Is Michael Bloomberg the Silvio Berlusconi of U.S. politics?

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If you’re not familiar with U.S. politics, you may not have realized the huge decision that came down on Monday from the federal Southern District of New York declaring that the ‘stop-and-frisk’ approach of the New York Police Department is unconstitutional.newyorkUSflag

But the judge, Shira A. Scheindlin, found that the Police Department resorted to a “policy of indirect racial profiling” as it increased the number of stops in minority communities. That has led to officers’ routinely stopping “blacks and Hispanics who would not have been stopped if they were white.”

The judge called for a federal monitor to oversee broad reforms, including the use of body-worn cameras for some patrol officers, though she was “not ordering an end to the practice of stop-and-frisk.”  In her 195-page decision, Judge Scheindlin concluded that the stops, which soared in number over the last decade as crime continued to decline, demonstrated a widespread disregard for the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, as well as the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

It’s a landmark decision, as far as trial court decisions go, that acknowledges the inherent racism of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, which took off in 2002 under the Bloomberg administration.  Essentially, the practice allows the police to stop hundreds of thousands pedestrians annually, the majority of which are African-Americans and Latinos, and to frisk them for weapons (or, of course, drugs) without probable cause — or, under a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case from 1968, Terry v. Ohio, ‘reasonable suspicion’ that the person to be frisked is armed and dangerous.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was decidedly not pleased, and he lashed out in a press conference that was more befitting a toddler than the mayor of the largest city in the United States:

To one journalist — but really to all of them and any critic of stop-and-frisk, however moderate — Bloomberg exclaimed, “You couldn’t be more wrong!”

Bloomberg, who will leave office in January 2014 after 12 years as mayor of New York City, argued fiercely for the benefits of stop-and-frisk, downplayed the concerns over civil liberties, refused to make any changes in the NYPD operating procedures anytime in the near future and even implicitly accused the ruling of leading to future citywide deaths at the hands of criminals who would otherwise slip through the NYPD crucible.  Bloomberg also pointed to a 30% reduction in violent crime since he took office, though the fact of the matter is that New York’s crime dropped even more precipitously in the 1990s under Giuliani, who had his own civil liberties controversies, including the NYPD’s high-profile sodomizing and assault of Abner Louima and the fatal shootings of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond.

But Bloomberg’s performance on Monday afternoon, however, was less reminiscent of Giuliani than another longtime player in world politics — former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.  And not just because they are apparently summer neighbors on ‘millionaire’s row’ in Bermuda.

OK, no one is accusing Bloomberg of tax evasion, or cavorting with underage Moroccan teenage girls, or throwing ‘bunga bunga’ parties on the Upper East Side.  But there are enough similarities to wonder whether Bloomberg has become the closest analog to Berlusconi in U.S. politics.

Like Bloomberg, Berlusconi also came to politics after a long business career, and both pols enriched themselves through the creative and unique development of a media company.  Berlusconi and Bloomberg, by benefit of their wealth, have been able to run for their respective offices as independent conservatives, not beholden to any special interests.  That’s why Berlusconi has had at least three political resurrections since coming to the forefront of Italian politics in the early 1990s, and it’s why Bloomberg can thumb his nose at party affiliation in the United States, running today as a Republican, tomorrow as an independent, and picking and choosing his causes, from nanny-state health regulations to urban gun control laws.

Also like Bloomberg, Berlusconi is no stranger to confrontation with the judiciary — just last week, when Italy’s top court upheld the former prime minister’s conviction for tax evasion, he launched into one of many career-long tirades against activist judges.

The similarities don’t stop there, though.  Berlusconi’s career has been marked by a power-at-all-costs mentality that, while effective, has hardly benefitted the cause of Italy’s democratic institutions, such as the electoral law his government hastily enacted in the mid-2000s to spike his chances of victory in the 2006 election.  Like Berlusconi, Bloomberg pushed to revise the city’s term limits law to enable him to run for a third consecutive term in the November 2009 mayoral election, a move that even former Republican mayor Rudy Giuliani was even forced to reject, though he briefly considered it to provide continuity of leadership in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center.  Bloomberg won the 2009 race by a narrow 50.7% to 46.3% margin against former city comptroller Bill Thompson, despite a massive financial advantage in the race.

Moreover, the stop-and-frisk program isn’t the only time that Bloomberg’s policy ambitions have captured constitutional review — his administration is in the process of appealing a decision by state courts to strike down as ‘arbitrary and capricious’ Bloomberg’s ban on sweetened drinks of over 16 ounces in volume, the so-called ‘soda ban,’ the latest and most creeping of policy initiatives designed to nudge New Yorkers to better health decisions, including a 2003 smoking ban and a statewide 2009 law that mandates labeling of nutritional information for food in restaurants.

Bloomberg also ordered a controversial NYPD raid on Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan, the site of the original ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement in November 2011 — while clearing the public park wasn’t challenged as unconstitutional because the mayor was acting within his rights, either did it entirely sit well with civil liberties advocates, and the ham-fisted midnight eviction wasn’t exactly the most subtle way to clear protesters, and it seems uncomfortably similar to the moves of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to clear protesters from Taksim Square in Istanbul earlier this summer.  Berlusconi, too, is no champion of civil liberties, and press freedom has notoriously deteriorated in the past two decades in light of legislation aimed at censoring reporters.

Of course, the Giuliani-Bloomberg era of liberal(ish), anti-crime, security-minded Republicans seems likely to come to an end this November.  New York City council speaker Christine Quinn leads polls in the Democratic primary against Thompson, New York City public advocate Bill de Blasio and disgraced former U.S. congressman Anthony Weiner, and Joseph Lhota, the likely Republican candidate, seems unlikely to defeat the ultimate winner of the September 10 Democratic primary election (or October 1 runoff, if no candidate wins over 40% of the primary vote).

If those polls hold up, Quinn would not only be the first Democratic mayor of the heavily Democratic-leaning city in two decades (U.S. president Barack Obama won between 78.8% and 91.2% of the vote in the November 2012 election in Manhattan, Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn counties), but also the first woman and openly gay New York City mayor.

An imperfect analogy, perhaps, but there are enough similarities to raise an eyebrow or two.

Photo credit to the New York Daily News.

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