NEW YORK — The Rev. Calvin Butts III, the influential pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, is drawing strong criticism from some members of his church for throwing his support behind billionaire Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, who is currently under fire for his controversial support of stop-and-frisk policies that targeted mainly black and Hispanic residents.
The criticism has come in the wake of the revelation of audio, reportedly from a 2015 speech in Colorado, in which Bloomberg claims that "95%" of "murders and murderers and murder victims" are male minorities between the ages of 16 to 25 and the way to reduce violence in the city is to throw minority kids "up against the walls and frisk them."
"You can just take the descriptions and Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops," Bloomberg can be heard saying on the audio.
In a Politico report, Butts described how he and a group of about 20 black pastors met with Bloomberg at the billionaire’s Times Square headquarters to discuss the issue. He said Bloomberg apologized and Butts accepted the apology for his stop-and-frisk record because he has spent his money on causes that are important to black New Yorkers.
“We accept your apology at one level, but we want to let you know that we’ll be looking for more concrete expressions of your apology in terms of the African American community,” Butts said, describing the line of questioning from a different clergy member in attendance.
He said Bloomberg was quiet in the meeting and facilitated a “genuine” exchange that was “not hostile.” He “accepted what was being said to him.”
Butts also recalled how Bloomberg offered his economic development operation a sizable donation, a reported $1 million, timed to the bicentennial of his Abyssinian Baptist Church.
“He used his money, which is one of the reasons I continue to support him, to express his sincerity,” Butts said.
Jerome Jackson, a 63-year-old Harlem resident and congregant at Abyssinian, told Gothamist that he doesn’t believe most of the church’s congregants would support their pastor’s endorsement of Bloomberg.
“He shouldn’t be endorsing anyone on the church’s behalf,” Jackson said. “I do not think most of the people here agree with those statements."
The Christian Post reached out to Abyssinian Baptist Church but Butts was not immediately available.
Darren A. Ferguson, pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in New Jersey who also served as Youth Minister at Abyssinian Baptist Church, said in a statement on Facebook on Tuesday that he did not interpret Butts as speaking on behalf of his church in endorsing Bloomberg.
“#Gothamist put out an article regarding my pastor, the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III endorsing Michael Bloomberg. Dr. Butts has never (at least not in my hearing/presence/rememberance) and will not endorse a candidate from the pulpit. If he did endorse Bloomberg, he did it for his own reasons, whatever they may be. He taught me that I should never ENDORSE a candidate from the pulpit (he does, however, speak about politics),” Ferguson wrote.
“It is like saying that your congregation is not smart enough to decide who to vote for. This article, as are MOST of the things published regarding my pastor, is skewed to try and assassinate his ministry and character, which I will NEVER allow without speaking up!! I don’t always agree with him, but as my pastor I will defend him & stand with him to the end,” Ferguson added.
Jackson as well as other churchgoers, according to Gothamist, suggested that Butts' support for Bloomberg is based on political and financial opportunism. “He’s had his palms greased before,” Jackson explained, pointing to Butts’ endorsement of Republican governor George Pataki in 1998 and Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in 2008.
Butts was appointed by a governor-controlled board as president of SUNY Old Westbury, where he took home a recent salary of $246,684, according to public records, after Pataki won. The New York Times also previously reported how Bloomberg was able to use his wealth to attract the support of other black clergy in the past.
Some Harlem residents say that they cannot overlook Bloomberg’s record.
“I've been stopped and frisked. My daughter has been stopped and frisked. My daughter's friends have been stopped and frisked,” Tobius Simmons, a security guard at Williams Institutional CME, a Methodist Episcopal church a few blocks south of Abyssinian, told Gothamist. “So he's had a negative impact on quality of life for most working-class people around here.
“The things that come out of his mouth about certain segments of society — he's unaware and arrogant.”
Bloomberg is expected to make his first appearance in a Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday night.
The debate will begin at 9 p.m. ET and is expected to last two hours. It is being hosted by NBC News, MSNBC and the Nevada Independent, and it will take place at the Paris Theater in Las Vegas.
The debate will be broadcast live on NBC News, MSNBC and Universo (in Spanish).