Years of largesse give Bloomberg his own political machine
When Mike Bloomberg held a rally this month at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the signs of his wealth and influence were everywhere.
Former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, long a paid adviser to one of Bloomberg’s charitable programs and now to his campaign, warmed up the crowd with chants of “Mike will get it done!” That followed a performance of the Nick Jonas song “Jealous” by an a capella group from the University of Pennsylvania, where Bloomberg has funded public health research.
“Bloomberg interns” have worked at the National Constitution Center and other Philadelphia cultural sites thanks to his largesse, and Bloomberg gave the center's former CEO a $50,000 donation for his successful 2016 run for state treasurer.
Across the city, soda sales had dropped after a 2017 tax increase that Bloomberg spent millions to pass, study and defend with the support of Mayor Jim Kenney, whose reelection he backed last year with $1 million in outside spending. And the Bloomberg-endorsed state attorney general was leading a data-driven campaign against gun crime in the city.
Bloomberg told the crowd that his spending had transformed American life: It helped shut down 300 coal-fired power plants, strengthen gun laws in 20 states and flip the U.S. House to a Democratic majority. The self-made business news and information tycoon boasted that he would be the only New York billionaire in a race against President Donald Trump, who has been accused of exaggerating his riches and running a fake charity.
Bloomberg’s presidential campaign has been powered by his estimated $60 billion fortune and by years of political and charitable giving that have given him a foundation of goodwill across the U.S. Bloomberg has long said he wants to give away nearly all of his fortune before he dies, and wants to use the money to tackle big problems that government has failed to solve.
His spending has dramatically increased since he completed his third term as New York mayor in 2013, making him one of the nation's most important philanthropists and political donors and giving him achievements to tout in his self-funded advertising blitz.
But perhaps just as important, it has created a sprawling network of powerful people and groups who have used his money to win elections, fund advocacy campaigns, pay for signature municipal and education programs and conduct important research, an Associated Press review has found.
Many of those beneficiaries and their associates are backing Bloomberg’s late-launched campaign, giving the former Republican a base of Democratic Party institutional and grassroots support that he might lack if he wasn't one of the world's richest men.
They include members of Congress who were elected and reelected with his help, mayors who attended his prestigious training program at Harvard University, and gun control and environmental activists who admire his commitments to their causes. Even celebrity endorsers, from actor Ted Danson to singer John Cougar Mellencamp, have ties to his philanthropy, the AP found.
CLOUT ALL OVER
“He had the wealth to give away money for years to build friends, to build political allies, to build relationships, in ways that the average American doesn't have, can't do. That's a huge advantage,” said Paul S. Ryan, a vice president at Common Cause, a government watchdog group.
The AP found signs of Bloomberg’s clout all over.
A congresswoman from the Virgin Islands said she endorsed Bloomberg after his foundation helped residents there recover from devastating tropical storms in 2017. A former candidate for governor in Iowa whose campaign received $250,000 from Bloomberg in 2018 caucused for him this month even though Bloomberg wasn’t competing in the first-in-the-nation contest. The former mayor of Rhode Island's largest city says he’ll endorse Bloomberg if asked, pointing to a $5 million prize Bloomberg gave his city in 2013 and the millions of people Bloomberg's giving has helped.
His rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination have accused Bloomberg of trying to buy the election by spending $400 million of his own money to blanket voters with ads ahead of Super Tuesday on March 3, when voters in 14 states cast their ballots.
But that is a fraction of the spending of prior years that laid the ground work for Bloomberg’s campaign and has given him validators to defend his record against allegations of racism and sexism. It’s helped him rise to the field's top tier while skipping the first four states and participating in a single debate in which he struggled through blistering attacks from his rivals.
“I have no doubt he is about to drop another $100 million … in order to erase America’s memory of what happened on that debate stage,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said after Wednesday's debate in Las Vegas.
Even some who support Bloomberg's philanthropic efforts say his vast spending is unhealthy for democracy.
“It's about the principle of someone with great wealth distorting certain debates or certain social movements or influencing the direction of actual political elections,” said Megan Tompkins-Stange, a University of Michigan professor who studies how elite philanthropic foundations influence public policy. She said that “no one person should have that much influence in the public sphere.”
His supporters, though, tout the deep and positive impact of his work. Danson said in a Facebook message last week that Bloomberg has “the strongest track record on climate change and will do the most to fight it." Bloomberg's foundation between 2014 and 2018 gave more than $32 million to the group Oceana, which focuses on protecting the world's oceans. Danson and another Bloomberg endorser, the actor Sam Waterston, sit on Oceana's board.
The AP review documented $1.65 billion in grants that Bloomberg’s New York-based Bloomberg Family Foundation doled out to hundreds of cities, universities, cultural groups and global institutions from 2014 through 2018, the last year in which they have been itemized in tax filings.
From Boston to Baltimore and Anchorage to Arlington, the money has helped fight climate change, championed a range of public health initiatives, promoted new programs in cities and schools and helped scores of arts and cultural institutions stay open.
The foundation’s annual grant spending tripled between 2014 and 2018, when it reached $445 million.
