The Bloomberg Blowback Has Begun

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 11 2013 9:59 AM

Bloomiedammerung!

Two elections defeat gun control, stop-and-frisk, and everything else Michael Bloomberg likes.

Bill de Blasio
New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio embraces his daughter Chiara during a campaign rally in Brooklyn, New York on Sept. 7, 2013. The public advocate’s campaign promises a clean break with the Bloomberg years.

Photo by Darren Ornitz/Reuters

It’s a rare thing to be completely politically repudiated across two time zones. The shame is typically reserved for presidents whose actual names appear on ballots for far-flung voters to reject. Mike Bloomberg, in his final three months as mayor of New York City, managed to be humiliated without any of the ego-boosters of a real campaign. In his city and in Colorado, voters have rejected the Acela rider/Thomas Friedman reader/Morning Joe watcher-friendly ethos of Bloombergism.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

First, New York. Anyone watching the polls could see that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a former frontrunner, was as doomed as the kid in the horror movie who uses a stranger’s phone. Quinn had wanted to run four years earlier, when Bloomberg was supposedly term-limited. Bloomberg wanted the term limit scrapped, just for him; Quinn initially called that “disgraceful.” Beset by weak poll numbers, likely to lose a 2009 Democratic race, Quinn reversed herself and pushed through an exception that would let the mayor run again. He did, facing a weaker Democrat—whom he nearly lost to anyway.

Quinn never recovered. Until this summer, she led the Democratic primary, but her support was vaporous. As soon as Anthony Weiner entered the race, the narcissistic former congressman was immediately tied with her in polls. When he destroyed himself with an online flirting scandal—for the second time—New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio swooped in and started surging. De Blasio’s campaign promised a clean break with the Bloomberg years, decrying income inequality, rejecting stop-and-frisk policing, and promising a special tax on the wealthy to pay for education. When I dropped into one of the final de Blasio rallies, I heard supporters chanting “We are the 99 percent!” during slow moments, and trying an Occupy-style “mic check” when one labor leader’s megaphone crapped out. The center of gravity in New York politics was moving from Wall Street to Zucotti.

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Bloomberg was not pleased. In an interview with New York, he accused de Blasio of running a “class-warfare and racist” campaign—racist because of all the ads starring de Blasio’s mixed-race and afro’d son Dante. He also finally kinda-sorta endorsed Quinn. “Whether you are in favor of Chris Quinn becoming mayor or not, I will tell you this: She did a very good job for seven and a half years of keeping legislation that never should have made it to the floor, that would have been damaging to the city, from ever getting there,” he said. “And she deserves a lot of the credit for what’s gone on in the city in the last seven and a half years.”

Democrats, if they were still paying attention to Bloomberg, were never going to be swayed by this. Last night Quinn placed third in the primary, with 15.5 percent of the vote and no hope of making a (still uncertain) runoff. The next mayor of New York will probably be a Democrat who told an adviser that “it would be phony of me to be anything but a critic” of Bloomberg.

That was just in Bloomberg’s city. In Colorado, a tough year for the mayor’s gun-control campaign continued with the defeat of two Democratic state senators—one of them the president of the upper house there. Both had voted for the state’s package of new gun laws that passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook and Aurora shootings. Conservative activists reacted by gathering signatures to recall Sen. John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron. Until yesterday, no Colorado state senators had ever been recalled.

Bloomberg tried to prevent that. His specter hovered over the races from the beginning, with conservatives warning that the easily caricatured New York mayor was going to try to buy them. He finally did so at the end of August, with $350,000 to the anti-recall front group Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy, just $10,000 less than the NRA. (In Colorado, as in Wisconsin and California, anti-recall campaigners led with the argument that no one should be recalled simply for voting in a way people didn’t like.)

Both sides now weighed in on Bloomberg. “For Mayors Against Illegal Guns, if they lose even one of these seats, they might as well fold it up,” said Giron, referring to Bloomberg’s group. “They understand that.” Recall spokeswoman Jennifer Kerns crowed that her side “represent[ed] the folks who live here, work here, and simply want their state back from the East Coast special interests like Mayor Bloomberg.” That easy Manhattan-bashing won out, and the recall campaign notched 51 percent of the vote against Morse and 56 percent against Giron.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns responded to the losses with maximum incoherence. “Win, lose, or draw, this will send a message to legislators who take risks to protect their community,” said MAIG’s Mark Glaze. “We will have their back, and eventually, the tide will turn.”

Eventually? Here in our timeline, money from the NRA and the Koch family’s Americans for Prosperity (which also backed the recall) caused no problem for conservatives while Bloomberg’s money tainted the Democrats. That’s just the latest problem for MAIG, which has been losing dozens of mayors from mid-sized towns and cities as its focus has turned to gun-control bills. “They’re not just against illegal guns,” said disgruntled Sioux City, Iowa mayor Bob Scott. “They’re against all guns.”

The New York election was a repudiation of Mayor Bloomberg. The Colorado election is worse—a defeat for Bloomberg the Icon. For half a decade or more, a certain sort of liberal, usually well-off, has convinced himself that the country he dreams of is possible, if only Bloomberg wills it. Bloomberg seemed to believe this too; his guru Kevin Sheekey interpreted polls about how many voters said the country was “off track” and demanded a third-party candidate to right it. After a bad Acela ride in 2012, Thomas Friedman asked Bloomberg to run for president and “challenge, and maybe even improve, both major-party presidential candidates by speaking honestly about what is needed to restore the foundations of America’s global leadership before we implode.”

The people who believed that on Monday probably still believe it. A couple of election losses aside, in a few months Bloomberg will be a private citizen with billions to spend on his political causes. That’s enough time to rethink this theory that you can ignore all critics, drop money from a helicopter, and expect to be forever proven right.

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