Michael Bloomberg vs. the NRA

The next steps for New York City's ambitious three-term mayor

Plenty of ammunition

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

There is perhaps no other politician in America as enterprising, as meddling, or downright ballsy, as Michael Bloomberg. And certainly none are as wealthy.

The New York City mayor, who made a fortune providing financial data to Wall Street, is worth $27 billion and is ranked by Forbes as the 13th wealthiest man in the world.

He’s pouring his personal fortune into a public policy agenda that can perhaps best be summed up as saving Americans from themselves. It’s a hard task, even for a billionaire who has run America’s largest city for three terms, and dispensed $2.4 billion to date through Bloomberg Philanthropies, on everything from eradicating polio to road safety to climate change, making him one of the top five charitable spenders in the U.S.

As mayor, Bloomberg, 71, has spent three terms trying to regulate, inconvenience, and shame New Yorkers out of a long list of vices. He banned smoking from workplaces, public parks and beaches; banned trans fats from restaurants; required chain restaurants to post calorie counts of their meals; posted letter grades in restaurants based on their sanitary practices (which he says reduced salmonella poisonings by 14 per cent in one year); and he has vowed to ban Styrofoam containers from stores and restaurants. He launched a controversial campaign aimed at guilt-tripping teenagers into avoiding pregnancy, featuring large posters of frowning toddlers saying things like, “Honestly, Mom . . . Chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” and “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.”

For his efforts, the mayor earned the wrath of various industries, unions and interest groups. His approval ratings have vacillated, with recent polls showing he continues to hold support of exactly half of New Yorkers.

But it was Bloomberg’s latest regulation that showed he was willing to test the outer limits of his mayoral authority: banning the sale of sweet drinks in sizes greater than 16 ounces. While it was meant to target sugary sodas, it had byzantine effects such as the New York Board of Health scrutinizing the menu at Starbucks to advise baristas on the legality of various “venti”-sized sugary coffee concoctions. It applied to restaurants but not corner stores. It was a brash and risky move that drew attention around the world. And this week, it hit a speed bump.

On Monday, the Supreme Court of the State of New York said Bloomberg had pushed his good intentions too far. Judge Milton Tingling declared the regulations “arbitrary and capricious because it applies to some but not all food establishments in the city.” The decision to strike down the ban sparked celebration among critics of “Nanny Bloomberg” and government regulation. Tweeted Sarah Palin: “Victory in NYC for liberty-loving soda drinkers. To politicians with too much time on their hands we say: Govt, stay out of my refrigerator!”

The mayor vowed to appeal the ruling, calling it a “temporary setback,” but it’s unclear whether the matter can be resolved before his term expires at the end of this year. But while the mayor may be running out of time to purify the city of New York, on the national stage he’s just getting started.

On Feb. 26, a former Illinois state representative named Robin Kelly won the Democratic nomination for an open congressional seat in a Chicago district. Kelly was pro-gun control. Her opponent, a former Democratic congresswoman, Debbie Halvorson, had an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA). From 1,300 km away, the New York mayor had swooped in with his cash, and through his own super PAC, Independence USA, spent $2.2 million running ads against Halvorson.

He did the same thing in 2012, spending $3.3 million on television ads and direct mail to unseat Democrat anti-gun-control congressman Joe Baca from a House seat in California—more than double what the candidate and his opponent spent on the races. Bloomberg’s cash infusions haven’t always prevailed, but he has changed the equation for gun-control politics. His goal was to make sure the NRA is no longer the only big spender in town. “Up until now, it has only been the NRA that has been talking about guns to the public and to Congress,” Bloomberg told ABC’s Face the Nation last Sunday. “And I’m trying to level the playing field and bring out the facts.”

Gun-control advocates are rejoicing. “Bloomberg is one of the best things that has happened to the whole gun-control issue in the last six to seven years,” Paul Helmke, who was president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the major national gun-control advocacy group, from 2006 to 2011, said in an interview.

