Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Big-city mayors favor Mike Bloomberg after his late entry into the race, while leaders in smaller cities have lined up behind Pete Buttigieg.
On January 30, Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., joined arms with Mike Bloomberg, her choice to win the primary for the Democratic Party. During a press conference to announce her endorsement, Bowser and Bloomberg pledged to fight for affordable housing, gun control, and statehood for the District. In a tweet, the campaign also announced her new role as Bloomberg’s national campaign co-chair.
“I've known Mike for many years, and I know firsthand his commitment to making cities stronger, even more prosperous, and more inclusive,” Bowser said at the press conference.
Her constituents saw her decision coming as far back as November, when she welcomed the former New York City mayor’s presidential run with open arms in a tweet that quickly earned her a ratio—with Twitter replies that overwhelmingly criticized her praise of Bloomberg as “embarrassing,” “suspicious,” and even a threat to another mayoral term. Many residents of the largely African American and highly progressive city that Bowser represents, including the chair of the local Democratic Party, expressed skepticism toward the official who oversaw the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk regime.
(Disclosure: Bloomberg is the founder and owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company for Bloomberg News and CityLab.com.)
Bowser isn’t alone in endorsing Bloomberg. Despite his late entry and unorthodox campaign strategy—he’s bypassing the first four states in the primary race—Bloomberg has racked up more endorsements from mayors in the 100 largest U.S. cities than any other candidate. So far, the 77-year-old erstwhile Republican has won over the Democratic and Independent mayors of 11 of the nation’s most populous metros, including Greg Fischer of Louisville, Jim Strickland of Memphis, and London Breed of San Francisco.
In addition to these eleven, Lori Lightfoot, the first black woman to serve as mayor of Chicago, “hasn’t ruled out joining Team Bloomberg,” saying she wants a candidate “who understands the importance and values of cities.” And former U.S. Conference of Mayors president Steve Benjamin—whose city of Columbia, South Carolina, doesn’t crack the top 100 list but whose position in an early voting state with a majority-black electorate gives him clout among Democrats—is leading Bloomberg’s campaign as co-chair.
Other Democratic candidates haven’t been able to match Bloomberg’s pull with Big City Hall. But the official who followed Bloomberg into Gracie Mansion isn’t voting for his predecessor. On February 15, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio endorsed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. De Blasio, who ran a quixotic campaign for the White House that ended in the fall, held his endorsement until after the critical early primaries, but he agreed to campaign on Sanders’s behalf ahead of the Nevada caucuses.
Mayors have mostly passed over what’s seen as the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has just one endorsement from a major metro mayor: James Kenney of Philadelphia. And before he won the nod from de Blasio, Sanders only had the support of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.
While former Vice President Joe Biden has won over six mayors of the country’s largest cities, among them Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. (One important Biden booster is Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor Randall Woodfin, who is a leader among black mayors, despite running a smaller city.)
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has the advantage among mayors who lead cities more similar in size to his hometown of 100,000. Buttigieg trails both Biden and Bloomberg with four endorsements among the mayors of the largest 100 cities. But nearly 60 mayors from locales large and small, many of them concentrated in the Midwest, signed a pledge to Buttigieg that was published in USA Today in September. “Mayor Pete puts practical solutions over partisan ideology,” the op-ed reads. “For mayors, politics isn’t a blood sport.”
How much heft does a mayor’s word lend to the race? Analysts at FiveThirtyEight weight mayoral endorsements as a 3 on a 10-point scale. In the site’s tracker, endorsements from mayors of the largest cities rank just above those of state lawmakers. (Although Bowser’s endorsement gets a boost: FiveThirtyEight lists her as D.C.’s governor, a title Bloomberg embraced during Bowser’s endorsement press conference.)
Having mayors from cities with larger populations on your side is valuable for getting voters to the polls, however. “I think in general these endorsements matter more for the ground game than changing public opinion,” says Amy Liu, vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. “These campaigns now have someone in these core states, in these communities, that can get turnout and broaden visibility for these candidates.”
There could be several reasons why Bloomberg’s campaign is picking up steam with city leaders. One of the variables: Bloomberg Philanthropies distributes hundreds of millions of dollars each year in charitable giving to urban issues.
Cities across America benefit from grants through the American Cities Initiative, a $200 million suite of programs that covers the opioid epidemic, coal divestment, sugary beverage taxes, public art, and many other topics. There’s no public repository that shows how much specific cities have earned in grants, and Bloomberg Philanthropies didn’t respond to requests for comment. Asked whether the foundation’s philanthropic support may have influenced any mayors’ endorsement choices, Sabrina Singh, Bloomberg’s national spokesperson, said, “Mike is a doer and a problem-solver, and his accomplishments and actions have earned him the endorsements of leaders across the country. He has proudly invested in mayors and their communities with no expectation of anything in return.”
Looking at the philanthropy’s contributions in just Washington, D.C., over the last several years gives a sense of the scope of giving. In recent years, Bloomberg Philanthropies:
- Gave $4 million to D.C.’s public school system in a joint program with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation (2015)
- Invited 46 cultural nonprofits based in D.C. to participate in the $43 million Arts Innovation and Management program, along with several dozen groups from Pittsburgh (2018)
- Named D.C. as a finalist in the U.S. Mayors Challenge and provided the city with a $100,000 competition grant (2018)
- Selected D.C. and three other cities as winners in the $70 million Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge, with services valued at about $2.5 million for each city (2018)
- Certified D.C. as one of seven cities to achieve What Works Cities (Gold) Certification (2019)
Partnerships between Bloomberg and cities extend beyond grants. In 2015, Bowser announced a joint climate partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies and the U.S. State Department, for example. Bloomberg’s Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a coveted program that provides professional development support, initiated San Francisco’s Breed and Chicago’s Lightfoot into its 2019 class, and D.C.’s Bowser was part of the inaugural batch in 2017. Bowser’s office did not respond to a question about whether the city’s work with Bloomberg Philanthropies was a factor in her decision to join the Bloomberg campaign as national co-chair.
