Mike Bloomberg grapples with new era

Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg at a campaign event in Salt Lake City on Thursday Credit: Rick Bowmer/AP

Mike Bloomberg’s name last appeared on a ballot a decade before #MeToo transformed cultural mores surrounding sexual harassment and the treatment of women.

As he campaigns for the presidency, it seems the 78-year-old billionaire is struggling to adjust.

The former New York City mayor was caught flat-footed during much of Wednesday night’s Democratic debate when rival Elizabeth Warren blasted his company’s use of non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment.

She sought to portray such agreements as endemic of a broader culture of sexism at the company, Bloomberg LP, when he was CEO.

Mr Bloomberg’s response was dismissive. He said those who alleged misconduct “didn’t like a joke I told” and argued that non-disclosure agreements were “consensual” deals supported by the women involved.

The response struck some women as out of touch with how the #MeToo movement has reshaped the conversation around sexual harassment in the workplace — and the use of non-disclosure agreements in particular.

Employment lawyer Debra Katz, who represented accuser Christine Blasey Ford in her Senate testimony against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, said Bloomberg’s comments “really missed the mark”.

“I think Bloomberg’s comments were tone-deaf,” she said.

“In this moment, when we now understand that many NDAs were entered into in coercive manners, it’s incumbent upon companies and especially those (led by people) like Bloomberg, who are public figures, to agree to revisit these issues.”

The episode could cost Mr Bloomberg some support from women, who are crucial to winning the Democratic nomination and defeating President Donald Trump.

Ms Warren kept up the pressure on Thursday, saying when women complain, Mr Bloomberg can “throw a little money on it, put a little gag in the woman’s mouth”.

Mr Bloomberg campaigned on Thursday in Salt Lake City, where he showed no sign of changing his approach, bemoaning the division on display during the debate and reinforcing his central point that he’s best positioned to beat Mr Trump.

Still, his rise in the polls is prompting scrutiny of Mr Bloomberg’s company.

Bloomberg LP reportedly faced nearly 40 lawsuits involving 65 plaintiffs on an array of employment issues between 1996 and 2016.

It is unclear how many of these cases were related to sexual harassment, but a number of recent media reports have disclosed charges of sexist comments made by Mr Bloomberg and other managers at the company.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post published a long-rumoured joke book of crude comments Mr Bloomberg allegedly made about women from 1990.

His campaign has said he never made any of the comments disclosed in the booklet.

But Tina Tchen, the CEO and president of Time’s Up, the organisation created to fight sexual harassment in the wake of #MeToo, said she wasn’t surprised by allegations about the culture at Bloomberg LP.

“Being in the finance world, having worked in a corporate law firm myself in the ‘80s and ’90s, I think it’s fair to say that workplaces, especially the Wall Street workplace, was a very different place in terms of the comments that were considered normal and accepted,” she said.

But she said now “most companies have evolved, and are continuing to evolve,” particularly on the issue of NDAs.

She said NDAs have “long been a tool that have silenced survivors of sexual harassment … and really take agency away from survivors”.

They can also make it tougher for a company to correct a culture of sexual harassment, because the secrecy surrounding these incidents mean employees and managers don’t know how widespread they are.

Ms Tchen said it would be perfectly reasonable for Mr Bloomberg to amend the NDAs now.

Many types of litigation, from insurance cases to product liability, are routinely settled through confidential settlements.

In sexual misconduct cases, they’ve served to protect the privacy of victims as well as the careers and reputations of the accused, including comedian Bill Cosby, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and other powerful men.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, some think the practice should be revisited.