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How a Harvard Program Helped Build ‘Mayors for Mike’

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From Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, Michael R. Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential campaign is full of unlikely mayoral endorsers who span the ideological spectrum.

Roughly two dozen of them have one thing in common: participation in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.

The initiative — a joint venture between the Harvard Business School, the Harvard Kennedy School, and Bloomberg Philanthropies — serves as a 12-month training in leadership and management skills for 40 mayors each year. Jorrit de Jong, a Kennedy School professor, is the faculty director of the program.

The program, started in 2017, has schooled some of the nation’s most prominent mayors, including Chicago’s Lori E. Lightfoot, Philadelphia’s James F. Kenney, and Seattle, Wash.'s Jenny A. Durkan.

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At least 23 mayors who have taken part in the program have gone on to endorse Bloomberg’s presidential candidacy.

While most of the mayors who have taken part in the Harvard program have not publicly endorsed a presidential candidate, an analysis by The Crimson found that a majority of those who have made endorsements have thrown their support behind Bloomberg.

Using information from the initiative’s website, The Crimson cross-referenced mayors who participated in the program with public endorsements of 2020 presidential candidates.

Bloomberg’s 23 endorsements from current and former program participants far outnumber the total for any other presidential candidate. Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Peter P. M. Buttigieg ’04 — who took part in the program himself during its first year — received 10 public endorsements from program participants. Four have publicly backed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

‘MAYORS UNIVERSITY’

Each year, mayors from around the country apply to the City Leadership Initiative, and those who are selected go back to school — albeit mostly from afar — for one year.

Hardie Davis Jr., the mayor of Augusta, Ga., said he applied twice before being accepted to this year’s class.

“It has been an incredible opportunity for me to learn from my fellow mayors, as well as some of the world’s brightest minds about leadership and management training,” Davis said.

Two staff members from each of the mayors’ offices participate in the program alongside them.

Bloomberg’s philanthropic organization, Bloomberg Philanthropies, donated $32 million to found the program in 2016 — two years after he took the stage at Harvard’s commencement ceremony.

Bloomberg himself has limited involvement in the training for much of the yearlong program, according to mayors who have participated in the program. In the past, Bloomberg has hosted all 40 participating mayors in New York City for an orientation weekend in July.

Albany, N.Y. Mayor Kathy M. Sheehan, a participant in the program’s second class, said Bloomberg greeted them, joined them for dinner, and spoke at an orientation event.

“He was very personable, very down to earth,” she said. “There were substantive interactions about his experiences, as well as talking about the challenges of being a mayor, and sort of the personal side of his experiences as well.”

Sheehan and other mayors lauded the yearlong education that followed. Sheehan said she took part in online courses and was paired with a “coach” who checked in with her throughout the year.

“The experience was really one that helped to empower both myself and my staff members to move forward on a number of initiatives that are really important to the city of Albany,” she said.

André Sayegh, the mayor of Paterson, N.J., said the program was “enlightening,” and that it helped him to become more analytical.

“Nothing can properly prepare you for being a mayor,” Sayegh said. “There’s no real professional development course that you can take at a college, so this was like the equivalent of mayors university, and you receive professional development training.”

‘WHY BE SKEPTICAL?’

Bloomberg, who is estimated to have a net worth of nearly $60 billion, has garnered the political support of more than 100 mayors in his 2020 campaign. Many of the mayors’ cities have benefited from his philanthropic donations, which total nearly $9.5 billion since 1997.

Davis, who endorsed Bloomberg in December, insisted that his ongoing participation in the Harvard City Leadership Initiative has “nothing to do with” his decision to support Bloomberg’s candidacy.

“Whether I had gone through Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative or not, Mike Bloomberg would still be my candidate of choice because of his body of work,” he said.

Other mayors said that participating in the initiative made them more aware of Bloomberg’s political and philanthropic work.

“I don’t know whether it was a direct relation, but I will say that being part of the program allowed me to see Mike Bloomberg’s leadership ability up close and personal — to be able to see the types of people that he surrounded himself with,” Sheehan said. She endorsed Bloomberg in January.

In an emailed statement, Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership spokesperson Lucy Byrd wrote that the program “is non-partisan and non-ideological.”

“In prior years Mr. Bloomberg has welcomed and greeted the participants and hosted a reception for them at Bloomberg Philanthropies,” Byrd wrote. “Since he has announced his campaign in November neither he, nor anyone affiliated with his campaign, has engaged in program activities.”

“Like all programs at Harvard, our staff and faculty are required to adhere to Harvard University's pre-existing prohibitions on political and campaign intervention,” she added.

Several cities with mayors who participated in the Harvard program subsequently received charitable donations from Bloomberg.

According to the New York Times, an education-reform group in Stockton, Calif., received $500,000 in June from Bloomberg Philanthropies while the city’s mayor, Michael D. Tubbs, was enrolled in the initiative. Tubbs endorsed Bloomberg in December and serves as a national co-chair for the campaign.

San Francisco Mayor London N. Breed, who is currently enrolled in the Harvard program, endorsed Bloomberg in January. Bloomberg has spent millions supporting political initiatives in the city that Breed backs, including a soda tax and an initiative to reverse the city’s ban on e-cigarettes, according to the Guardian.

For Sayegh, Bloomberg’s philanthropy is an example of his leadership.

“Why be skeptical?” Sayegh said. “He’s changing the urban landscape here — and that’s coming out of his own pocket. The man is literally putting his money where his mouth is because, quite frankly, if cities succeed, the country succeeds because that’s where the vast majority of the people are.”

Sheehan concurred.

“He could’ve done a lot of other things with his money,” she said. “He could’ve done a lot of other things after he left office, but he chose to stay in it and to try to focus on doing the most good for the most people.”

—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at jasper.goodman@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.

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