Grant status hardly ensures an endorsement, though. Bloomberg’s philanthropy and city initiatives have also supported mayors that have hitched their wagons to other stars. Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley, co-authors of the USA Today op-ed for Buttigieg, were also participants in the Harvard City Leadership Initiative. So was Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who supports Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. Detroit, whose mayor Mike Duggan endorsed Biden, was selected to be part of Bloomberg’s cadre of “innovation teams” in 2017, eligible for grants of up to $1.5 million over three years. Philadelphia won $1 million in the 2018 Mayors Challenge; Philly’s mayor is pulling for Warren.
“Regardless of whether or not they’ve received philanthropic support from him, what they do see is somebody who understands the issues on the ground,” Liu says. Tom Cochran, the CEO and Executive Director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors adds that Bloomberg emphasizes a firewall between the philanthropy and the man. At meetings, “someone would thank him for a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies and he’d say, well, I had nothing to do with it. It was my money but I had nothing to do with it.”
Mayor Benjamin, who spoke to CityLab in between stops on Bloomberg’s campaign, said that suggesting money influenced mayors’ endorsements “is misplaced, and a sad representation of where we are in American society, where we have to see specters around every corner. It’s wrong to penalize people for doing the right thing.”
Mayors’ investment level in the 2020 election may be heightened by the fact that the race has seen an unprecedented number of mayors and former mayors themselves running for president, touting the value of their boots-on-the-ground experience. The desire to find a counterpart in Washington sympathetic to urban concerns has been a constant refrain among mayors in interviews, surveys, and at gathering such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Birmingham’s Woodfin said Biden won his vote because he knows the former VP “would view mayors as his partners in the campaign and he would view us as partners in the White House.” Bowser praised the Bloomberg campaign’s focus on “populous states, diverse states that better reflect America to spread his message.” Mayors trust an executive to get things done, said Mayor Benjamin. “Pete [Buttigieg] was in the [Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership] class before me,” he said. “If Pete wasn’t running for president, he’d probably be for Bloomberg as well.”
That the candidates whom several mayors view as potential partners are among the more moderate liberal candidates is not a surprise, according to Liu and Cochran. “Mayors are pragmatists,” says Liu. “They have to execute their vision across both political and budget realities.” When Barack Obama ran against Hillary Clinton, many big-city mayors sided with Clinton, including prominent leaders of color like Michael Nutter (the former mayor of Philadelphia, who’s now Bloomberg’s national political chair), former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, and former Trenton, New Jersey, Mayor Doug Palmer. Others who supported Clinton include the former mayors of L.A. (Antonio Villaraigosa, who’s on the trail with Bloomberg now) and San Francisco (Gavin Newsom).
Bloomberg has pushed for numerous progressive causes, from gun control reform to climate resiliency. But he’s intentionally positioned himself as the moderate answer to Warren and Sanders’ more radical bids for structural change, saying his brand of “benevolent billionaire” is the key to defeating President Donald Trump.
This contrast has disconcerted residents of San Francisco. Matt Haney, a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors, told the Guardian that Mayor Breed’s endorsement is not reflective of what city residents feel. “I haven’t met many Bloomberg supporters in San Francisco,” he said. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve met any. It doesn’t seem reflective of where the residents of San Francisco are.”
Mayors that may have once supported Biden are switching allegiances to Bloomberg, adds Cochran, of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “There’s no question that some of the current mayors are concerned as to whether or not Vice President Biden will stumble,” he says, while “they don’t think that Bernie [Sanders] and Elizabeth Warren can maybe carry the Midwestern states. They’re concerned about that.” (Sanders drew a tie in Iowa and won New Hampshire, with a narrow lead over Butigieg.)
Close regional ties also often explain early endorsements: Frey told the StarTribune that his administration employs former Klobuchar staffers, for example. The current mayors of Newark and San Antonio both endorsed their respective predecessors before they dropped out of the race (New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro).
But there are some glaring exceptions to the neighborly trend: Boston’s mayor, Marty Walsh, hasn’t made an endorsement, although Warren is among the candidates he likes. Buttigieg has racked up more than a dozen endorsements from Indiana mayors, and after a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, gained the support of Indianapolis mayor Joe Hogsett. Bloomberg probably isn’t holding his breath for an endorsement from New York City Mayor (and quixotic presidential contender) Bill de Blasio.
Bowser’s endorsement offered a specific boost to Bloomberg: At the press conference, she addressed Bloomberg’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk regime, in a conversation that Washington City Paper described as a sort of public absolution. “I’ve had that conversation [about stop-and-frisk] with Mike, and I understand the regret that he has expressed,” she said at the press conference. “I also understand being the mayor of a big city and making sure your city is safe. I appreciate that he has acknowledged that he should have looked at the numbers more closely and made some changes sooner.”
As the presidential race turns to the early primary states, several candidates are picking up new mayoral endorsements that may help them put boots on the ground. Buttigieg gained support from Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague and Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart, two of the state’s few African American officials. And Indianola Mayor Kelly B. Shaw, a Republican, is caucusing for Klobuchar, which could help her reach disaffected Trump supporters who’ve switched parties since 2016.
“I think a mayoral endorsement is important, especially with the low turnout we have in elections. … Tonight, this thing will start winnowing out,” Cochran says. “But I tell you, every time I turn around I’m hearing another mayor’s going for Bloomberg.”