That sum is only a portion of the total given by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which encompasses all of the former mayor's giving: through his foundation, his company and personally. Bloomberg Philanthropies has said that from 2014 through 2018, it distributed more than $2.9 billion. More than $1 billion of that remains unknown to the public because only gifts that go through his foundation are required to be disclosed.
Then there's the record $3.3 billion that Bloomberg Philanthropies says it distributed in 2019. His campaign says most of the increase can be attributed to a $1.8 billion gift to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, for financial aid and new investments to fight climate change and youth tobacco use. But those gifts aren't legally required to be even partially disclosed until after the election.
During Wednesday’s debate, when asked why he hasn't released his tax returns, Bloomberg noted that the biggest item on them "is all the money I give away. And we list that, every single donation I make, and you can get that from our foundation anytime you want.”
In response to questions from the AP after the debate, his campaign said "there will be more clarity" on the billions in donations since 2014 that he has yet to detail once his taxes are released.
Bloomberg said he would soon release his tax returns, but his campaign hasn't said whether it will also divulge his previously undisclosed donations.
Using publicly available information, the AP identified dozens of current and former mayors who have publicly endorsed Bloomberg’s campaign after benefiting in one of several ways from his charitable giving. At least 20 attended the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a one-year training program for municipal leaders that his foundation sponsors.
Several others have led cities that have received programming grants from Bloomberg Philanthropies or, in at least two cases, been paid to work as an adviser or board member.
Nutter has been a high-profile surrogate for Bloomberg’s campaign as its national political chair, defending him against allegations of racism that stem from the stop-and-frisk policy in New York that disproportionately targeted young black men.
Nutter’s consulting firm was paid $45,000 in January by the campaign and is owed $4,000 more, according to a campaign disclosure. Nutter had previously been a paid adviser for What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative that promotes municipal innovation.
Dozens of Bloomberg's employees have moved from the philanthropies to the campaign, which said its endorsements were totally separate from grant funding.
Bloomberg's campaign said only a small percentage of mayors whose cities he has helped are supporting him. Kenney, for instance, has campaigned for Warren.
“But if an elected official has seen up close how hard Mike works to find solutions to America’s toughest problems and thinks that’s exactly what we need in the White House, we think that’s a pretty good reason to support someone,” spokeswoman Rachel Nagler said.
The AP’s review tracked more than $150 million that Bloomberg gave to dozens of candidates for state and federal office and political groups since 2014. That money helped Democrats take control of the U.S. House in 2018, pass laws and referendums requiring universal background checks on gun sales in key states and advocate for higher soda and tobacco taxes in some cities and states.
His spending soared in the 2018 midterm elections to a high of $110 million — an investment that he credits with helping install Nancy Pelosi as House speaker and leading to Trump's impeachment.
Bloomberg’s super PAC in 2018 spent millions running ads praising Democratic candidates and attacking their Republican opponents, helping win 21 of 24 races that it got involved in. At least 16 Democratic members of Congress have endorsed Bloomberg for president, including four whose candidacies were direct beneficiaries of his PAC spending.
Several others indirectly benefited from Bloomberg’s generosity because their campaigns were supported by one or more of the key Democratic Party-aligned groups to which he gave tens of millions of dollars. Those groups include Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, the League of Conservation Voters and Vote Vets.
LIKE A MACHINE
Bloomberg’s spending has continued in the early weeks of his presidential campaign. He gave $10 million to a group supporting the House Democrats, $5 million to a voting rights group led by Stacey Abrams, who nearly won the Georgia governor's race in 2018, and smaller donations to several state Democratic Party groups.
“He's like a new machine. Rather than based in the party, it's based on his immense and vast wealth,” said Douglas Muzzio, a professor who studies voting behavior and politics at Baruch College in New York City.
He said Bloomberg has long targeted his philanthropic and political giving so that it hits “sources of influence” who are ideologically compatible with his centrist, data-driven approach and key policy initiatives.
That playbook, Muzzio said, dates back to Bloomberg’s 12 years as New York mayor, when his donations to community groups helped blunt the impact of city budget cuts, boosted his support and neutralized potential opposition.
“The reality is that I constantly heard from friends, and normal Democrats, ‘Oh, sorry, Mark, what can I do? He gave my organization $100,000,'" said Mark Green, a Democrat whom Bloomberg defeated in the 2001 mayoral election.
In 2008, as Bloomberg was pushing to extend New York's term limits so he could run for a third term, he was able to gather support from nonprofit groups, such as the Doe Fund, a group that helps the homeless, that had benefited from his personal fortune. The measure passed the city council, and Bloomberg went on to win for a third time.
Campaign spokeswoman Nagler denied that Bloomberg used his money when he was mayor to gather support or quiet opposition, “and we are not doing it now.”
Bloomberg has not only increased his giving dramatically since then, he has invested heavily in nationwide grassroots groups that can pressure lawmakers and run advocacy campaigns.
Among the most potent is Everytown for Gun Safety, whose scores of activists have pushed to tighten gun laws and elect supportive state and federal lawmakers across the nation.
