Thursday, October 01, 2020

Bloomberg rains cash on broad efforts to beat Trump

Dec 15. 2019
File Photo: Mike Bloomberg/ GettyImages
File Photo: Mike Bloomberg/ GettyImages
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By The Washington Post · Michael Scherer

Billionaire Mike Bloomberg has been steadily pumping tens of millions of dollars into the broader Democratic effort to defeat Donald Trump, part of a move to improve his standing in the party for his unconventional presidential campaign. 

Though he has sworn off fundraising for his own campaign, he has made himself a top Democratic Party donor in just the past few weeks, quietly giving the party $625,000 to distribute to infrastructure efforts atop the $175,000 required of all candidates for access to the Democratic National Committee's voter data. In coming days, his campaign plans to rally wealthy New York activists and donors to give more money to state parties for their programs to register and turn out voters. 

Since launching his campaign about a month ago, Bloomberg has committed nearly $250 million to his own campaign advertising and other projects to help the party in November 2020.

Bloomberg's aides say he is running for president on his executive experience as a mayor, chief executive officer and benefactor, not his money. But they are nonetheless using his enormous wealth - $55 billion, according to Forbes - to win friends and goodwill in the party. 

When he travels, large sums of his money tend to precede him or get left in his wake. When he makes phone calls, rank-and-file Democratic leaders buzz with excitement at the possibility of a check. It is a distinct advantage that no other candidate has ever had - an effectively bottomless pocketbook to achieve his aims of making himself the nominee and defeating President Trump. 

Bloomberg's new spending builds on a spree that extends back years, reflecting his political priorities and benefiting groups with influence in determining the Democratic nomination Bloomberg is now seeking.

He has blanketed political committees, liberal interest groups, swing-state cities and key politicians with his money, donating more than $8 billion to philanthropy over his lifetime and hundreds of millions more to political causes. He ranks as a top donor to influential groups like the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood and the League of Conservation Voters.

When he began talking with members of the Texas Democratic Party before Thanksgiving, the promise of a coinciding check hung heavily in the air. Bloomberg's aides told them he was running not just for the nomination, but to build the state party and to increase Democratic turnout, a project for which he has committed at least $15 million nationwide. Party leaders were delighted.

"We have 2 million Hispanics in this state that are not voting and we need to get them engaged," Gilberto Hinojosa, the state party chair, said after meeting with Bloomberg on Dec. 7 in Plano, Texas. 

Bloomberg is not above boasting about his resources.

"I realize some people will say, 'Do we really want a general election between two New York billionaires?' To which I say, 'Who's the other one?" Bloomberg joked in his address to the Texas party. "If ever there was someone who is all hat and no cattle, it is Donald Trump." 

Not counting the unknown cost of his campaign staff or overhead, he has already committed more than $95 million to broadcast ads for his campaign, $100 million to digital spending against Trump in swing states, $15 million or more for voter registration and protection efforts, and the $10 million he has given to defend Democratic House members deemed vulnerable because of the party's impeachment effort.

Most of the money he has donated elsewhere comes without direct strings attached to his presidential effort. He gave $500,000 to former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams' unsuccessful effort in 2018, along with much more to Emily's List, a group that supports only female candidates who favor abortion rights, like Abrams. This week he sent another $5 million to Abrams' new voter protection initiative, a part of the $15 million voter effort. Abrams, a potential vice presidential pick for the 2020 ticket, has not yet weighed in with an endorsement. 

"Bloomberg's team has been involved in our world in Georgia for sometime," said Lauren Groh-Wargo, who is leading the Abrams voter effort. "We had been talking to his team about our efforts at Fair Fight all year." 

In other cases, Bloomberg's money has led to relationships that have already paid off for the campaign. Bloomberg's two campaign co-chairs, Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Steve Benjamin and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, have both worked closely with Bloomberg-funded projects to improve city governments.

He is the only candidate who will be able to travel to key cities in swing states, like Detroit, Durham, North Carolia, and Minneapolis, and boast about the city programs he is funding. And this spring he announced two $10 million grants with the governors of Pennsylvania and Michigan - two of the three usually Democratic states Trump flipped in 2016 - to fight opioid addiction. 

When Bloomberg flew this week to Madrid to attend the United Nations' annual climate negotiations, he was able to present a study he funded on climate change and meet with the prime minister of Spain. Then he flew to California, where he appeared with former governor Jerry Brown, another partner in a Bloomberg-funded climate change project. 

Brown, who ran for president three times and remains one of California's most popular Democrats, did not offer an endorsement, but he did praise Bloomberg's environmental work. 