“Getting involved in political races is a major thing that needed to be done. It used to be that Brady was the only group that did any of that—we would do endorsements but we never had that much money to put into the races—and they’ve gotten so much more expensive over the last 10 years.” Bloomberg’s fortune is a game-changer, he said. “The money he is putting into these races—that’s big money. That can make a difference. We didn’t have the kind of money to step in at that level,” said Helmke.

In 2006, Bloomberg brought together 15 mayors of U.S. cities at his residence, Gracie Mansion, and co-founded a gun control advocacy group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. The group now counts more than 850 mayors of towns and cities across 44 states. And he has seized the bully pulpit. In the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Bloomberg attacked the NRA for suggesting the answer was armed security guards. “Instead of offering solutions to a problem they have helped create, they offered a paranoid, dystopian vision of a more dangerous and violent America where everyone is armed and no place is safe,” he said.

The money gives him other tools that most politicians don’t have. A stalwart supporter of charter schools—privately run schools that are funded by tax dollars—Bloomberg has not only championed them as mayor, but now his foundation has applied to build four such high schools in high-poverty areas of New York, raising concerns among public school advocates. (Bloomberg has been in long-standing feuds with teachers’ unions, last month coming under heavy criticism after comparing them to the NRA.)

His combination of money and political power and a detailed policy agenda on everything from immigration reform to marriage equality and climate change is now raising the question of what more Bloomberg will do on the national stage once his term ends in nine months.

In 2008, he was discussed as a possible running mate for John McCain. Chuck Hagel, now Barack Obama’s defence secretary and a former Republican senator, has said the mayor approached him about a joint presidential run. Bloomberg has long been seen as the most plausible candidate to run a third-party campaign since Ross Perot.

Publicly, Bloomberg has denied any interest in running for president. “He doesn’t need to run for national office. He has a national and international platform through his foundation. He’s a man who puts his money where his mouth is,” says Hank Sheinkopf, who was a political strategist on Bloomberg’s 2009 campaign.

Indeed, Bloomberg has crossed both political parties. He was a pro-choice liberal Democrat who ran for office as a Republican to end-run the Democratic party machine, and then switched his affiliation to “Independent” during his second term in office. Bloomberg supported George W. Bush in 2004 and hosted the Republican convention in New York City. Last year, he endorsed Barack Obama for president in the wake of the devastation of hurricane Sandy, declaring the Democrat to be the stronger candidate to fight climate change.

When he created his super PAC last October, he aimed to promote politicians in his own mould—be it moderate or maverick: “It’s critically important that we have elected officials in Washington, Albany and around the nation who are willing to work across party lines to achieve real results,” he said.

And he has little use for other conventions of politics, such as term limits. Bloomberg was elected in 2001, re-elected in 2005, and then successfully campaigned to get term limits overturned in order to win re-election to a third term in 2009, making the case that New Yorkers needed his business knowledge to see the city through the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis.

“His ideology is one of doing that which he believes to be right. The good news is he doesn’t owe anyone anything and can do what he wants when he wants to,” says Sheinkopf.

But without the backing of a major party, a presidential candidate can’t get far, the mayor has told people. “I thought he was someone who should have thought a little longer about running for president in 2008,” says Helmke. “But when I asked him about it, his comment was, “My good friend Ross Perot ran for president, spent his money, and got zero electoral votes.”

But Bloomberg has made clear that he won’t sit on the sidelines of national politics. Expect him to focus on using his foundations to push his policies, in the style of Bill Clinton and Bill Gates.

“He will be known forever as the greatest public health mayor in the history of the United States,” said Sheinkopf. “It will keep him relevant when he leaves office at the end of the year. He’ll be the most prominent ex-mayor New York ever had.”

When you’re worth $27 billion, you have options. “He intends to give away all his money when he leaves the earth,” says Sheinkopf. “Which means he’ll be busy for quite some time.”