Politics

It’s Time to Start Taking Mike Bloomberg Seriously

There are plenty of reasons to criticize Bloomberg. There’s no reason to treat his candidacy as a joke.

Mike Bloomberg touches the shoulder of a supporter.
Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg greets people during a campaign stop on Sunday in Miami. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Immediately after Michael Bloomberg announced his entry into the presidential race, the dual charges rang out: The former New York City mayor is trying to buy the election. And the former New York City mayor appeals to no one.

Neither of these assumptions is accurate. Bloomberg isn’t trying to buy an election. He’s trying to buy your attention. And it appears he’s having some success. Bloomberg has spent $270 million of his own money on ads thus far, and will be shelling out $11 million on a Super Bowl ad to air Sunday night. He currently finds himself as high as fourth place in recent national polls having appeared in zero debates, and having entered the race months or in some cases years (R.I.P. Delaney 2020) after some Democrats he’s already outpacing.

Some skeptics have framed Bloomberg’s debate shutout as the billionaire purposefully carrying out a nefarious stratagem. But he hasn’t participated in the Democratic debates because he’s so rich that he doesn’t have to hit up private citizens for their dollars, and hitting up private citizens for their dollars is a debate entry requirement, which seems like a flaw of the Democratic debate rules (which the DNC is apparently changing now).

Beyond the critique that Bloomberg’s self-funding represents an improper method of running for the presidency, there is the further charge that Bloomberg has no reasonable case to make that either would appeal to the American people or should appeal to them. Bernie Sanders’ campaign is apparently brushing off the Bloomberg candidacy, dismissing the idea that “Bloomberg has the constituency with which to draw enough support to win the nomination.”

Major Joe Biden supporters reportedly call Bloomberg’s candidacy “laughable.”

It’s true that Bloomberg is running differently than everyone else in the race and it’s also true that he’s not a politician in the emotive or empathetic mold of recently successful candidates.

But in fact, Bloomberg does have a message that could appeal to voters, and it’s a simple one: Michael Bloomberg has a greater record of accomplishment in office than any candidate in the race (or in the White House).

In some ways it’s an unfair comparison. The other former mayors in the race—Pete Buttigieg (South Bend, Indiana, population 102,000), and Sanders (Burlington, Vermont, population 38,000)—had much smaller cities to run, though they did accomplish less in those smaller cities than Bloomberg did in the country’s largest (NYC, population 8,623,000). A case can be made that Biden’s Senate and executive branch experience, if all credited to Biden, would stack up against Bloomberg’s record, but Biden was 1 percent of the Senate and never the lead policymaker in the White House. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Sanders, as Democratic senators who have been serving under Mitch McConnell’s reign of obstruction, could only accomplish so much. That said, Sanders and Warren have each been the primary sponsors of fewer than 10 bills that have passed, and those pieces of legislation have largely been of the naming post offices and commemorative coins ilk.

To be fair, the job of a senator goes beyond sponsoring legislation. In some ways the most important job is blocking bad legislation, and with their votes against Donald Trump’s assault on the Affordable Care Act, the current crop of senatorial candidates have successfully stood in the breach. But because of the nature of the Senate, the number of positive accomplishments cannot possibly stand up to what the mayor of the largest city in the country can do.

All of these candidates accomplished things before elected office. Elizabeth Warren deserves credit for her work studying bankruptcy and her role in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for instance. But if we’re considering the candidates’ time in the private sector, Bloomberg’s creation of a media and information company that remade investing and currently employs nearly 20,000 people, his work on gun control, and his philanthropy should be given credit too. But I’m not considering that. I’m talking about a record of success in office, and as New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg accomplished remarkable things.