"There is a deep well of goodwill that exists out there," said Benjamin, the past president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which Bloomberg has also funded. "He has reframed the debate around making sure that we are attacking some of the most challenging and pernicious issues."

Last year, the exchange of attention and money was more explicit. A quick trip to Nevada in September 2018, when Bloomberg was exploring an presidential run, yielded a $10,000 donation to then-gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak. A visit to New Hampshire in October produced $15,000 for the state Democratic Party. A tour through Pennsylvania before Election Day was preceded by a $10,000 check to the state party, thousands more for Sen. Robert Casey Jr. and $250,000 for Tom Wolf, the party's gubernatorial candidate, who won his contest. 

At times, Bloomberg's money reaches deeply into the Democratic infrastructure, as the groups he supports in turn support others with his money. In the last election cycle, he gave millions of dollars as a private citizen to explicitly political groups that were early endorsers of Hillary Clinton in 2016, including Emily's List; VoteVets, which recently endorsed South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg for president; and the League of Conservation Voters, a group that supports candidates based on their environmental records. 

Spokeswomen for Emily's List and the LCV said they chose to withhold endorsements early in this presidential campaign, before Bloomberg entered the race. "We wanted to not endorse anytime soon and really create a race to the top when it comes to the climate crisis," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, LCV'ssenior vice president of government affairs

Two groups Bloomberg largely funds to counter the National Rifle Association, the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund and its sister Action Fund, collectively took in about $63 million in 2017, the latest year for which tax forms are available. He is the largest donor, say people familiar with the financing, but has not disclosed his exact contribution. 

A significant share of that money was doled out to other political groups - $130,000 to the Democratic Governors Association, $25,000 to the Nevada State Democratic Party, $25,000 to the Fraternal Order of Police and $25,000 to a group that supports Democratic legislative campaigns. 

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's campaign received $1.26 million that year from the Everytown Action Fund, and the state's Attorney General Mark Herring received $700,000. The Support Fund also gave $5,000 to both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and $15,000 to the National LGBTQ Task Force.

In 2017 and 2018, Bloomberg's family foundation spent more than $900 million on philanthropic efforts, including millions of dollars given to politically sensitive groups like Planned Parenthood, a provider of family planning and abortion services, and groups that are trying to curb global warming or promote charter schools. He personally gave an additional $1.5 million to a political action committee affiliated with Planned Parenthood. 

A spokesman for the Sierra Club, which received $8 million from the foundation in 2018, said Bloomberg's entry into the race will not change the group's endorsement process. The group historically avoids picking sides in competitive Democratic primaries, like the one underway now. 

"Our endorsements originate from the ground up, with our political team soliciting feedback from across the organization, including our chapters nationwide," said Sierra Club National Political Director Ariel Hayes. 

Planned Parenthood, which endorsed Clinton through its political arm early in the 2016 campaign, did not respond to a request for comment.

In the past, Bloomberg's political and philanthropic work have been deeply intertwined, but the campaign recently has taken some steps to create a separation.

Many of his top aides, including campaign chair Patricia Harris and political adviser Howard Wolfson, have stepped away from their roles with his philanthropy, and deputies have taken up the task of maintaining ongoing grants for cities, smoking cessation, arts programs and international health efforts. Bloomberg has also separated himself from Everytown decision-making. 

"We are going to do everything to avoid even the appearance of a conflict," said Stu Loeser, a Bloomberg spokesman. 

At the same time, Bloomberg and his campaign staff will continue to make decisions on his political contributions, said a person familiar with the arrangement. Advisers say Bloomberg's presidential effort is not expected to lead to a decline in funding levels for his other priorities. 

But other relationships are harder to untangle. The campaign continues to work out of the $45 million headquarters of his philanthropic efforts, which Bloomberg owns and which has served as interim campaign office, and where the annual property tax bill alone is in excess of $1 million, according to city records.

The company he founded and runs initially offered one measure of support for his campaign. The Bloomberg terminals, desktop computers used by tens of thousands of finance professionals around the world, typically emit standard text-based search results for other Democratic candidates, like former vice president Joe Biden and Buttigieg.

But in the first weeks of Bloomberg's campaign, typing Mike into the search bar immediately loaded Bloomberg's campaign website and began playing one of his ads, with sound. The feature has since been disabled.

One benefit remains. Bloomberg has been unapologetic about his news company's decision not to investigate him or any of the Democratic presidential candidates as long as he is running for office. 

"They get a paycheck," Bloomberg told CBS News on Dec. 5. "But with your paycheck come some restrictions and responsibilities." 

 

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