NEW YORK — Michael Bloomberg, America’s most prominent and deep-pocketed advocate for gun control, would rather rehabilitate Republicans than oust them.
“Somebody got them the way they are now,” the mayor of New York said in a recent interview as he sat in the bullpen offices of City Hall, surrounded by a buzzing staff, blinking Bloomberg terminals and clocks telling the same time in each of the five boroughs. “Why can’t you change them?”
On Monday, Bloomberg will headline a summit on guns at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, another opportunity for the outspoken mayor to deliver an indictment of Washington’s failure to do anything meaningful on the issue. Although the Democrat-turned-Republican-
turned-independent says he practices a “noble and practical” brand of post-partisan politics, when it comes to gun laws, he is more aligned with one party than the other.
Democrats in the White House and in Congress are working closely with his advocacy group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, to enact his gun-control agenda. And Republicans, especially those in the House, don’t seem the least bit interested.
“Oh sure,” Bloomberg said, he would blame Republicans if they blocked new gun-control legislation in the House. “But having said that, I won’t let the Democrats off the hook.” He added that when Democrats “were in power, they didn’t do it,” and President Obama “campaigned on an assault-weapons ban and he didn’t do it, so spare me.”
It’s not clear how much longer the mayor’s idiosyncratic who-needs-political-parties approach will apply when it comes to gun control.
After the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., a collection of progressive groups and Democratic lawmakers, including, most recently, former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, have aggressively entered the debate. (“And so we’re not going to be the star,” Bloomberg said. “My interest is in having this done. I don’t need to get credit for it.”) That still leaves Bloomberg with a significant distinction: He’s a multibillionaire who can immediately reshape the landscape of gun politics with his money. His hope is that he can break the GOP of what he sees as its National Rifle Association addiction by using his considerable resources to promote gun laws with which many NRA members will agree.
“I’m going to prove a counterweight” to the NRA, said Bloomberg, who spent about $10 million in five congressional and statewide races against NRA-
supported candidates last year, winning four of those contests. “It seemed effective, and I’m certainly going to take a good, hard look at next time. . . . You can organize people, I can write checks.”
Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA, said that although there were “billions of reasons to take him seriously,” the organization viewed Bloomberg’s handpicked races as an attempt to “manufacture a story line.” The NRA, he said, “played in hundreds of races at the federal level and thousands of races at the state legislative level.” As far as Bloomberg’s effort to peel off Republicans, Arulanandam did not seem particularly worried. “He is free to spend his money or waste it however he sees fit,” the spokesman said.
On Thursday, Bloomberg sat with his legs crossed on a Queens College stage, next to police department officials who kept their feet on the floor. He swore-in a theater-full of police department recruits and, as he does at nearly every public appearance, bemoaned Washington’s inability to act against illegal guns.
“In recent weeks, we have heard some people say that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Bloomberg said, echoing NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. “But the truth is that sometimes the good guys get shot and sometimes they even get killed. . . .Washington is letting the bad guys shoot our police officers, our children, our neighbors. That has to stop right now. And there are immediate steps our legislators can take right now.”
But Bloomberg’s public identification with gun control can overshadow his wider political interests.
“Incidentally, I’m going to support some candidates who are out there working on education reform, out there working on pro-choice, pro-gay rights who may not be so good on guns,” Bloomberg said, adding that he wouldn’t “decide who to support only on one issue. The NRA can. That’s why they are so effective.”
The Bloomberg method is vexing to traditional gun-control advocates who think passing legislation requires replacing Republican lawmakers with Democratic ones. Bloomberg counters that just as Democrats were once the party of slavery and segregation, the pro-gun GOP is now ripe for moderation.
“A lot of them are, all of a sudden, pro-immigration,” he said. “It turns out that Latinos, Asians didn’t vote Republican because they were against immigration. As my kids would say, ‘Dah,’ ” the New York mayor said in his Boston accent. A conversion on guns for a party that many political observers consider increasingly conservative seems an awfully long-term project for a mayor who has urgently advocated gun-crime prevention measures. It is also a tough sell considering that his name — demonized by the NRA — can elicit virulent tirades among gun owners in the South. Bloomberg has his own way of allaying those concerns.
“There are clearly some people who really believe that the government is out to get them, and they are going to fight to the death on guns,” Bloomberg said. “And then there is the general public that thinks this is meshugana” — crazy.
This month, New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested that the unapologetically cosmopolitan Jewish billionaire was perhaps not the best face for sensible gun laws. The criticism stung Bloomberg’s supra-political sense of self.
“Incidentally, just define David Brooks,” Bloomberg said. “As I remember, he’s got to be in the 1 percent — the amount of money he makes as a columnist. I don’t know where that came from.”
