Michael Bloomberg returns to the Democratic presidential debate stage Tuesday night hoping to perform better in South Carolina than he did during his bruising first appearance in Las Vegas last week. Then comes Super Tuesday on March 3rd, when the former New York City mayor faces his first electoral test in 14 states, including Virginia. That’s where Gothamist/WNYC spent the weekend talking to potential voters about how Bloomberg’s message is resonating.
His campaign was buoyed in Virginia when a poll released on February 18th from Monmouth University showed him in a virtual dead heat with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, albeit before his first debate. It’s also a place where Bloomberg has invested time and resources, even before the 2020 race. Through direct donations or support from his affiliate groups, Democrats across the Commonwealth have benefited from his political largess to the tune of more than $10 million.
In his presidential campaign, Bloomberg has visited VIrginia more than any other Super Tuesday state so far. He made his sixth visit there ahead of the first debate when he stumped at a craft brewery and delivered a speech at the state Democratic Party’s annual gala (he also gave them $50,000 the day before the event). He began running five different TV ads there ahead of any of his Democratic opponents and has seven offices across the state with a staff of more than 80 people, according to the campaign.
Despite all that, potential voters in the capital city of Richmond and its surrounding suburbs who spoke with Gothamist/WNYC were very much in flux, with pockets of Bloomberg support amidst bursts of enthusiasm for other candidates. It mostly boiled down to supporting anyone they believed could beat President Donald Trump.
On Friday afternoon at Chiocco’s, the consensus support among the handful of people at the bar and sandwich shop was for Sanders. James Cogar, 31, who works at a local restaurant, said he’s supported Sanders since 2016. He added that even his roommate who works for Bloomberg’s campaign didn’t actually support the former mayor. Campaign workers are well compensated, “even low level staffers like the one I live with,” said Cogar. Still, he said if Bloomberg became the nominee, Cogar would vote for him over Trump.
Listen to Brigid Bergin's report on WNYC:
Around the corner, at a town hall meeting Friday evening hosted by newly-elected State Senator Ghazala Hashmi, who narrowly ousted a Republican incumbent to become the first Muslim woman elected to the Virginia senate, voters wanted to talk state issues: the latest fight over redistricting, whether lawmakers would back a right to collective bargaining for teachers, and particularly the status of gun safety legislation, including a bill to ban assault weapons that failed to pass that week.
“While I regret that happened this session, I am confident we will see the bill next year and be able to address some of the concerns of the members who voted against it,” said Hashmi, who ran on a platform that included banning assault weapons.
Even though her campaign was boosted by support from Bloomberg’s affiliate group Everytown for Gun Safety, Hashmi endorsed Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in the upcoming primary and has been active with her local field operation. She said ever since Warren faced off against Bloomberg during the debate, she’s been hearing from voters who were on the fence that liked what they saw from her.
“By contrast, I think we saw the former mayor struggling on the debate stage, and I think voters are savvy. They are going to look for someone who is going to speak to them and speak for them,” Hashmi said.
Richmond City Council member and pastor Mike Jones, one of the city officials in attendance at Hashmi’s town hall, said he’s been approached by multiple presidential campaigns but he wasn’t endorsing anyone yet. The day before, he even tweeted that his name should not have been included among a list of those backing former Vice President Joe Biden.
On Bloomberg, Jones said the former mayor’s unconstitutional use of the police tactic known as stop-and-frisk was something he just could not get past, especially when he considered the majority African-American district he represents. “To think that President Obama had to send folks in, that’s not that long ago,” said Jones adding, “although he may have inherited it -- man, they grew it.”
The issue of stop and frisk was also top of mind -- but in a different way -- for Bertha Hicks, 68, who was volunteering on Saturday at the Bloomberg campaign headquarters in Richmond. The retired Army logistics manager, who described herself as “undecided” but leaning towards Bloomberg (or Warren), said she believed the former mayor had grown since his time in office.
“And I too have grown enough to say, ‘ok, you did that, it wasn't the greatest decision you ever made. But I'm going to put that aside,” said Hicks, who is also African-American. She said Bloomberg was the first candidate since President Barack Obama that she donated her time to, and it was for a reason: “He's a doer, he's an achiever and I want that for our country,” she said.
