Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Campaign 2005: Civil Rights Issues Divide Bloomberg and Democratic Rivals

There is no civil rights issue in this year's mayoral contest as explosive as the racial killings that decided the 1989 and 1993 elections. And both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the four Democrats seeking to replace him cultivate public images as supporters of civil rights and civil liberties. But the incumbent does have a different approach to how the power of the city can and should be used to achieve equal rights, going so far as to say that New York was wrong to have used its purchasing power to fight apartheid in South Africa. And the continuing concerns with security do present some disagreements. There are also differences between Bloomberg and his opponents on handling race relations, abortion, same-sex marriage, and other such issues.

Race Relations

Bloomberg has succeeded in reducing the temperature over race relations in the city from the Giuliani era, sometimes in symbolic ways, such as meeting with Giuliani’s nemesis, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and treating former Mayor David Dinkins with respect denied him by his predecessor. He also moved quickly to defuse the latest Howard Beach racial incident, saying the city would not stand for such things.

The Democratic hopefuls have long records of involvement with civil rights issues, but recent stumbles by some have hurt them with voters of color.

Fernando Ferrer, of Puerto Rican ancestry, created political trouble for himself when he told a police group that the cops who shot Amadou Diallo 41 times in 1999 were “over indicted” and did not commit a crime. The officers were found not guilty.

Ferrer, who had gotten himself arrested outside Police Plaza with those demanding indictments in the case in 1999, insists he never changed his view on the case, but that he did misspeak. With endorsements by African American leaders such as former State Comptroller H. Carl McCall and current City Comptroller Bill Thompson, the controversy has subsided somewhat.

But his leading African American rival, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, pounced on the issue by saying the police shooting “rises to the level of a crime.” Back in 1999, however, she refused to get arrested outside Police Plaza and referred to the case at a press conference as “an isolated tragedy.”

As for Gifford Miller, Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez noted recently “Miller was part of the [1999] press conference where Fields made her milquetoast remarks” about the case.

Bloomberg, a private citizen in 1999, took no public stand on the issue.

Fields’ involvement in the civil rights movement goes back to marching as a child with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in her native Alabama. Her latest and most publicized effort to show herself with broad multi-ethnic support became the low-point so far of her campaign. Press reports revealed that a piece of her campaign literature included a doctored photograph, the white supporters who had actually been in the picture replaced by Asian Americans, who told the press they didn't even support her.

Representative Anthony Weiner, the fourth Bloomberg opponent and an otherwise strong civil libertarian, has involved himself in the campaign to rid Columbia of professors he believes to be anti-Jewish and unfair in discussions of Middle East affairs.

City Commission on Human Rights

One area where Bloomberg has a mixed record is restoring the City's Human Rights Commission. The Giuliani administration reduced the agency's budget by more than 75 percent, then perversely passed an amendment to the City Charter making it a charter agency that could not be dissolved without another amendment.

While Bloomberg made an initial move toward increasing its budget and installed more competent people to staff it, the agency continues to have a low public profile and budget.

The administration is also opposing passage of the Local Civil Rights Restoration Act in the City Council that supporters say would strengthen the existing law. If Miller follows through on his promise to get that bill passed soon, yet another confrontation with the mayor over civil rights would be set up during this campaign year.

Civil Liberties and Public Safety

In the wake of the London underground bombings, Bloomberg ordered random searches of the bags of people using public transportation here. It was condemned by conservatives as useless unless some sort of profiling was employed. The New York Civil Liberties Union raised concerns that the searching is "virtually certain neither to catch any person trying to carry explosives into the subway nor to deter such an effort" and argued that riders have been selected in a "discriminatory and arbitrary" manner.

Most of the public, shaken by what happened in London, is not raising objections to the searches.

In a July 28 mayoral race debate that Bloomberg did not attend, the Democrats attacked his approach. While not ruling out bag searches, Ferrer called it "'ridiculous as the centerpiece of an antiterrorism strategy," and proposed things such as more surveillance cameras, and more cops on transit.

Fields did criticize the bag searches, saying she had heard it would soon be discontinued, a fact disputed by the City Police Department.


Mayor Bloomberg, like his Democratic rivals, is a staunch advocate of a women's right to choose and has contributed personally over the years to abortion rights groups. The Abortion Rights Action League New York Pro-Choice , which endorsed Democrat Mark Green over Bloomberg in 2001, this time went for Bloomberg, especially praising his executive order requiring the training of resident doctors in abortion procedures, unless they have moral objections.

