Bloomberg Under Fire for Failed Diversity Program

Michael Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg / Getty Images
February 13, 2020

Former New York City mayor and 2020 presidential contender Michael Bloomberg is facing renewed questions about his administration's failure to meet quotas for giving contracts to women and minority-owned businesses.

A protester interrupted Bloomberg during a rally in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, demanding to know about Bloomberg's position on minority-owned businesses. Bloomberg told the protester that it was the first time he'd heard objections on the issue, CBS's Tim Perry reports, although the protester told Perry that this was her second time challenging Bloomberg during a rally.

While he may have brushed off the question, the story of Bloomberg's minority and women-owned business enterprises (M/WBEs) program may haunt him in the coming months. The program, intended to increase the number of city contracts with businesses owned by women and minorities, fell far short of its goals. That failure adds to the pile of examples of then-mayor Bloomberg's fraught relationship with New York's black community—one that is earning him few friends as he pushes to capture the 2020 primary's "moderate" lane.

During his second year in office in 2003, Bloomberg revived a 10-year-old executive order which mandated that 20 percent of the city's contracts be given to M/WBEs. Two years later, the city council codified the order into local law 129, which set citywide goals of awarding contracts under $1 million to minority groups, reserving shares explicitly for businesses owned by black, Hispanic, Asian, and female New Yorkers. Minority-owned businesses protested the $1-million cap, but the law proceeded apace.

Eight years later, as Bloomberg prepared to depart office, his administration appeared to have failed to give the law the attention it was due. A 2013 City Limits investigation into the program noted that while Bloomberg touted the increase in the number of contracts given to M/WBEs, the share of actual dollars awarded to those groups was falling well short of the percentages mandated by law. Between 2009 and 2013, not once did the administration provide the share of contracting dollars to minorities and women that it was expected to.

In 2013, for example, black-owned businesses received just 4 percent of professional contract dollars, compared with a 9 percent goal; 2 percent of goods contracts compared with a 7 percent goal; 2 percent of construction contracts versus a 12 percent goal; and 2 percent of standardized contracts versus a 9 percent goal. Hispanic-owned businesses were due 5 percent of professional contracts but received less than 1 percent; women-owned businesses were supposed to get 10 percent of standardized contracts but received just 5 percent.

The administration told City Limits that it was constrained in the number of contracts it could award by the availability of vendors and laws limiting who it could choose to hire. But minority business owners said that the city was not offering adequate support through the programs designed to help them compete for contracts, telling City Limits that they still faced barriers, including a lack of union affiliation and a lack of capital to provide surety bonding.

By the end of Bloomberg's time in office, the M/WBE program was so widely regarded as a failure that the candidates to succeed him jumped at the opportunity to attack him on the issue and on his lack of commitment to diversity more broadly. During a 2012 forum, City Council speaker Christine C. Quinn described the program as "not satisfactory," while eventual winner and now-mayor Bill de Blasio gave the M/WBE program an "F" when asked to grade it.

"It shocked me to hear, 'Wow, we would love to do that, if only we could find a qualified firm,'" de Blasio said of a then-recent conversation with a city official about diversity in hiring. "I remember when I was in City Hall hearing that kind of discussion 20 years ago and thinking it was outdated then."

Renewed questioning over Bloomberg's failed diversity in contracting initiative is just part of the closer examination his race-relations record is now receiving. New York Times columnist Charles Blow brought up Bloomberg's "racist" stop-and-frisk policy in a Wednesday column, invoking 2015 comments in which Bloomberg seemed to endorse comprehensive racial profiling in the program. Huffington Post, meanwhile, reported that in 2001, Bloomberg resigned from several elite social clubs that only admitted white men shortly before running for mayor—but later rejoined them.