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How Billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s Deep Pockets Have Let Him Win Friends and Buy Influence

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With the Nevada caucuses less than a week away, many Democratic candidates are courting voters in state and increasingly targeting their attacks on a new challenger — billionaire Michael Bloomberg — whom they are accusing of buying his way into the election. In the lead-up to Super Tuesday on March 3, when voters in 14 states go to the polls, Bloomberg has spent an unprecedented $417 million of his own $60 billion fortune on advertising. He’s also paid meme influencers to share sponsored content on Instagram, and hired thousands of on-the-ground political operatives to work in more than 125 offices around the country. The Washington Post reports several lawsuits have been filed over the years alleging that women were discriminated against at Bloomberg’s business-information company, including one case filed by a former employee who blamed Bloomberg for creating a culture of sexual harassment and degradation. But a major investigation in Sunday’s New York Times, headlined “In Bloomberg, Liberals See a Wallet Too Big to Offend,” lays out how Bloomberg established a foundation for potential critics to stay silent during his presidential bid by making major donations to progressive causes and advocacy groups in dozens of states and cities. The Times estimates Bloomberg has spent at least $10 billion on his charitable and political pursuits related to his political ambitions. We speak with Blake Zeff, a journalist and documentary filmmaker who has covered New York politics and Michael Bloomberg’s terms as mayor.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: With the Nevada caucuses less than a week away, many Democratic candidates are courting voters and increasingly targeting their attacks on billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who they’re accusing of buying his way into the election. This is leading Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaking Sunday at a rally in Carson City, Nevada.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: We will not create the energy and excitement we need to defeat Donald Trump, if that candidate pursued, advocated for and enacted racist policies like stop-and-frisk, which caused communities of color in his city to live in fear.

AMY GOODMAN: In the lead-up to Super Tuesday on March 3rd, when voters in 14 states go to the polls, Bloomberg has spent an unprecedented $417 million of his own $60 billion fortune on advertising. He’s also paid meme influencers to share sponsored content on Instagram, hired thousands of on-the-ground political operatives to work in more than 125 offices around the country.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports multiple lawsuits have been filed over the years alleging that women were discriminated against at Bloomberg’s business-information company, including one case filed by a former worker who blamed Bloomberg for creating a culture of sexual harassment and degradation. Bloomberg and his organizations have been defendants in almost 40 sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits.

But a major investigation in Sunday’s New York Times, headlined “In Bloomberg, Liberals See a Wallet Too Big to Offend,” lays out how Bloomberg established a foundation to silence potential critics during his presidential bid by making major donations to progressive causes and advocacy groups around the country. The Times estimates Bloomberg has spent at least $10 billion on charitable pursuits related to his political ambitions. In 2019 alone, the year he declared his presidential candidacy, The New York Times reports “Bloomberg’s charitable giving soared to $3.3 billion — more than in the previous five years combined.”

Well, for more, we’re joined in Philadelphia by Blake Zeff, a journalist and documentary filmmaker who has covered New York politics and Michael Bloomberg’s terms, three terms, as mayor.

Blake Zeff, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you — last week, you had a fascinating kind of Twitter thread about what Bloomberg’s strategy is. And it’s not just the unprecedented massive amount of money that he is spending, but it’s also how he spends that money. And this has been going on for many years. Can you lay out Bloomberg’s strategy?

BLAKE ZEFF: Absolutely. I think there’s this kind of idea that he’s spending so much money on ads and that that enables him to get his message out a little bit more than other candidates, and that’s kind of where the big advantage lies. And yes, he’s doing that, but there is a lot more to it than that.

You talked a little bit about how much he’s spent in recent years supporting causes and leaders and things like that, but let’s talk about that a bit more. I think a lot of people might be surprised to see how many endorsements Michael Bloomberg has been racking up in his presidential campaign as kind of a former local mayor. He’s got congressmembers throughout the country. He’s got mayors throughout the country. Well, he spent about $110 million last year — sorry, last cycle alone, in 2018, supporting House candidates, 24 of whom won. So you’ve got 24 members of Congress getting $110 million. That’s, you know, some of them are getting $2 million, some of them are getting $4 million. And then you have that person come to you a year later and say, “Boy, I’d really love it if you could help me out.” It’s hard for them to say no, right? Then you’ve got mayors. You might be surprised to see how many mayors he’s getting throughout the country. Well, he’s got a philanthropy that gives out grants for urban programs. If you’re a city that’s struggling and you want to get some sort of big grant from Bloomberg philanthropies, that puts you in a tough spot.

Then he’s got nonprofits and charities. When Bloomberg ran for mayor in New York City, he tried to get himself a third term, which was, at that time, not really allowed in New York, because the voters had had a term limits referendum. Well, Bloomberg engineered a backroom deal, and, amazingly, a lot of the big nonprofits in the city supported him on that. Why? We later found out that he had given them millions of dollars. So, that money goes to lots of different places beyond just merely TV commercials.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what you mean. For example, for people outside of New York City, for people to understand, I mean, it was Mayor Mike Bloomberg himself who also supported term limits. Explain what the policy was in the city and how he ended up flipping it and going for a third term, with, as you said, these good government groups who were absolutely opposed to a third term. It’s not that he thought he could get them to say, “We support this,” but his strategy of neutralizing critics, using money.

BLAKE ZEFF: Right. So, two points. On term limits, in particular, this was fascinating. The voters of New York had said, “We don’t want more than — we don’t want our mayors to have more than two terms or be able to even run for it.” There was a voter referendum. This was on the books. Bloomberg decides, towards the very end of his second term, that he’d like to be mayor again. They come up with a rationale, which is that, you know, the city has been recovering from hard times. You know, this was right around the time of the Great Recession, if you will, kind of the housing crash, 2009. And they come up with this rationale that we need his economic expertise so badly that he needs to run again. Of course, later it’s revealed by some of his allies, years later, that this was just an excuse to come up with some way for him to stay in office because he really wanted to do the job.

So, what does Bloomberg do? It’s not just that he gave money to groups to kind of not make a big fuss, although he did. He also was able to use his status as a billionaire to go to the billionaire publishers of the big newspapers in New York City. So, you got the Daily News, you got the New York Post, you’ve got The New York Times, all run by these very wealthy families. They rarely agree on anything, these newspapers, these editorial pages in particular. But they all met with Bloomberg, decided to sign on to this plan for him to go for a third term. All put out editorials, kind of in unison, in lockstep, saying this is a great idea for the city. And that was a big part of that, you know, developing and sort of laying the groundwork for the support for Bloomberg to do that.

To your other point about him getting typical critics or potential critics to be silent on stuff, he changes his Republican voter registration to being an independent in the middle of his mayoralty. And you would think at that point, “OK, the state Republican Party is now free to attack him for the rest of his term, because he’s not a Republican anymore.” But they never did. And people were curious: Why is that? Well, then we learned that he gave a record $1 million to the Republican state Senate fund to kind of, you know, not say too much. So, the money works in all these different ways.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our conversation. We’re talking to Blake Zeff, journalist, documentary filmmaker, covered New York politics and Michael Bloomberg’s term as mayors — terms as mayor. His forthcoming film is Loan Wolves, investigating the origins and effects of the student debt crisis in America. We’ll be back with him and more in a moment.

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