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Michael Bloomberg becomes more overt with his philanthropy

As he serves his final term as New York mayor, the multibillionaire is less anonymous about leveraging his wealth to support what he believes in.

August 04, 2011|By Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times
  • New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is listed among America's top 10 philanthropists. As his term nears an end, he has been more overt about his donations for causes he believes in.
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is listed among America's top… (Mario Tama, Getty Images )

Reporting from New York — Since he was elected to City Hall nearly 10 years ago, Michael R. Bloomberg has usually made large charitable donations anonymously — an effort to avoid blurring his roles as mayor and grand benefactor.

But as he serves his final term as mayor, Bloomberg, a multibillionaire who is among America's top 10 philanthropists, has been more overtly leveraging his wealth to bolster what he believes in.

On Thursday, Bloomberg announced that his family foundation would contribute to a groundbreaking $127-million city initiative to help young black and Latino men, who too often end up uneducated and jailed. The foundation and George Soros, another billionaire and a hedge fund manager, each committed $30 million; city taxpayers will underwrite the remainder.

In fact, the mayor has been on a charitable spree this summer — he gave away millions to mayors for programs in other budget-strapped cities. And when New York's state education committee announced this month that it couldn't afford to administer mid-year high school exams, Bloomberg found five wealthy friends to match the $250,000 he donated to ensure that students could take the test this January.

With these and other contributions that subsidize taxpayer-funded programs in New York and across the country, experts say Bloomberg is laying down a marker to continue his civic involvement after he leaves office as well as pioneering new ground for wealthy people with strong agendas.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a millionaire businessman, also occasionally dipped into his own funds and recruited wealthy friends to help public programs. But nothing compares with the scale of Bloomberg's giving.

"Part of this for Bloomberg is about his legacy and part is figuring out the next chapter of his life and how to achieve the goals that are most important to him when his first name is no longer 'mayor,' " said Joyce Purnick, a Bloomberg biographer.

There had been speculation that Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent, would run for president next year. But he repeatedly has insisted he is not interested, and many see his stepped-up role in his foundation as a sign that he means it.

Bloomberg, who made his fortune in financial services information, has long donated tens of millions of dollars every year aimed at improving public health and education and curbing smoking. After he took office in 2002, the nation's richest mayor was quieter about supporting his favorite causes. Until last year, he had the Carnegie Corp. of New York, a philanthropic trust, doling out about $100 million a year for him anonymously, though it didn't take long for his largesse to become an open secret in New York nonprofit circles.

Critics have voiced concern that when Bloomberg and others in the so-called billionaire boys' club — including Soros, Bill Gates and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg — use private funds on public programs, their overwhelming influence dampens debate on their value.

But Carol Kellerman of New York's Citizens Budget Commission said Bloomberg's donation to tackle the problems of minority men "is appropriate so long as it's fully disclosed and there are metrics to decide whether it's effective and you can make a reasoned decision on whether the taxpayer money is being used well."

Leslie Lenkowsky, an expert on the intersection of philanthropy and public policy, said Bloomberg's support of public programs harkened back to Andrew Carnegie's construction of public libraries that he expected local communities to support.

"This is part of the DNA of philanthropy — private action for the public good," said Lenkoswky, a professor at Indiana University. "There are risks, but we have checks and balances in city councils and citizen watchdog groups if things get out of hand."

Bloomberg said after he was elected a third time he would make closing the "achievement gap" for black and Latino men a centerpiece of his final term. The program is intended to help 315,000 New Yorkers by overhauling city probation and education agencies; that will include job programs, classes on fatherhood and even yoga to help young men control their anger.

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

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