Bankole: Can Bloomberg woo Detroit?

Bankole Thompson
Democratic Presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg speaks to supporters at his Eastern Market campaign office on Saturday.

Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City rode into Detroit recently and launched a presidential campaign office in his bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination. But it will take more than that to win over Detroit, a city that is the embodiment of the urban crisis facing black America.

Poverty, race and class are the three factors that account for the problems facing many black cities. Inequity in each of these categories explains why many neighborhoods are in a continued cycle of social decline.

Democratic presidential candidates who have visited Detroit like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have sought to offer what they deem as a panacea to all three, while others, including the perceived front-runner and former vice president Joe Biden, have been tepid in outrightly addressing all three. Even when Biden was directly asked about reparations and dealing with the legacy of black enslavement during a presidential debate, the seasoned white liberal politician bungled his way through the question, leaving many scratching their heads.

As Democrats engage in an existential fight about the direction of the party and who would become the nominee in 2020, the question remains whether Bloomberg can help lead the debate about urban poverty. It is an even more urgent question because of Bloomberg’s “stop-and-frisk” policing legacy in New York, which targeted black and brown people.  

“Stop-and-frisk was bad policy, and he will continue to apologize for it,” said Bloomberg campaign senior adviser Tim O’Brien.

“There is a lot of rejuvenation in downtown Detroit, but ... the neighborhoods have not seen that kind of rebirth, and this is also true of rural areas around the country,” O’Brien said. “Michigan is a microcosm for a lot of the issues the country has to tackle around income inequality, racial division and a better future for our children. And Detroit, which has a significant population of African Americans, has not been well served well by the Trump administration.”

O’Brien says the campaign recognizes Democrats have a problem.

“I think black voters feel that they have been taken for granted for a long time, and Bloomberg as a candidate and the party as a whole have to really start knocking on doors again and letting people know in those communities that they matter and talking to them face to face,” O’Brien said. “I think there is a whole range of specific issues we have to deal with, like reduction on gun violence, drastically improving the wages of working-class entrepreneurs, access to loans and affordable housing and access to quality and affordable health care.”

He added, “There has to be a real sharing of power from the bottom up, and economic inequality is going to be part of his (Bloomberg) campaign.”

Sam Riddle, a Detroit political veteran, said Bloomberg having an office in Detroit is not enough.

“It will be more significant if Bloomberg were to unveil an action-now plan by adopting a square mile of Detroit that would holistically tackle poverty in Detroit with a focus on children, single mothers and homeless veterans,” Riddle said. “This project could be funded by diverting media-buy dollars to that targeted Detroit neighborhood. Anything less than action now to help Detroit is status-quo politics that will be ignored by majority Detroit as money-grubbing, do-nothing consultants feed on Bloomberg dollars in a vain attempt to rebrand this known purveyor of racist stop-and-frisk policing.”

At this point it’s hard to tell what Bloomberg plans to do in addressing the vexing issues of inequities that Detroit is dealing with beyond what O’Brien has offered. But if any Democratic candidate wants to make an inroad into the city, they will have to avoid the road traveled by former candidate Hillary Clinton, who simply relied on big names and some out-of-touch stakeholders in the city without mobilizing a real grassroots campaign. 

“I think voters have a right to be suspicious of false promises," say O'Brien. "One of the virtues of Bloomberg is that he has a track record of bringing the public sector and the private sector together to address the needs of those who are lacking."