By Jason Lange and Trevor Hunnicutt
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg on Wednesday launched an effort to win over women voters as he faced questions about his company's treatment of female employees and his own conduct.
Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, is mounting a late challenge for the Democratic nomination, blanketing airwaves with television ads.
The candidate has quickly built a 1,000-person campaign staff while releasing progressive proposals, including a pledge on Wednesday to ban flavoured e-cigarettes, but he trails Democratic frontrunners Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in polls. The Democratic nominee will face Republican President Donald Trump in the November election.
Dogging Bloomberg's campaign are allegations that he made inappropriate comments towards women and that his company, Bloomberg LP, fostered a hostile environment for female employees.
"Did I ever tell a bawdy joke? Yeah, sure I did. And do I regret it? Yes. It's embarrassing," Bloomberg, 77, told ABC's "The View." "But, you know, that's the way I grew up."
Bloomberg did not reference specific jokes. ABC News reported in December that it obtained a copy of a 32-page booklet distributed at a party in 1990 that included sexist remarks by Bloomberg, reportedly compiled by his colleagues. The same report chronicled numerous discrimination lawsuits filed against Bloomberg LP over the last three decades.
In one notable instance, a saleswoman filed a lawsuit in 1997 alleging that when she told Bloomberg she was pregnant, his response was, "Kill it," according to news reports at the time. Bloomberg at the time denied making the remark, and the lawsuit was settled.
Bloomberg said the company, a major provider of news and financial information to Wall Street, has "very few" cases of sexual harassment given its large size, and said he thinks "most people would say we're a great place to work."
He said the company would not release women from non-disclosure agreements that were part of legal settlements, some of which stemmed from allegations of sexual harassment by Bloomberg LP employees. One of Bloomberg's rivals, Warren, a Democratic U.S. senator, has called on Bloomberg to release the women from the agreements.
In an ongoing case in New York, the plaintiff asked a judge in December to invalidate her agreement with Bloomberg LP as well as any signed by other people.
On Wednesday night, Bloomberg launched an outreach effort, "Women for Mike," at a Manhattan hotel ballroom where he celebrated his victory in a mayoral race a decade ago.
A crowd that his campaign said topped 1,000 people swept up free wine, cheese and coin-sized hamburgers while Bloomberg's longtime girlfriend Diana Taylor, "The Sopranos" actress Lorraine Bracco and a female campaign staffer endorsed Bloomberg.
"All of my success in life - everything I've done - is thanks to the strong women around me," Bloomberg said, pivoting to his support for reproductive rights. "In many parts of this country, and certainly in Washington, women's rights are under attack and so are women themselves."
Women make up a larger share of the U.S. voting population than men and they report being less sure about which candidate they support in the Democratic presidential primary. About six in 10 women Democrats have a favourable impression of Bloomberg, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll last month, a lower share than several of Bloomberg's opponents.
(Reporting by Jason Lange in Washington and Trevor Hunnicutt in New York; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax and Chris Kahn in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler)