" about this racial record, he'd "keep talking about it," but instead, he doesn't. Les Payne, the Pulitizer Prize-winning Newsday columnist, insists that Bloomberg has allowed a city that is now under 40 percent white to be run by whites. "He does not represent an inclusive way of dealing with things."

Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields, who has flirted with the notion of running against Bloomberg, blasted him for taking no substantive actions after the Spruill killing. "I held hearings, produced reports, met with D.A.'s and criminal justice coordinators, but we still haven't heard of significant changes," says Fields. As "affable" as Reed finds Bloomberg, the councilman also says he's "tone-deaf" to black concerns, citing the availability of new affordable apartments as an example. Councilman Sanders, who campaigned with Bloomberg last month, argues that some of his policies hurt minority communities, citing the layoffs of paraprofessionals, "the failure to bargain in good faith with day care workers," and the sales tax hike, which he says the mayor favored as a way of forcing working people to share the budgetary sacrifice.

Strangely enough, polls indicated that blacks preferred the sales tax hikes to property tax boosts by as much as three to one, and they listed Bloomberg's tax increases as one of the primary reasons they dislike him, favoring spending cuts by large margins. Black politicians, on the other hand, have widely supported the mayor's willingness to jack up property taxes by 18 percent, an awkward difference that Assemblyman Scarborough explains this way: "Elected officials are more attuned to the difficult decisions that have to be made and understand that Bloomberg had to take the heat. The electorate is reacting to whose ox got gored." Thanking God that "we're not California or we'd be in a recall by now," Scarborough predicted that "when the election comes around, the mayor will receive credit for taking the action that had to be taken in hard times."

With Bloomberg's black disapproval rating hitting a high of 65 percent in May and inching downward to 59 percent last week, black leaders who give him generally positive ratings offer a variety of explanations for their divergence of views. Scarborough says the mayor's "suffering from the fact—media-created or true—that he's a billionaire out of touch with the common person. That's sent his polls into the toilet." Rangel attributes it to Bloomberg "inheriting an economic basket case," and Owens says that with high unemployment, "you blame the people on top."

Stewart says if Bloomberg were a Democrat, "he'd have a higher rating," adding that as a Republican, "he's taking some of the blame for Bush's economic debacle." The Brooklyn councilman complains that Bloomberg has said "nothing negative" about Governor Pataki or Bush. "Bloomberg hasn't put the blame where it rightly belongs so people put the blame on him," says Stewart, who actually endorsed Pataki himself in 2002.

The mayor's education reforms have also taken a beating in polls of black voters, with 55 percent disapproving, far more than among whites, especially upset with the elimination of community school boards. Yet black officials are far more open to the changes, such as Assemblyman Aubry, who says: "He falls and stumbles, but making schools the keynote is the right thing to do, whether I agree with all of it or not." Leaders understand the political risk Bloomberg is taking to improve the system, Owens and others argue, but all the people see so far is "chaos and inconvenience."

A Voice check of equal-employment data filed by the city reveals little change from the Giuliani era, whether in the percentage of blacks in the overall and executive workforce, or in the percentage of blacks in the mayor's office. Other indicators—such as black complaints against the police, and food stamp and welfare numbers—show no real advances over the Giuliani era. Leaders like David Jones, president of the Community Service Society, are angry over Bloomberg's failure to counter the economic downturn with policies that target minority youth and the unemployed. Brandon Ward, president of Blacks in Government, is dismayed by the paucity of black leadership within the administration.

Fernando Ferrer, who's already announced an exploratory committee for the 2005 election and ran strongly among blacks in 2001, expects no doubt to tap into this discontent, probably securing the endorsement of even the leaders who praise Bloomberg now. "Is this peace or is this just quiet?" asks Sharpton, who's been out on the presidential hustings for months but promises to be active here again in 2005. "Peace means everyone's happy. Quiet means there's no noise. But it could be the calm before the storm."

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