People seeking out the Bloomberg HQ in Richmond don’t have to look hard to find it. The campaign temporarily leased a nearly 10,000 square foot art deco building, formerly used as a recording studio and performance space, just down the street from student housing for Virginia Commonwealth University. On the outside, the walls are painted bright blue with a mural that reads “Cause Waves” and “Smile” with “Mike 2020” signs in the window.
Inside, the space feels cavernous, even with the stacks of t-shirts in different colors and sizes piled on shelves with posters, banners, yard signs, buttons, snacks and water all ready for taking. That weekend, teams of volunteers and field staff went to knock doors and get out the vote, said spokesman Andre Earls (who was formerly with the Senator Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign).
Richmond City Council member Chris Hilbert was helping out on Saturday with a volunteer canvass and was still proudly wearing his “I like Mike” T-shirt back home on the Northside of the city. Bloomberg had already done a lot for Virginia Democrats, said Hilbert, who has served in the Council for 16 years.
“Four years ago, there were 33 Democrats in the House of Delegates out of a body of 100. Thirty-three, a minority nuisance,” Hilbert said. “Today, there are 55 and Mike Bloomberg played a role in making sure that we had candidates at the local level. This is a bottom up kind of movement,” he added.
Bloomberg also appealed to his moderate Republican friends, Hilbert said, which could make a difference since Virginia has an open primary. Voters there don't register with political parties and there’s already lots of talk about how some voters -- Trump supporters or others -- might try to game the system (a la former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat in 2014, followed four years later by the defeat of his successor, Tea Party stalwart David Brat to Abigail Spanberger).
“That is a wild card. It really is,” said Hilbert.
In the Richmond suburb of Midlothian, an ad-hoc gathering of the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County at the invitation of Senator Hashmi drew more than a dozen highly engaged voters to a busy coffee shop Saturday morning to hash out their views ahead of Super Tuesday. The organization, which is not just women, was founded in 2016 after President Trump was elected and has grown from about 100 to more than 15,000 members.
“We back the candidates. We write postcards. We canvass. We phone bank. We have a space for them to come and talk to us -- a little bit of everything,” said Sally Mattson, 63, a retired nurse who leads one of the LWCC groups. On her T-shirt featuring cartoon drawings of the Supremes, the four women who have served as Justices on the high court, Mattson wore a pin for Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who she pledged to support through Super Tuesday regardless of the outcome in the races ahead of it.
Altogether, the group included supporters of all the major candidates and even a few undecided voters, like 60-year-old Margaret Rittenhouse, who said she was considering Warren and Klobuchar largely because of the NYTimes joint endorsement. She also took issue with a New York City reporter parachuting into her state to talk about Bloomberg.
“In fact, I know that there's people who are working for his campaign who really don't believe in him, but because he's throwing money at them and they can get rid of their student debt, they're working for him,” Rittenhouse said referring to someone she knows personally. “And that's just not what I want to see in our democracy. Personally, that irritates me.”
“Quite frankly, as a black woman, I'm very concerned that people are going to take my vote for granted,” said Gloria Guilford, 67, who was still deciding between three candidates, and Bloomberg wasn’t one of them. “I can't be bought,” she added.
Across the table sat Steve Leibovic, 65, who is with Bloomberg. After listing the reasons why he believes the former mayor is the strongest candidate, from his leadership of a complex city, to what he believes is his support for taxing the wealthiest Americans, and ultimately the best chance of ousting President Trump, Leibovic said he doesn’t think Bloomberg’s self-funding is a problem because it means he won’t be “beholden” to anyone.
“If he's not beholden to anyone to be elected, is he going to be beholden to our concerns [if he is]?” asked Julie Sidharta, 63.
Sidharta, Leibovic’s wife, is leaning towards Warren. They said one of their kids is a die-hard supporter of Sanders, who has three rallies planned in the state ahead of Super Tuesday.
Virginia voters have a week to decide.