Yet here in Stockton, a central California crossroads where low-wage warehouse workers feel left out of the economic boom and the bustling immigrant community has been under siege by President Trump’s crackdown, voters have a different take on Bloomberg’s wealth.
Many Democrats here said they didn’t know that much about the former New York mayor until he started popping up on television in recent weeks. But after an unprecedented advertising blitz in the run-up to the March 3 “Super Tuesday” contests — when California’s primary will be the biggest prize of all — they have begun repeating Bloomberg’s slogan: “Mike will get it done.”
Lynn Silva, 66, a retired special-education instructor for incarcerated adults, is a lifelong Democrat. The Trump era has made her so anxious and so worried for the country that she can no longer stand to listen to the television when the president is speaking. Her list of favorites to run against him is long and ever-changing, but she is starting to conclude that Bloomberg, hardly her first choice to be the Democratic standard-bearer, may be “the ultimate candidate” for a coldly calculated reason: He has the money to win.
“I don’t care that he’s a billionaire trying to buy the election,” she said. “If that’s what it takes to beat Trump, that’s fine. I loved [Sen. Kamala D. Harris], but look at her: Out. I loved [Sen.] Cory Booker, but look at him: Out. No money.”
“These aren’t regular times,” Silva added. “We’ve got to get Trump out. That’s the bottom line.”
Bloomberg is banking, literally, on Democratic voters across California and throughout the nation arriving at a similar conclusion. He hopes they will look past this week’s feeble debate performance, ignore his history as a Republican and tune out the allegations of misogyny and racial insensitivities in his past — deciding that the imperative to defeat Trump is so great that they can persuade themselves to love the multibillionaire simply because he’s a multibillionaire.
Bloomberg, who founded a media and information company that bears his name, is worth an estimated $60 billion and has pledged to spend whatever it takes to win. He has been a candidate for just three months, but his campaign has reported spending a staggering $464 million through Feb. 1 — $259 million of that on television advertising.
Bloomberg’s candidacy is challenging the adage in politics that buying your way into office is a net negative. Instead, Bloomberg is pitching his wealth as one of his greatest assets.
“I’m a philanthropist who didn’t inherit his money but made his money, and I’m spending that money to get rid of Donald Trump, the worst president we have ever had,” Bloomberg said in Wednesday night’s debate. “And if I can get that done, it will be a great contribution to America and to my kids.”
The other Democratic candidates ascribed darker motives to Bloomberg. Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., said Bloomberg “thinks he can buy this election.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) blasted Bloomberg for embodying “a corrupt political system” and warned that “real change never takes place from the top on down, never takes place from an oligarchy controlled by billionaires.”
And Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) likened Bloomberg to Trump, warning that “Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.”
Yet here in California, where recent polls show Sanders leading the field and Bloomberg rising into contention, one likely primary voter after another said they were warming to the former New York mayor.
As he was getting off work at a shopping mall in Stockton, Michael Rabago, 25, said that he wants more than anything to deny Trump a second term — and that Bloomberg’s billions make him the guy to do it.
“Money buys votes, and I just hope Trump doesn’t win again,” Rabago said. “I think it’s going to take a rich guy to beat Trump. I personally want Bernie to win, but money is everything. That’s sad to say, but that’s how it is. I always see Bloomberg’s commercials on TV: ‘Mike for 2020.’ ”
Faidrian Smith, 49, said she has decided to vote for Bloomberg for a simple reason: “If you don’t have the money to fight him, Trump is going to win the election. Period.”
Smith, who is black and works as a driver for a food-delivery service, said as she dashed into a restaurant here to pick up a customer’s order that she feels a personal imperative to defeat Trump.
“He’s made racism so blunt and in-your-face now, and we have to change that,” Smith said. “I’m not saying Mike Bloomberg should buy the election. But money helps. It makes him stronger.”
Bloomberg’s wealth was a turnoff for some other voters here. Diana Gatewood, 61, a retired special-needs care worker, said, “He’s trying to buy our votes. It does take money to make the world go around, but just because he’s a billionaire doesn’t mean he’s doing right by people.”
Gatewood said she has not decided whom to vote for in the March 3 primary, but she’s leaning toward Sanders, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Tom Steyer, another billionaire who is self-funding his campaign but has had far more limited success than Bloomberg.
Synthia, 57, a retired parole officer who declined to provide her last name for fear of political retribution, acknowledged that Bloomberg’s billions would prove helpful in the general election but said she was disinclined to vote for him.
“How does he help the people — the underdogs, the working-class, the blue-collar?” she asked. “I think he’s playing a political game. . . . We’re not pawns in a game. We’re people with lives. At the end of the day, we go home to our bills and our stressors, and these billionaires go home to their rich lives.”
Bloomberg has a prominent and enthusiastic champion here in Michael Tubbs, Stockton’s dynamic young black mayor and a self-described liberal Democrat.
Tubbs, 29, was elected mayor on the same night in 2016 that Trump was elected president, and he quickly began to fully comprehend what Trump’s presidency meant for his city of about 311,000.
In his first few months as mayor, Tubbs said, he spent most of his time not on crime or roads or other typical municipal matters, but on immigration — specifically, trying to reassure his constituents, roughly one-third of whom are foreign-born, that despite the president’s rhetoric and the harsh crackdown on illegal immigration that he authorized, they would continue to have sanctuary in Stockton.
“Donald Trump is literally an existential threat,” Tubbs said. “Their way of life, their way of being, their way of interacting in the community has been changed by his presidency, and the top priority has to be to get him out.”
Tubbs described Stockton as a microcosm of America, a diverse melting pot in which 45 percent of residents are white and the median household income is just $51,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The city is a transportation and logistics hub, meaning many jobs here pay low wages, at least relative to Silicon Valley and California’s other booming metropolises.
Tubbs is a sort-of Bloomberg protege. He graduated from a Harvard University mayoral training program that Bloomberg funds and said he tries to model his use of data in running Stockton’s municipal affairs after Bloomberg’s administration in New York.
As he considered which candidate to support for president, Tubbs first gravitated toward Harris, one of his home state’s Democratic senators. But once she was out of the race, he eyed Bloomberg, who agreed to make Stockton his first stop in California as a candidate.
Since Bloomberg’s visit here in December, Tubbs has been an evangelist for his candidacy, explaining to his working- and middle-class constituents why they should put their faith in a Manhattan billionaire.
“I tell people, ‘Beating Donald Trump is the top priority,’ ” Tubbs said. “Donald Trump and the Republican Party are playing to win.” By nominating one of the other candidates, Tubbs argued, Democrats would be “unilaterally disarming” in the face of Trump’s campaign war chest.
“You can’t beat Donald Trump with no money,” Tubbs said. “It’s just not happening. You’re going to have to have the resources to compete and also to build up the infrastructure in states so that something like Donald Trump doesn’t happen again, and Bloomberg has shown a willingness to do that.”