Bloomberg upsets critics by spending wealth to seek presidency

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Businessman Mike Bloomberg is spending hundreds of millions of dollars arguing he's the most competent Democratic opponent for President Donald Trump as his foes contend he is trying to buy the nomination.  

Bloomberg has saturated the airwaves with more than $500 million in television advertisements proclaiming “Mike Will Get It Done” — with plans to expand health insurance coverage or reduce violence through gun control.

He spent more than $12 million on such commercials in the Great Lakes State through Feb. 25, which was more than all the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates spent on ads in Michigan in 2016 combined, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

He is adopting an unconventional strategy of skipping the first four Democratic contests and focusing his efforts on Tuesday's slew of 14 primaries. It will be followed by six caucus and primary contests including Michigan's on March 10.

Democratic Presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg speaks to supporters at the opening of his Eastern Market campaign office in Detroit in December.

Supporters of the 78-year-old former mayor of New York City say his results-oriented track record is best suited to take on the 73-year-old Trump, a New York real estate developer.

“Looking at his record as mayor of New York and a philanthropist, he is a data-driven guy, a problem-solver,” said Jill Alper, a senior adviser to Bloomberg in Michigan and a longtime Democratic campaign consultant. 

But Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, among others, argue the voting public is sick of billionaires "buying elections."

The complaint has come up before about Bloomberg — the eighth richest man in the world at $55 billion, according to Forbes — when he ran against the favored Democratic candidate for New York City mayor in 2001. Running as a Republican, he won, narrowly.

Mark Green, the Democrat expected to succeed then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the heavily Democratic city, recalls the sting of a seemingly assured election victory that proved elusive.

Green also said he remembers the money. With then $73 million of his own fortune, Bloomberg outspent the Democrat five-to-one.

“The only strategy I could come up with in the general election was some 'Ocean’s Eleven' caper to digitally steal his money,” said Green, who favors Warren for the nomination. “So that one day, he would go to his accounts and they registered one dollar.

“And, of course, I wouldn’t have done that. But I sure as hell couldn’t have done that, in any event.”

But some voters perceive an advantage in a billionaire using wealth to avoid the entanglements of fundraising, Alper said.

"With Mike Bloomberg, there’s a sense that we’re hearing from people that he will only be answerable them, not to special interests," she said. "And he has sort of put his money where his mouth is, whether it’s the opportunity he’s had to serve the public in New York City or as a philanthropist."

The rise of Bloomberg

Bloomberg’s money comes from a system of information technology he created 40 years ago that revolutionized financial enterprises and markets across the globe, making him one of the richest men in the world.

Bloomberg has used his political action committee to spend his fortune helping certain Republican candidates — such as $2.3 million of ads for Republican then-Gov. Rick Snyder's re-election campaign in 2014. He also has independently aided Democrats, including Michigan's Gary Peters' Senate victory in 2014 and spending $2.6 million in the U.S. House win by Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills in 2018.  

Bloomberg supported Snyder financially because Snyder was “one of the few Republican governors around the country” who supported one of Bloomberg's major policy and philanthropic priorities, getting guns out of schools, Alper said.

Democratic Presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg autographs a photo for Larry Taylor during the opening of Bloomberg's Eastern Market campaign office in Detroit in December.

“He is a Democrat,” she said of Bloomberg. “And exactly what Mike Bloomberg is campaigning on, right now, is embedded in the platform of the Democratic Party, whether it be reducing gun violence or fighting the climate crisis or creating jobs."

But he faces a more liberal presidential primary electorate than the voting residents of the five boroughs of New York City, especially in a general election, when they were voting for a moderate Republican.

Bloomberg’s record as mayor, including efforts to educate children, decrease poverty and provide adequate housing, are facing new scrutiny, along with his stop-and-frisk policing policy. But he still campaigns as a unifying fixer.

He also said he intends to spend $100 million on internet ads attacking Trump and $15 million to $20 million on voter registration drives, especially targeting minority voters.

Bloomberg’s wealth flowed from co-founding Bloomberg LP in 1981 after rising from middle-class suburban Boston. He paid for his education at Johns Hopkins and Harvard, according to biographers, and worked as an investment banker at Salomon Brothers.

“His main product is this terminal system, which provides all kinds of data and has kind of become the system you have to have if you want to succeed in the finance industry,” said Tyler Shumway, a professor of finance at the University of Michigan and faculty director of the Tozzi Electronic Business and Finance Center at the Ross School of Business.

While in no way intending an endorsement of Bloomberg’s candidacy, Shumway said, the billionaire’s business career suggests some of his qualifications for the presidency.

“It shows he’s a smart guy. He can solve problems. He can figure things out. And, he must also be very good at running organizations because he runs this huge company that has 20,000 people and is a pretty successful company,” Shumway said.

