Now that Michael Bloomberg has entered the Democratic presidential primary, it’s worth imagining the 2020 general election that could come to pass: the Republican who said into a hot mic that he liked to grab women “by the pussy” versus the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat who reportedly admitted he’d said, of multiple female employees, “I’d do her.”
Read Bloomberg’s collected comments about women and you’ll marvel at how presidential they sound by the standards of the 45th president. Like Donald Trump, the former New York City mayor has made repeated remarks about the physical appearance and sexual desirability of women in his workplace. Like Trump, Bloomberg has allegedly complained about employees getting pregnant. Like Trump, he’s bragged about his sexual escapades and dismissed women who’ve accused him of harassment as money-grubbing liars.
The “I’d do her” admission comes from a deposition in a sexual harassment suit filed by Sekiko Sakai Garrison, one of four women who filed harassment or discrimination suits against Bloomberg LP, the company founded by the former mayor, in 1996 and 1997. Garrison alleged that, when she told Bloomberg she was pregnant, he replied, “Kill it!” and grumbled that she was the 16th pregnant employee at the company. She also said Bloomberg and other company leaders made unwanted sexual overtures and engaged in regular sexual commentary about the women they worked with. After Garrison got engaged, she said, Bloomberg asked her of her fiancé, “What, is he that good in bed, or did your father pay him off to get rid of you?”
Bloomberg and Garrison settled out of court for an undisclosed amount; he said a lie detector test, the results of which he did not release, cleared him of having said the things Garrison said he had. Another one of the suits, from a woman who said she was raped by her boss at Bloomberg LP and that men at the company “from Mr. Bloomberg on down” harassed women, was closed after the plaintiff’s lawyer didn’t meet court deadlines. As for his reported admission that he’d told people he’d “do” multiple female employees, Bloomberg said that, to him, doing a woman simply means having a “personal relationship” with her.
But there are plenty of other demeaning Bloomberg comments in the public record that the former mayor has neither tried to deny nor redefine common sexual lingo around. Bloomberg once implored New York magazine reporter Jonathan Van Meter to “look at the ass” on a woman standing near them at a holiday party in 2012. Former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told Van Meter that Bloomberg demanded she wear high heels (“The mayor has no use for flat shoes”) and mocked her when her dye job grew out, exposing her gray roots. His 1997 autobiography included a claim that he had “a girlfriend in every city”; he told a reporter that being “a single, straight billionaire in Manhattan” was “a wet dream.”
A book prepared as a gift from Bloomberg LP employees in 1990 included such Bloomberg quotes as “If women wanted to be appreciated for their brains, they’d go to the library instead of to Bloomingdale’s” and “I want a blow job from Jane Fonda. Have you seen Jane Fonda lately? Not bad for fifty.” Then–Bloomberg LP executive Elisabeth DeMarse told New York magazine of the quotes: “This is Bloomberg culture. … When Mike says outrageous things, it’s sort of a test. It’s a loyalty test. It’s a bonding thing when everyone laughs.”
Every time Bloomberg has publicly considered a run for president, these comments and harassment allegations have been unearthed and examined anew. In September 2018, in response to a New York Times report that Bloomberg was mulling a presidential bid yet again, the Atlantic’s Megan Garber wondered what his candidacy might reveal about what has and hasn’t changed since the last time he ran for office, in 2009. “The story published in the Times … is a trial balloon for a potential presidential candidacy,” she wrote. “It is also testing, however, another thing. What are voters willing to tolerate, at this point, in those who propose to lead them? What are they willing to ignore?”
One thing that’s changed in the past decade is way the mainstream media reports on sexism and sexual harassment. It used to be a lot more common to see outlets lightly criticize remarks like Bloomberg’s but ultimately write them off as the ordinary swagger of a business-minded billionaire. “Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks his mind and that is a big part of his cachet in anything-goes New York,” read the opening of a 2007 Associated Press piece about rumors that Bloomberg was thinking of entering the 2008 presidential election. The article made reference to Bloomberg’s “racy comments,” his “blunt style,” and the “offensive, locker-room culture” he fostered at Bloomberg LP.
Three years after Trump defended his “grab ’em by the pussy” boast as mere “locker room talk” in 2016, it would be much more surprising to see reporters reduce repeated details of workplace sexual harassment to some lewd banter in the old boys’ club. Today, in part because of women-led movements against sexual assault, journalists are more likely to recognize that just because sexist behavior is common doesn’t mean it’s less worthy of full-throated condemnation—and that credible, documented allegations of sexual harassment don’t need the vindication of a court ruling to be considered newsworthy.
But Bloomberg’s apparent target in the primary is centrist Democratic power players—the same sort of people who faulted Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand for instigating the push to get then-Sen. Al Franken to resign after several women accused him of sexual harassment and abuse in 2017. Gillibrand’s own presidential candidacy was reportedly haunted by Democratic donors who refused to support her because they hated that she’d turned on Franken—a man with his own history of making sexually degrading remarks about women. Sen. Joe Biden, the polls-plateauing moderate Bloomberg would effectively be running to replace, posted a video, before his campaign kicked off, of him rolling his eyes about the changing norms that govern interaction between the genders; it’s not hard to imagine a sizable segment of his supporters caring a lot more about Bloomberg’s defense of privatized health care than his alleged sexual harassment.
As he moves to mount a full-on campaign for president, Bloomberg and his team might be counting on the electorate to overlook his alleged history of harassment and vote for him anyway, as voters in New York City did in three consecutive mayoral elections. Bloomberg might not be taking into account the ways the public consciousness and the press have changed on issues of sex discrimination over the past decade. Or he might be making an educated guess: that there are plenty of voters in the Democratic Party whose views haven’t changed much at all—and that in a race against Trump, a run-of-the-mill sexist would look positively genteel by comparison.