Yet Bloomberg’s visit also came amid renewed scrutiny of his support as New York mayor of stop-and-frisk, which a federal judge eventually ruled had led to stops that violated minorities’ rights, and of allegations of sexist behavior during his business career. At the Democratic Party’s annual gala in Richmond, he received both warm embraces and cold shoulders.
Bloomberg did not address the criticism of his treatment of women while in Richmond, but he apologized for stop-and-frisk at the Saturday night gala and at an earlier stop at a craft brewery. He said the practice was meant to stem the “crisis” of gun violence.
“While many of the ways we tried to reduce violence were right, and we reduced murders by half, there is one approach that I deeply regret: the use of a police practice called stop-and-frisk,” he said. “I defended it for too long, I think, because I did not understand the unintended pain it caused to young black and brown kids and to their families. I should have acted sooner and faster to stop it. And for that I have apologized.”
The words drew applause at both gatherings. But his reception overall was decidedly mixed. While Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) hailed “his years of commitment” to state Democrats, U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) publicly needled him on Twitter.
Bloomberg’s visit came two weeks ahead of the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries, the first test of an unorthodox campaign strategy: skipping early-voting states and tapping his estimated fortune of more than $50 billion to compete elsewhere. It was his sixth stop in the state since declaring his White House bid in late November — and his second in the space of a week.
“I’ve been to Virginia more than anywhere else — great beer,” he said at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, where he drew an overflow crowd the campaign estimated at 900. “If we’re going to beat Donald Trump in 2020, we absolutely have to win this commonwealth.”
Bloomberg has blanketed Virginia with five different TV ads before any of his rivals have gotten on the air. He has more than 80 paid staffers in the state and seven field offices. The others have nothing close to that but are ramping up. They also say they have something money can’t buy: thousands of fervent volunteers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for instance, filled an Arlington high school gym with an estimated 4,000 supporters last week.
Still, no one doubts Bloomberg’s heavy investment could help him make inroads.
“He has put a huge footprint down in Virginia,” said former governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who’s officially neutral as a CNN commentator and is a close friend of another 2020 contender, former vice president Joe Biden.
Another advantage Bloomberg has here: He can take sizable credit for the state’s political transformation. Rivals such as Warren; former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg; and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) stumped for legislative candidates around the state last year. But only Bloomberg was in a position to bankroll them.
Bloomberg and groups he’s launched — Everytown for Gun Safety, Independence USA, Beyond Carbon — have contributed more than $10 million to the state’s Democrats since 2011, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. Everytown counts itself as the largest outside donor to Virginia Democrats last year, with $2.5 million in direct and indirect spending. That’s on top of a combined $1 million from Beyond Carbon and Bloomberg himself in 2019.
With Democrats in charge, the legislature has advanced a host of bills that had no shot under Republican control, including measures to tighten restrictions on guns, loosen them on abortion and voting, ban anti-LGBT discrimination, and ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment. Bloomberg billed himself Saturday as a “big supporter” of that evolution while being careful to share credit.
“Virginians got voters to the polls,” he said. “Thank all of you. Done by a lot of people.”
That’s a winning message for some, including African American elected officials such as Del. Lashrecse D. Aird (D-Petersburg) and Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander.
“Mike Bloomberg’s a great candidate — willing to step up and use his resources to defeat Donald Trump,” said Lori Haas, a leading gun-control advocate who sat beside Bloomberg at the gala, which drew about 1,500.
But on the sidewalk outside, some liberal activists railed against the notion of a billionaire “buying” his way into the nomination contest.
“Oligarchy — just say no,” read one sign in the crowd. They chanted: “No Trump! No Mike! Billionaires are all alike.”
Pro-gun demonstrators rallied across the street and tried to disrupt the brewery event, shouting, “Guns save lives!” As Bloomberg began to speak at the gala, someone plastered a cardboard sign on the lectern reading: “He protects racist systems.” It was quickly torn off.
“It’s nice to be welcomed,” Bloomberg quipped after both interruptions.
Among Democratic primary voters, it could actually help Bloomberg that the National Rifle Association continually rails against him and splashed his face on billboards. Bloomberg could also benefit from Virginia’s open primary system, because independents and Republicans turned off by Trump can participate.
“Virginia really does seem to be up for grabs right now, but Bloomberg seems to be making a pretty impressive push,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond political analyst.
Virginians have traditionally favored establishment Democrats over more-liberal ones in statewide elections. But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a democratic socialist, could have more success in the state this year if Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Biden splinter the moderate vote.
Bloomberg was the only presidential candidate to accept an invitation to the gala, which Buttigieg and Klobuchar headlined last year. Other campaigns sent surrogates.
Some Democrats resent Bloomberg’s heavy-spending approach and grumbled that he left Saturday night soon after making his speech at the top of the program.
“It’s really been the anti-retail campaign, whereby you appear on a television screen,” said state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City), who supports Klobuchar.
And some who benefited from Bloomberg’s campaign cash said they do not feel beholden to him. Sheila Bynum-Coleman said she greatly appreciates the $148,000 Everytown gave last year to her long-shot bid against then-Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights). But she’s put off by Bloomberg’s contention as mayor that high taxes on sugary sodas would benefit the poor by deterring consumption.
“It’s deeply concerning to have someone seeking the Democratic nomination that has the views of poverty and black people that he does,” said Bynum-Coleman, who lost her race and now is an advocate for criminal justice reform.
State Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) has a mixed take: He appreciates Bloomberg’s gun-control efforts but still prefers Buttigieg as a “generational talent.”
“I wish Pete had those personal resources to make his case,” Ebbin said.