Supporters said they believed Bloomberg’s vast wealth would insulate him from special interests.
Tucker Higgins for CNBC
Harlem, N.Y. — Hundreds of Michael Bloomberg supporters in New York cheered on the former mayor’s vast wealth during a kickoff event in Harlem on Saturday, even as his fellow contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination target him and other billionaires as beneficiaries of an unfair economic system.
The event, held at the campaign’s Harlem field office, was one of more than 150 such events hosted across more than two dozen states that were coordinated to launch “day one” of his presidential bid, which formally began in late November. Bloomberg spent the day in Texas to begin the first bus tour of his campaign.
The event demonstrated that Bloomberg, even while away, can still draw crowds in the city in which he served three terms as mayor. The campaign said 540 people attended the event.
Supporters at the event cited Bloomberg’s finances and his business experience as reasons that they got behind him.
Some of the loudest cheers came when Michael Nutter, the former mayor of Philadelphia and Bloomberg campaign chairman, told the crowd that he didn’t know “when in America we decided that we don’t like folks who have money.”
“I wish someone would criticize me for spending a million dollars on something. I wish I had a million dollars to spend on anything,” Nutter said. Nutter noted that, as mayor, Bloomberg pitched in $30 million of his own money to help fund a jobs program that targeted vulnerable black and Latino men.
Bloomberg supporters rejected criticism of Bloomberg’s wealth made by his rivals, including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Sanders has said that “multi-billionaires like Mr. Bloomberg are not going to get very far in this election,” while Warren has accused Bloomberg of attempting to circumvent democracy by buying an election.
“He’s a rich guy, yes. But he made it happen himself,” said Will Campbell, a 30-year-old in the financial services industry, waiting in line for the Bloomberg event on Saturday.
Bloomberg has a net worth of about $57 billion, in large part a result of his stake in his flagship financial services and information company, Bloomberg LP. But it was not just financiers who were in attendance.
Alicia Kaplan, a middle aged artist who said she had never earned more than $30,000 in a year, said that Bloomberg’s wealth made him unlikely to be “swayed by interests giving him money.”
The Bloomberg campaign hosted a kickoff event in Harlem, New York on Saturday Jan. 11, 2020.
Tucker Higgins for CNBC
Kaplan, who is white and Hispanic, suggested that Bloomberg’s decision not to live the “high life” and instead to pursue public office earned her support.
“It just seems like he’s more for the people,” Kaplan said. “Not rich people or poor people — the people.”
To date, the Democratic primary contest has been dominated by a split between the race’s front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, a moderate, and Sanders and Warren to his left.
Bloomberg, who was a Republican and an independent before becoming a Democrat, remains behind those candidates, as well as former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, in national surveys. But he has risen rapidly, surpassing Sen. Amy Klobuchar and entrepreneur Andrew Yang in the weeks since launching, and has threatened to upend the race with hundreds of millions of dollars in more spending, particularly targeted in large states where other Democrats are not even running ads yet.
Bloomberg remains in the single digits nationally. Little polling has been conducted among New York Democratic voters.
But New York, which hosts its primary in April and awards more delegates than any state besides California, is a central part of Bloomberg’s campaign strategy. Bloomberg has been running ads in the states since at least December and plans to open up 20 field offices in the state, The Wall Street Journal has reported.
Some of those ads are working, attendees of Saturday’s event said.
“He got me here because of that first commercial,” said Joan Cargill, a 52-year-old black woman who works in publishing.
Cargill said she was not yet sold entirely on Bloomberg, but that she wanted to attend the event to see for herself. Cargill brought her 17-year-old son, who said his friends were largely behind Sanders.
She said she had been “toying” with the idea of Bloomberg for two months out of frustration with the other candidates. “I think he’s smart,” she said. She was particularly impressed that the ad that she saw did not mention Trump by name, she said.
Bloomberg’s national focus is at odds with the strategies of his fellow contenders, who are largely spending time in the four earliest caucus and primary states, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
Bloomberg has refused to compete in those states and is instead deploying hundreds of millions of dollars on television and digital advertising on a national scale, in the hopes of gaining steam in March, when the majority of the primary’s delegates are awarded.
He said Saturday in Texas that he was open to spending $1 billion of his own money on the 2020 race even if he was not the nominee, to help defeat Trump, The New York Times reported.
Bridget Wise, a New York Bloomberg supporter from Wisconsin who works in architecture and design, said that she had been “gazing” at some of the other candidates in the running, such as Klobuchar and Buttigieg.
“He surpasses them. Put it this way: New Yorkers are a hard crowd. They didn’t reelect him for no reason,” she said.
Bloomberg’s record as mayor has come under renewed scrutiny thanks to his presidential bid. In November, he apologized for his support of the controversial “stop-and-frisk” policing strategy that disproportionately affected minority groups.
Micah Bernard Glenn, a 29-year-old black entertainer who attended Bloomberg’s Saturday event because, he said, he wanted to see what the “ruckus” was about, said he actually disagreed with much of the criticism of stop-and-frisk.
But he said he was turned off from the Bloomberg campaign because of how he was treated at the event. Immediately after entering, he said, Bloomberg staffers immediately questioned him on what he was doing.
“When I came in the building, I was already targeted, I feel,” he said. “It was very intimidating and it hurt my feelings very much.”
The Bloomberg campaign did not respond to an inquiry seeking to confirm Glenn’s account.
Glenn said that he voted for Clinton in 2016, but has been gravitating toward Trump in the years since.
“I feel like he’s relatable nowadays,” Glenn said. “I feel like if I sat down with Donald Trump I could get the blunt truth, rather than lullabies.”