'Within Democratic tent'

While public opinion research among voters and residents of New York City suggests that his three terms as mayor were popular, he has critics.

They include those who say Bloomberg’s three terms as a Republican — he, Rudy Giuliani and Fiorello LaGuardia are the only three GOP mayors ever re-elected —  is evidence of a soft commitment to policy and brash personal promotion.

“His party shifting has been based not upon belief, but upon expedience,” Green said. “It’s based less on personal philosophy than political expedience.”

But LaGuardia marched in step with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal amid the tradition of fusion politics in the city, and Green said Bloomberg also can be found under a large Democratic tent.

“Adding up everything he has said and done as a public official and figure, he’s business Democrat/so-called moderate Democrat,” he said.

“He is more conservative than any of the top Democrats running. But he is within the Democratic tent, generally.”

Bloomberg committed his first mayoral term to improving education and his second to decreasing poverty.

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, center, shakes hands and signs autographs after he speaks.

The results seem mixed. While some schools improved and some graduation rates increased, critics say his approach to education reinforced the social stratification of better schools in richer neighborhoods and worse schools in poorer ones.

Homelessness increased amid Bloomberg's efforts to create more affordable housing, which critics said resulted in free rein for developers who created housing for people of means.

“He was essentially a mediocrity,” said Fred Siegel, a policy researcher and a former aide to Giuliani.

“He maintained Giuliani’s welfare and policing policies, and that is essentially his accomplishment. But, on his own, he did a lot of damage. There is a lot of gentrification, a lot of overbuilding."

The unbridled redevelopment of Siegel's Brooklyn neighborhood in Ditmas Park is stark evidence of business interests running amok, he said.

The Bloomberg campaign countered it was more successful than critics acknowledge. 

“The effort to build affordable housing was robust and the largest ever in the history of the city,” Alper said.

But Siegel gives Bloomberg credit for some advancements in education, mostly through advocating for charter schools — an alternative form of public schools.

“There have been charter schools that have done well, and I give him credit for that,” he said.

Graduation rates rose among students, particularly among blacks and Latinos, Alper said.

Stop-and-frisk controversy

Some liberal Democrats credit Bloomberg with advancing the causes of public health and the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and others.

“And,” said Green, “he was very good on crime with the huge stop-and-frisk exception.”

The criticism of Bloomberg over the policy of allowing the New York Police Department to temporarily detain, question and search civilians and suspects now extends across much of the political spectrum in the city.

“Stop and frisk worked well, but he over-did it in the third term,” Siegel said. “It was too harsh, too overwhelming.”

Green attributed the stop-and-frisk controversy, for which Bloomberg apologized as he announced his run for president, to his lack of empathy on issues of race.

“His racial insensitivity and inability led to several million — in italics, million — unlawful and demoralizing stops of young men of color, under stop and frisk,” he said.

Supporters say he stuck with stop-and-frisk despite long, adamant opposition because it helped reduce crime.

“Well, what he says is that it was working,” Alper said. “And if you look at the actual numbers, it was by half that murders were reduced. And then, when it seemed to be no longer working, they stopped using the policy.”

Alper said in a speech in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during the weekend of the holiday for Martin Luther King, Bloomberg announced “the most robust policy to create equity and black wealth that has ever been proposed by a candidate for the presidency.”

The proposed $70 billion program would provide affordable housing, aim to lift millions of families out of poverty and create educational, small business and other opportunities, she said.

A former mayor and state senator in Michigan, Jim Berryman, said he emailed Bloomberg, urging him to run, in part, based on the record as mayor.

Berryman, who served as mayor of Adrian from 1983 to 1990, said he was less concerned about Bloomberg’s party affiliation than his ability to unite people to solve problems.

“Throughout the years he was mayor, I watched his career in the largest city in the country, and I was very impressed with how he was able to work with everyone that he did work with,” Berryman said.

“He understands that government does not have single-stamped solutions for everyone. There has to be creativity to make things happen differently.

“I’ve seen, in person, that calm demeanor that would be so refreshing, to get up every day and not worry about what was the latest tweet that insulted somebody and have somebody there who really is a pragmatist."

Mike Bloomberg

State: New York

Age: 78

Claims to fame: The billionaire co-founded financial information and media company Bloomberg LP and ran New York City for 12 years after Rudy Giuliani. He has spent millions of dollars through a political action committee aiding a few Republican officials and many Democratic congressional candidates.

Biggest weaknesses: He is a former Republican with a short Democratic track record. He is not considered a charismatic campaigner and is accused of trying to buy an election in the era of Trump.

Detroit debate moment: He missed the Detroit debate because he didn't enter the presidential field until November.