When Bloomberg’s record on crime is discussed, the focus is often on stop-and-frisk polices that according to ACLU statistics led to the harassment of upward of half a million innocent black and Latino people per year. There is no sugarcoating that injustice, and for some voters that alone will be all they need to know about a Bloomberg candidacy. But there are other factors to consider, namely the remarkable drop in crime and murder that Bloomberg oversaw. The year before Bloomberg entered office there were 649 murders in New York City. The year he left office that number was cut nearly in half to 335. While it’s true that even greater declines occurred under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and no one wants that guy to be president, by the time Bloomberg became mayor it was widely understood that there was little more progress to be made. And yet Bloomberg made it. After Bloomberg, during the de Blasio administration, murder rates remained basically steady for two years, then dipped a bit, and rose last year again to 318.

Crime, and murder specifically, is a point of emphasis for every New York City mayor, and lowering rates takes a village. But Bloomberg put into place plans that were meant to measure the problem, address the problem, adapt to circumstances, and make the problem less of a problem. And that’s exactly what happened.

A similar picture emerges with education. When Bloomberg took office the high school graduation rate in the city was 46.5 percent. When he left office it was 66 percent. The graduation rate for black students rose from 40 percent to 61 percent and for Hispanic students it went from 37 percent to 59 percent.

Again, these profound gains were made because Bloomberg insisted that his administration measure the problem, address the problem, and adapt to circumstances. Bloomberg centralized power, reorganized the Board of Education, and made the schools chancellor accountable to the mayor. Bloomberg’s strategy worked in ways that profoundly affected the lives of thousands of people. There are about 55,000 New Yorkers who are high school graduates now who likely wouldn’t have been were it not for his changes. Because the restructuring he put in place has continued throughout the de Blasio administration, the number of New Yorkers with high school diplomas who might not have had them otherwise, and the opportunities that educational attainment affords, likely number over 100,000.

Under Bloomberg, the proportion of adult smokers in the city fell by one-third. Teachers’ salaries rose by more than 40 percent, and the once-yearly budget deficits were turned into routine surpluses. Bloomberg budgeted by strategy, not doctrine, raising taxes significantly when he came into office right after the attacks of 9/11 but cutting property taxes by the end of his term when the city’s coffers were swelling.

There were, of course, also failures. After some early success combating homelessness, the Bloomberg administration saw the problem rise to record levels, which have since sadly been surpassed by his successor. Income inequality also rose, as it did throughout America, but it did so more acutely in New York, where Bloomberg was much more driven toward development than concerned with gentrification. But the many, many improvements Bloomberg delivered to the average New Yorker should resonate with the average American who might want to secure similar benefits from a politician who isn’t particularly charming but does have a record of delivering material improvements.

I understand the power of campaigning against a billionaire who thinks he knows best because it worked on me. I voted for Mark Green instead of Michael Bloomberg in the 2001 NYC mayoral election. But when I saw what a good job Bloomberg did for the city, I voted for both of his reelection efforts (yes, even the third term).

This isn’t to say there’s no reason to criticize Bloomberg. There are many. It is absolutely fine to bemoan the role of money in politics. If an individual voter simply can’t get past Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy, or his contribution to income inequality in the city, I would not gainsay that stance. But there is a glaring deficiency in the collective dismissal of Bloomberg based on the grounds that he’s employing an electoral strategy that isn’t grassroots and that he presumably lacks voter appeal, which has not actually been tested on the national stage.

One last thing: Bloomberg’s strategy to essentially sit out the states that vote before Super Tuesday has been criticized as not playing by the same rules as all the other candidates. But the tradition of letting a few nonrepresentative states play early kingmaker has also come under widespread and warranted criticism this cycle. Likely by happenstance, Bloomberg is actually in a position to circumvent the old, unfair rulebook.

Given this backdrop, Bloomberg’s record, and the failure of Democrats to coalesce under one moderate alternative to the more progressive candidates in the Democratic field, a Bloomberg candidacy should not be considered a joke, and Bloomberg’s qualifications should not be summarily dismissed. Vote for him or don’t. But the fact that the public learns of Bloomberg’s accomplishments because Bloomberg paid his own money to inform them might not be as disqualifying to actual voters as the other candidates and much of the media seem to think it is.