The group was formed in 2013 as a merger between a group founded by Bloomberg, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and Moms Demand Action, which was inspired by the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Bloomberg has given tens of millions of dollars to the group, which is independent but led by one of his former mayoral aides. His presidential campaign spent $3.2 million last year to rent Everytown’s email list, and many moms, in their signature red T-shirts, are frequently spotted at his campaign events.
Another Bloomberg investment that has paid dividends for his cause and his campaign is his more than $100 million in contributions to the Sierra Club for its Beyond Coal and Beyond Carbon programs, which it says have closed more than 300 coal plants across the country.
He cites that achievement in campaign ads that do not mention the Sierra Club, which has 3.8 million grassroots supporters and is among the most important environmental groups active in politics.
The group's executive director, Michael Brune, told the AP the money has had a huge impact on its work, allowing it to expand and meet its goals more quickly. Bloomberg’s campaign asked for an endorsement from the Sierra Club, but Brune said they didn't feel pressured. The group, he said, is not likely to make an endorsement in the Democratic primary, in keeping with its longstanding practice.
The campaign against coal did help Bloomberg snag the endorsement of Mellencamp, who is featured in an ad targeting rural voters that has been viewed 6 million times on YouTube in recent weeks. Mellencamp recorded a song for the 2017 coal-focused documentary “From the Ashes,” which was funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The far-reaching tentacles of Bloomberg’s influence were on display at an event in Providence, Rhode Island, this month, when Gov. Gina Raimondo became the first governor to endorse Bloomberg’s candidacy.
The room was packed with several of the state's influential Democrats, people wearing red Moms Demand Action shirts, as well as a handful of protesters angry about Bloomberg's record, including stop and frisk.
Raimondo and the state Democratic Party have received thousands of dollars from Bloomberg and his daughter, and groups he gave millions to in 2014 spent more than $1 million to help her win the governor's seat.
After Raimondo introduced him, Bloomberg noted that Johns Hopkins was supporting her administration’s public health work, mentioned his investment in a push to register more voters, and noted that his spending helped Democrats win the House in 2018 "so that Nancy Pelosi took over and then she started the impeachment process.”
Within days, Raimondo found herself defending Bloomberg against old allegations of sexist remarks at his company, saying he has changed his behavior and has a record of giving to causes that help women.
Melissa Jenkins, a Moms Demand Action volunteer who attended the Providence event, said she was considering voting for him, in part due to his giving to causes she cares about.
“He's a self-made billionaire, and he's used his privilege to help underprivileged people and to help causes that he believes in,” Jenkins said after the event.
Other politicians grateful for prior financial support and hopeful for future funding have joined Bloomberg at events.
He launched his campaign in Virginia, where his spending helped Democrats defeat two Republican incumbents in House races in 2018 and last year win majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. Key to the latter effort was more than $2.5 million spent by Everytown and the Beyond Carbon Action Fund supporting Democrats in key races.
“Mayor Bloomberg has been a steady force here in the commonwealth and he has never, ever, said no to us,” said former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Bloomberg was a featured speaker at the Virginia Democrats’ annual fundraising dinner earlier this month, and gave the state party $50,000 the day before he spoke.
After being sworn in last month, Virginia lawmakers moved swiftly to advance stricter gun laws backed by Everytown, including universal background checks on gun purchases and temporary court-ordered seizures of guns from owners exhibiting troubling behaviors.
Republicans accused Democrats of being beholden to Bloomberg, and the NRA put his face on a billboard next to the interstate warning that he wanted to confiscate guns. Bloomberg is hoping to win the state’s primary next week.
In Pennsylvania, which has its primary in April, Bloomberg has wielded his influence for years for politicians of both parties in a state that Trump narrowly carried in his upset 2016 election victory.
Bloomberg’s super PAC, Independence USA, spent $6 million supporting Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s narrow 2016 reelection win over Democrat Katie McGinty. The money funded ads praising Toomey as a man of integrity who tried to strengthen gun laws after the school shooting in Newtown.
For any other Democrat, helping a Republican opponent win a crucial race might be a deal-breaker. But before and after his support for Toomey, Bloomberg has showered state Democrats’ campaigns, party organizations and causes they support with donations that appear to have mended fences.
Bloomberg's foundation last year announced a $10 million grant to help Pennsylvania battle the opioid crisis. That donation was hailed as a potential “turning point in our efforts” by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has received $350,000 in campaign donations from Bloomberg since 2014.
Everytown recently announced that it would spend heavily this year if necessary to support the reelection of Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who has used his office to battle gun violence in Philadelphia and beyond in ways that activists praise as innovative. Shapiro’s 2016 campaign received $250,000 from Bloomberg.
Also on this November’s ballot: state Treasurer Joe Torsella, the former CEO of the National Constitution Center, who received the $50,000 donation from Bloomberg in 2016.
“He has definitely put a lot of chips on this table — all over the place,” said former Pennsylvania Democratic Party chairman Jim Burn. “Let’s see if he can cash in.”
Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa, and Smith from Providence, Rhode Island. Associated Press reporter Alan Suderman contributed from Richmond, Virginia, and Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed from New York.