But gun-control advocates no longer need Bloomberg’s voice. They want his money to target Republicans.
“You have to change the people who are in the House,” Bloomberg acknowledged, as he sipped coffee from a recyclable cup under a portrait of Thomas Jefferson in the City Hall bullpen. He said he planned to use his super PAC, Independence USA, to tell the public, “This guy or woman is in favor of leaving guns in the hands of crazies who can kill your kids, the other one is not. I think you should vote for the other one.”
The other one, he specified, doesn’t necessarily mean the Republican.
During the beginning of Bloomberg’s second term in 2006, the mayor and his police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, huddled to determine ways to further drive down the crime rate. They discovered that 85 percent of the gun crimes in the city could be traced to guns that originated out of state. Bloomberg formed a coalition of mayors to push for the enforcement of laws to prevent the trafficking of illegal handguns. They received little to no help from Democratic leaders who bought into the conventional wisdom that guns were a political loser.
They “had run for the hills,” in the words of John Feinblatt, City Hall’s point person on guns, who sat directly across from Vice President Biden in the White House meetings with gun-control advocates and victims groups last week.
With Bloomberg’s money, Mayors Against Illegal Guns grew in size and influence, running ads, lobbying lawmakers, conducting undercover investigations. Reflecting Bloomberg’s bipartisan obsession, the group made a concerted, though largely cosmetic, effort to enlist Republican mayors. It hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz to conduct surveys. (Luntz said he was hired because he was an expert with a multimillion-dollar business and not for Republican cover. Said Feinblatt, “The Republican Party listens to him.”)
Bloomberg’s organization funded research, launched “Demand a Plan,” a grass-roots campaign to pressure the president and Congress to end gun violence, and helped write legislative proposals in the Senate aimed at preventing gun trafficking. In 2009, the organization stopped an NRA-backed bill from reaching the Senate floor, and it recently blocked an effort to strip some background checks in Michigan. But the NRA remains dominant in many statehouses, and it has succeeded in getting laws passed that relax gun restrictions.
It has seemed at times that Bloomberg was the NRA’s only active opposition. The grim succession of mass murders pushed military-style weapons into the national consciousness and prompted Bloomberg’s group to add an assault-weapons ban to its agenda. (Since the Newtown shooting, 441,495 new supporters have joined the coalition, as well as 100 new mayors, bringing the total to 837.)
“Some people, I think, woke up after Newtown,” Feinblatt said. “We’ve been awake.”
Feinblatt said Biden’s office had solicited ideas from the mayor and his group. (“We have given a lot of input,” Bloomberg said.) Feinblatt cited the closing of the private-sale loophole as the bare minimum that needed to come out of the process, while Bloomberg focused on things that could be done with an executive order — such as a recess appointment for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the prosecution of gun-permit applicants who lie on their background checks (in 2010, the FBI referred 76,000 cases to the Justice Department, which prosecuted 44 of them) and a requirement that agencies contribute to national databases.
“Those things he could do right now,” Bloomberg said of Obama. “I, for the life of me, don’t understand why he just doesn’t do it.”
Directing opprobrium at Obama while reserving warm words for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has the added benefit for Bloomberg of boosting his bipartisan bona fides. Most important, his aides say, it keeps pressure on the president.
Bloomberg suggested that Obama lacks the relationships necessary to pass legislation in Congress. The critique is remarkable coming from a famously irascible mayor with a lackluster history of wooing lawmakers.
“Leaders cajole, bribe, threaten, slather. They build relationships,” said Bloomberg, who compared the president unfavorably to Bill Clinton, “a people person” who used the golf course as an office.
The White House declined to comment on Bloomberg’s critique and his gun-control campaign.
Bloomberg acknowledged that Obama and congressional Democrats “at the moment” seemed committed to doing something on guns.
But he wasn’t worried about his self-imposed nonpartisan purity preventing Democrats from taking office and undercutting his own goal on guns.
“The only danger of that happening is if you are not effective,” Bloomberg said. He said the pro-gun candidate who took his Bloomberg-assisted loss hardest was a Nancy Pelosi-backed California Democrat, Rep. Joe Baca, “who was stupid enough to go on the floor of the House and blame me. And I couldn’t have asked for better advertising. Everybody else read that and said, ‘Oh my God, maybe Bloomberg is serious.’ Thank you very much. Can I pay you to do it again?”
As the mayor exited the bullpen to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the Bronx, a clock above him labeled “Make Every Day Count” kept track of the time left in his term. 354 days, 17 hours, 4 minutes and 22 seconds. And counting.