NORFOLK, Virginia — Sen. Kamala Harris declared her presidential candidacy on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and held her first rally before a crowd of 20,000 in Oakland, California, while her colleague Sen. Elizabeth Warren addressed thousands on a bitter winter day in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the site of a historic textile workers’ strike. Joe Biden, the former vice president, began his run for president before a crowd of union members in Pittsburgh before launching into a campaign swing that culminated with a rally in downtown Philadelphia.
Michael Bloomberg started his campaign at a hushed diner in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, shaking hands with a snowy-haired afternoon crowd, drawing a combination of selfie requests and quizzical stares, before strolling to a nearby hotel ballroom and making an efficient statement before a bank of television cameras.
Accompanied by a small platoon of aides, including two of his former deputy mayors and a security team that flitted around a downtown waterfront nearly barren of pedestrians, Bloomberg described himself as a political pragmatist skilled at wielding his wealth to win elections.
"I know how to win," Bloomberg, the former three-term mayor of New York City, said, "because I’ve done it time and time again."
If Bloomberg’s first in-person appearance as a presidential candidate lacked something in organic political energy, he has already jolted the race through the sheer scale of his political spending, stunning the Democratic political establishment and stirring an outcry from the party’s populist wing. He is airing nearly $1 million in television ads in Virginia alone this week, as part of nearly $35 million in television advertising nationwide. A few bystanders said they had already seen those ads.
In his remarks to the news media, Bloomberg invoked his record as mayor and his advocacy on issues like climate change and gun violence, education and smoking, and positioned himself as a political moderate who could bring the country together.
Alluding to the nearby military installation, Naval Station Norfolk, Bloomberg derided President Donald Trump as a lawless leader and quoted the resignation letter of the president’s former navy secretary, Richard Spencer, who quit last weekend after clashing with Trump over a disciplinary case involving a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes.
“I salute Secretary Spencer for not flinching from his duties,” Bloomberg said. “But the fact remains, we have a president, a commander-in-chief, who has no respect for the rule of law and no concern whatsoever for ethics or honor, or for the values that truly make America great.”
But the most consistent theme of the day, from the moment Bloomberg entered the casual D’Egg Diner, painted in subdued orange and off-white, was the financial firepower he has brought to the Democratic Party and some of its favorite causes.
Bloomberg, who is one of the wealthiest men in the country, entered the diner with Nancy Guy, a newly elected Virginia state legislator whose candidacy Bloomberg supported this fall. He noted to a reporter that the Virginia legislature had flipped this month from Republican to Democratic control, and that he had been able to “help in that process.”
Speaking to reporters at a nearby Hilton soon after, Bloomberg noted he had spent “hundreds of millions of dollars fighting the NRA,” including considerable “moneys that we provided on gun safety” in Virginia’s recent elections, and had used his fortune to take on the coal and tobacco industries. He named two members of Congress from Virginia, Reps. Elaine Luria and Jennifer Wexton, whose campaigns he supported and spent heavily on in 2018.
Guy, who introduced Bloomberg at the Hilton, did not quite endorse the former mayor, but she began by thanking a Bloomberg-backed environmental group, Beyond Carbon — “and its founder, Michael Bloomberg” — for its spending in her campaign. Guy noted that climate issues were particularly salient in her coastal district, and Bloomberg’s money “probably contributed to my victory, so I’m deeply appreciative.”
“For years, I’ve been using my resources for the things that matter to me,” Bloomberg said, noting that those causes included gun control and arresting climate change.
That avalanche of money has led several Democratic presidential candidates to point to Bloomberg’s campaign as an emblem of a broken system. In Ankeny, Iowa, on Monday, Warren derided Bloomberg as a wealthy interloper seeking to “buy a nomination in the Democratic Party,” and she urged voters to show that his approach would fail.
If Bloomberg is successful, Warren warned, then in the future, elections would be “about which billionaire you can stomach.”
“Michael Bloomberg is making a bet about democracy in 2020: He doesn’t need people, he only needs bags and bags of money,” Warren said. “I think Michael Bloomberg is wrong and that’s what we need to prove in this election.”
To at least some Democrats, bags of money do not sound like an unappealing asset in the context of a presidential race. And in Virginia, one of the Super Tuesday primary states Bloomberg is targeting in March, some Democratic leaders say he has earned considerable good will for his prolific spending there over the last decade.
Whether that feeling of gratitude extends beyond Virginia’s political class is a great question mark: The scattered public polls testing Bloomberg’s appeal to Democratic primary voters have not been particularly encouraging.
In Norfolk, those who turned out to see Bloomberg at the diner came as much out of curiosity as anything else.
Charles Winstead, a 76-year-old Republican, said Bloomberg had made small talk with him about his University of North Carolina sweatshirt. The owner of a local lawn and garden equipment business, Winstead sounded like the kind of voter Bloomberg hopes to win over in the general election against Trump: “I like some of the things he does, but as a person I’m not real wild about him,” he said of the president.
But Winstead said he was not familiar enough with Bloomberg to find him an appealing alternative, confessing, “I don’t know that much about his politics.”
Others in the low-key crowd were more immediately appreciative, like Tom and Nadia Morris, both 66, who said they moved to Virginia from New York City about a year and a half ago. Morris chuckled as he disclosed that he was a retired technology employee with the City of New York, and had met Bloomberg once before when he was mayor.
“So far, out of all the Democrats, he would be my choice,” Morris said. “There’s really nobody else out there that — it seems to me — that can fit the bill, or that can beat Trump, which is scary in and of itself.”
Morris was not quite as emphatic, saying she was “very appreciative” of Bloomberg’s advocacy on gun control but not yet ready to commit to a candidate.
“I think it’s premature, at this point,” Morris said.
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