Exorcising the Demons of the Past

Hoping to defy a jinx that’s haunted other mayors, Bloomberg kicks off the greatest presidential campaign money can buy – dodging electoral landmines and repudiating a signature policy

22 Nov 2019 | 04:34

His estimated net worth today stands at a cool $54.3 billion – more than enough to attempt to buy a presidential election without taking a dime from the public.

It's the ultimate transaction, its impact on American democracy uncertain, and it officially got underway on Sunday, Nov. 24 when ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the world, "I'm going all in."

Portraying himself as a "middle-class kid who made good," he declared his candidacy with a grave message: The current occupant of the White House poses an "existential threat to our country and our values."

In a choreographed burst of ads, videos, websites and social media that echoed across every major market in the nation, he defined both the problem - and what he saw as the solution.

"Defeating Donald Trump, and rebuilding America, is the most urgent and important fight of our lives," Bloomberg said. "And I'm going all in. I offer myself as a doer and a problem solver - not a talker - and someone who is ready to take on the tough fights and win."

Apologetic Plutocrat

Undergirding those efforts is a nest egg that makes him the richest man in both New York City and State, the eighth wealthiest in America and No. 9 on the planet, according to rankings by Forbes Magazine.

Light years away from the middle-class origins he still trumpets, self-made and proud of it, he is a plutocrat, and the species isn't really much in vogue in Democratic Party circles these days. Therein lies the challenge.

With her “ultra-millionaire tax,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren would gleefully strip his holdings to a mere $14.5 billion. As for Sen. Bernie Sanders, his contempt is almost pithy: “I don’t think billionaires should even exist,” he says.

A bash-the-rich culture is informing Democratic progressive presidential politics. And it is merely one of the manifold hurdles this unapologetic champion of Wall Street is about to confront as he begins to throw his megabucks into the ring.

Mix in matters of race and policing, gender and sexism, inequality and the one percent, and it becomes clear that Bloomberg will have a lot to answer for from his rivals and a liberal electorate, wary of moderates, in which minorities and women are playing an ever-more decisive role in anointing a primary victor.

In fact, the 77-year-old, three-term former mayor has already begun making apologies and making amends both for a central plank of his 12 years at City Hall – and for the things he said and did and countenanced before he even got there.

Consider the seven words he uttered, perhaps for the first time since he became a public figure, on Nov. 17 during Sunday church services at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn: “I was wrong,” he told hundreds of black parishioners. “And I am sorry.”

CEOs hardly ever say such things. But Bloomberg wasn’t only shattering that taboo. He was renouncing a defining if controversial policy – stop-and-frisk policing – that was every bit as Bloombergian as the computer terminals he popularized to track the capital markets back in the early 1980s.

In doing so, he turned his back on one of his legacies, hyper-aggressive law enforcement that alienated minorities; said he can finally see how toxic the stops were for communities of color; pledged to “earn back” the trust he squandered – and not least, sought to redress perhaps his greatest vulnerability with one of his party’s most critical voting blocs.

“I got something important really wrong,” he told the congregation. For good measure, he repeated it at least three times.

At roughly the same time, he committed $100 million to a digital ad campaign, and $20 million on a voter registration drive in swing states, that will also help mend fences. And that’s separate from the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s poised to spend on his own campaign, starting with a $30 million ad buy in over two dozen states, beginning the week of Thanksgiving.

They're All Really, Really Sorry

When Bloomberg in March initially nixed a 2020 bid, he made it clear: He couldn’t stomach a so-called “apology tour.” At the time, it was a rare point of commonality with Donald Trump, who appears never to have regretted anything.

But such whistle-stops are de rigueur for Democrats like Warren (for trying to prove Native American ancestry with a DNA test), Sanders (for not treating all women “appropriately” in his 2016 campaign), Sen. Kamala Harris (for being a tough-on-crime DA) and Joe Biden (for being a male white over 50 who backed Bill Clinton’s 1994 anti-crime bill).

Now, Bloomberg has joined that parade. And like would-be opponents, his moves are totally in sync with the electoral calendar, driven more, it seems, by political considerations than heartfelt principles.

A few days after he filed paperwork to put his name on the ballot in Arkansas and Alabama – and a few days before he created a federal presidential campaign committee enabling him to enter the fray if he formally declares his candidacy – he reached out to a constituency that just happens to comprise the majority of Democratic primary voters.

Women.

Boorishness, sexism, crude boasts and a demeaning culture had been a hallmark of Bloomberg’s company a quarter-century ago, lawsuits from the period show. And Bloomberg himself has been quoted at length making offensive remarks in the workplace.

A track record like that can kill a candidacy given the political potency of the #MeToo movement, the intense focus on harassment issues, Trump’s own flagrant behavior and the exponential growth among female aspirants and office-holders.

So the nascent Bloomberg campaign moved to defuse the issue before it bubbled up. “Mike has come to see that some of what he has said is disrespectful and wrong,” a spokesperson said. “He believes his words haven’t always aligned with his values and the way he has led his life.”

Expect to hear a lot more on this issue in the months to come.

Manhattan is Still Mad About Him

In the meantime, local enthusiasm for the mayor and his track record on smoking, public health issues, climate change, gun control and women’s rights remains remarkably strong.

“I’d vote for him again for anything – mayor, governor, U.S. president, even community board president!” said Sonia Fischer, a retired 71-year-old health care worker as she waited for a C train on the Upper West Side.

“It’s easy to be nostalgic and forget the flaws,” said Allen Bernstein, a 48-year-old accountant for an insurance company as he boarded a Q train on the Upper East Side. “But he was a great mayor in the tough times after 9/11 who made the city feel really good about itself all over again.”

Still, polls so far show him mustering a mere four percent of the national primary ballot. And this is not a politician who ignores the data. Which raises a pivotal question: What does Bloomberg know that we don’t know?

It’s the X factor that surfaced in his third-term reelection in 2009 when the published polls predicted an 18 percent blowout of his Democratic opponent, then-Comptroller William Thompson Jr. Instead, he won by only four percent – a margin that stunned the political elite, but that in no way seemed to surprise the incumbent.

Why not? Proprietary data. The best in the business.

Bloomberg knows it better than anyone else. That’s what his company was all about. He’d spend millions on private polls, focus groups and public-opinion research, seldom seeing a need to share his findings with the general public. In other words, he may see a path to the Oval Office the media and cognoscenti do not yet see.

“In God we trust,” has long been the unofficial motto of Bloomberg L.P., Bloomberg Philanthropies and Bloomberg himself. “Everyone else, bring data.”

invreporter@strausnews.com

“"I'm going all in.” Michael Bloomberg, declaring his candidacy for president on Sunday, Nov. 24.