Fernando Ferrer attacked the abortion rights group for their endorsement, citing Bloomberg's personal financial support for a host of anti-choice politicians from President George W. Bush to Alabama Senator Richard Shelby.

Party Affiliation Becomes An Issue

Indeed, Bloomberg's role as the largest individual donor to the Republican Party in the nation -- he wrote a $7 million personal check to help underwrite the party's convention in New York -- is an issue for many civil liberties groups as the Republican-controlled White House and Congress renew the Patriot Act, limit abortion rights, try to pass a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, and promote conservative John G. Roberts for the United States Supreme Court.

Bloomberg went so far as to distance himself from the Roberts' nomination saying that if the judge would not state his position on Roe v. Wade, then he would oppose his confirmation.

Using the City's Purchasing and Shareholder Power to Advance Civil Rights

For decades, the city government has used its contracting process to move social agendas. In the 1980s, it prohibited its contractors from doing business with South Africa's apartheid regime, nor with Northern Ireland unless the companies there complied with the McBride Principles that certified a commitment to treating the Catholic minority fairly.

Bloomberg has gone along with some of these contracting laws, signing the Living Wage bill that requires some classes of contractors to pay substantially more than minimum wage. But he drew the line at the City Council's Equal Benefits Law that requires contractors that offer benefits to the spouses of their employees to extend the same package to the domestic partners of workers.

Bloomberg vetoed the Equal Benefits Law, and when his veto over overturned, he began pursuing legal action in state court to prevent its implementation, saying it is illegal to require contractors to do anything more than provide the best service at the best price.

In June, Bloomberg was asked whether it was illegal for the city to have banned contractors from doing business with apartheid South Africa. While he said the city should not have done business with the apartheid regime, "the contracting process should never be used to advance social causes." Miller called Bloomberg's position on how to deal with apartheid "outrageous."

Bloomberg also criticized City Comptroller Bill Thompson and his own Finance Department for pushing shareholder resolutions to advance reform in the corporate world, but neither Thompson nor Finance Commissioner Martha Stark has discontinued the practice.

Bullying in Schools

Bloomberg vetoed the Dignity in All Schools Act, an anti-bullying measure, and is refusing to implement it, saying that the Council had no legal right to dictate to his Education Department on such policies. His Democratic rivals are all strong supporters of the measure.

The Dignity law has prompted the Education Department to take more steps toward documenting and reducing bullying, but not all the ones specified in the law. Bloomberg, like his Democratic opponents, supports a state version of the law which has been held up in the Republican-controlled Senate. Given his control over city schools, he has yet to say why he has not simply ordered the department to implement the provisions of the bill.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights

Bloomberg is referred to commonly as a "pro-gay" Republican, but he has been so resistant to the issues pushed by New York's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement that the leading political group, the Empire State Pride Agenda endorsed one of his opponents, Gifford Miller, in June, an unusual step for the group. Bloomberg is supported by the gay Log Cabin Republican chapter, but all of the Democratic clubs are vigorously supporting his opponents.

Bloomberg ran in 2001 on a platform of supporting major gay initiatives, but despite his "promises kept" campaign theme, this is one area where even he acknowledges that he has backtracked. In 2002, he did fulfill a promise to sign a bill banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression, covering people of transgender experience. But since then, he has vetoed and opposed in court the two bills that he had supported as a candidate, one dealing with school bullying and the other with requiring contractors to provide domestic partner benefits.

All of the Democratic hopefuls strongly support the right of same-sex couples to marry, some like Miller pledging to start performing them on January 1 if elected.

Bloomberg has a record of avoiding the issue, making vague statements in the past about the government having no right to tell anyone who you should marry, but not supporting the gay marriage movement. He did oppose President Bush's push for a federal constitutional amendment banning it.

When, in response to a lawsuit, State Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling Cohan ruled this March that New York City has to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Bloomberg appealed the decision, but declared himself in favor of the right to marry. He said that he had "no choice" but to appeal the ruling. Representative Barney Frank , an out gay Democrat from Massachusetts, publicly attacked Bloomberg's legal appeal of the ruling, calling it "terrible for us."

"The best way to win same-sex marriage-through the courts and politically-is when you're defending a reality," Frank said. "That's where Bloomberg undermined us."

All of the Democrats say they would drop Bloomberg’s appeal of the decision so that the city could open its marriage bureau to same-sex couples.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.  


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