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Michael Bloomberg’s Secret Weapon

Richard Bradley

During a recent visit to Louisville, Ky., I talked with Greg Fischer, the Democratic mayor of that city, about his role as a national co-chair of Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign. Now in his third term, Fischer was a successful entrepreneur and businessman before first running for office in 2010. After he won that race, Fischer “knew how to plan and execute strategies, but I was figuring out how to be a good mayor.” At about the same time, Bloomberg and his philanthropic arm, Bloomberg Philanthropies, were starting to focus on innovation in cities, particularly the ways in which use cities use data to solve problems. “That’s how I got to know Bloomberg,” Fischer says.

Louisville soon became an early participant in Bloomberg’s “innovation teams” plan, which funded “i-teams” to help city leaders create a culture of innovation. In his first two terms, Fischer created an Office of Performance Improvement, as well as LouieStat, a program OPI runs to measure how well the city government executes its service. In 2015, Bloomberg Philanthropies chose Louisville as one of eight cities to participate in a $42 million plan that would pay for technical assistance to use data more effectively. (The number of participating cities would increase to 55 in 2016.) The partnership, Fischer says, has been a boon to Louisville that’s also helped him develop as a mayor. “I’ve never been around an organization that has such a breadth and depth of quality in everything they do,” Fischer says.

In the wake of the Democrats’ Iowa incompetence and the party’s increasing concerns about the strength of its candidates, Michael Bloomberg is gaining new media attention and voter interest. What hasn’t gotten much attention is his deep philanthropic and political connections with cities and their leaders nationwide. Some of this street cred is, of course, the result of Bloomberg’s three terms as mayor of New York. But much of Bloomberg’s urban network is the result of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ work with cities, and particularly its American Cities Initiative, which funds 21 programs in over 100 cities. Launched in June 2017 with a $200 million grant, the American Cities Initiative covers an enormous range of issues, from climate change to opioids to guns, health, college access, arts innovation and management and, of course, urban innovation. By all accounts, the work of Bloomberg Philanthropies has done a great deal of good in American cities. But it has also helped build a political network for Bloomberg; a 2018 American Mayors Survey, for example, connected Bloomberg Philanthropies with 156 mayors, in cities as small as 30,000 people, across the country. That same year, as part of its American Mayors Challenge, the American Cities Initiative donated $1 million to Pete Buttigieg’s South Bend, which now looks like the philanthropic equivalent of a grandfatherly pat on the head.

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The American Cities Initiative has also served as a sort of informal test lab and market researcher for ideas that now permeate Bloomberg’s urban policy agenda. “A lot of what you’ll see in Mike’s policies in general is very much recognizing the important role that mayors play,” says Brian Reich, who runs policy communications for the Bloomberg campaign. “Mayors have a kind of experience that Mike thinks is very valuable.”

I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything sinister or unethical about this—Bloomberg’s interest in making cities work better long predates his interest in running for president—just that, inevitably, when your philanthropy has spent hundreds of millions of dollars investing in cities, it’s going to benefit you politically. But it also means that Bloomberg can speak to urban challenges with greater authority than any of the other Democrats.

Bloomberg calls his economic agenda the All-In Economy. Central to it is the idea that the economies of urban and rural America are fundamentally connected—not just metaphorically, in a rising tide kind of way, but literally, in the sense that the current divergence between urban and rural economies, in which cities are generally prospering while rural America declines, is unsustainable.

“Look at eastern Kentucky,” Greg Fischer said to me. “It’s a coal-dependent, fossil fuel-based region. Bloomberg’s plan is, ‘Well, okay, we loved ’em when they were producing cheap energy, and then they were just left abandoned. So yes, the coal economy is not sustainable. But there needs to be a plan to help transition economies like that. You don’t just leave ’em hanging out there.’ It’s a combination of the compassion that he has, but also accountability that we have for each other as a society, and for the people who live in these areas.”

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Some of the specifics of Bloomberg’s economic plans are SOP for the other Democratic candidates but might surprise those who think of Bloomberg as a Wall Street avatar. He wants to expand the earned income tax credit, increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, ensure affordable childcare and paid family leave, and protect workers’ ability to sue employers for harassment and discrimination. He also wants to guarantee workers, including contract and franchise employees, the right to collective bargaining. And, like all the other Dems, Bloomberg talks about promoting economic development in rural areas by investing in broadband connectivity.

“The easiest way to think about Mike’s economic plan is to look at how we rolled it out,” says Brian Reich. On January 8, Bloomberg hit three different states to talk up the All-In Economy. In Illinois, he spoke at Olive-Harvey College, a community college on Chicago’s economically struggling South Side; in Minnesota, he visited a family soybean farm in Faribault County, about 50 miles south of Minneapolis; and in Ohio, he spoke at Akron’s Bounce Innovation Hub, where he was endorsed by Akron mayor Dan Horrigan. “We’re not looking for a savior,” Horrigan said. “We’re looking for a partner in the Oval Office.” The obvious and correct implication: Donald Trump has not been a friend to American cities. They don’t vote for him.

Bloomberg’s vision isn’t grand and rhetorical; it’s data-driven and pragmatic. Throughout the day, he spoke about issues like job training and retraining, the importance of community colleges, the benefits of apprenticeships, creating economic opportunity in rural areas, repurposing of infrastructure and the financial investments that the federal government can make. But perhaps the most important message was the connectivity: from big city to rural America to mid-size city, all in one day.

“Mike’s focus is on the practical and achievable,” Reich says. “Mostly what you see from politicians in general is [about] spending money. Mike’s insistence is that it’s not about how much money you spend, it’s about the impact you have on communities and on people’s lives. So in some respects, his plans aren’t as sexy or ambitious [as other candidates’], but his measurable outcomes are going to be greater. The worst thing that could happen is that we replace the president—which we should do—and we still don’t get things done. As a nation, we can’t continue on that path.”

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Given Bloomberg’s reverence for data, it’s ironic that he hasn’t provided many specific details for his plans yet, including what they’ll cost—though last weekend he said he would raise taxes on the wealthy, increase the corporate tax rate and curb tax-free inheritances of large estates to raise $5 trillion over a decade for his policy proposals. As his campaign escalates, he’ll have to say more. It shouldn’t be too hard: Bloomberg has years of experience and the generously funded work of his philanthropy to draw on. For Democratic voters, maybe having a billionaire candidate in the race isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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