Mike Bloomberg showed his continuing national influence last week when the two GOP nominees in California -- Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina -- "pulled a Bloomberg" and won primaries after spending a combined $100 million of their own money. The month before, wrestling billionaire Linda McMahon chased Rep. Rob Simmons out of the Connecticut Republican U.S. Senate primary, with a grumpy Simmons telling the New York Times, "We understand the mathematical reality of competing against an opponent with unlimited financial resources."
Bloomberg's national ambitions are as obvious as his weary denials. I recall speaking to the lawyer tasked by the Bloomberg team in 2008 to research ballot access laws in all 50 states; he handed in his thorough work but wasn't told why the Mayor never pulled the trigger. More recently, Bloomberg told a friend that that he'd think about running for President as an Independent in 2012 if he could break the "political habit of voting by party."
Until then, he'll have to be satisfied with being the Berlusconi of New York -- a media titan who smartly parlayed his great private wealth into great political power. We're not talking just about spending some more than other candidates but about spending in an entirely different universe: the year Bloomberg won by spending about $100 a vote, Ken Livingston won the London mayoralty spending 80 cents a vote; his expenditure of over $100 million in one city in 2009 is nearly as much as President Johnson spent running for president in all 50 states.
Then there's his enormous philanthropy, which pays for both good deeds and appreciative beneficiaries in the clergy, the arts and not-for-profits. It was dismaying, though not surprising, when prominent recipients of his largesse were called by City Hall to speak for his muscular effort to overturn two term-limits referenda; and then lo and behold several showed up to defend the Mayor's move. Nor was it very subtle when the Mayor defended his ally Speaker Christine Quinn by publicly declaring that she could be a success after politics in any private sector job. This after several top Bloomberg staff had gone on to lucrative positions at Bloomberg LP.
"Look, how can I take him on?" one leading city official told me last year. "Someday I'll be out of office looking to run a not-for-profit -- and he might control its board."
(A disclaimer: Yes, I sure was the Democratic nominee who lost to him in 2001. But I figure that, over eight years later, any columnist's statute of limitations has long passed.)
Bloomberg popped up on my radar again last week. First, there were the two wealthy businesswomen prevailing by a lot after spending a lot in California. Then the Mayor released his annual public city financial statement last Friday, allowing reporters two hours to read the documents. Not very transparent, to use the good government slogan du jour. Last and separately, the U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to hear a case that overturned that part of the Arizona "Clean Money" law that provided additional public funding to qualified candidates running against multi-millionaires.
The problem of self-funded candidates is now not high on reformers' lists; there's too much else to worry about. And those who benefit from the status quo have an array of defenses to justify it: it's their money...it's constitutional because speech is money...it's expensive to run ads...it's not corrupting like special interest money...it doesn't guarantee victory.
True, money doesn't guarantee victory -- if Pat Buchanan ran for mayor in NYC with $200 million, he wouldn't get elected. But these rationales ignore the larger realities. First, for these candidates, such spending is necessary though not sufficient. Anyone who argues that he or Whitman or Fiorina would have won without their bank accounts is pulling your leg. Who's favored if the world's 100th ranked tennis player gets five serves per point while Roger Federer gets just one? Rob Simmons knew the answer.
Second, self-funding is not classically corrupt like the appearance or fact of quid pro quo politics when big money interests give big donations with strings attached. But what about a Mayor giving $1.3 million to the eccentric (and originally anti-semitic) Independence Party in order to win their lines and votes, which totaled more than his margin of victory in 2001?
And third, the more billionaire candidates run and win and serve because of their undeniable financial edge, the more democracy evolves into plutocracy. Let's look ahead 10 or 20 years. Every cycle we'll surely see more such one-sided financial disparities. with more predictable results. The quiet casualties are tens of thousands of talented women and men who will never run and serve because they're priced out of the process. Are candidates like Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand -- originally no-names who worked their way up -- going to be extinct? Are we really going back to the future when rich people openly bought offices in the Gilded Age before the direct election of senators?
Mike Bloomberg is smart, focused, popular -- and a largely successful mayor. But winning a lottery is not an argument for the system of lotteries -- and there are two sides to having a modern Medici. For he's also the avatar of a new age of politics dominated not by the checks-and-balances we learned about in high school but too often simply checks. The only solution is a 'tea party' against big spenders so that Congresses pass laws restoring limits on self-funding candidates and presidents pick Supreme Court justices who understand that, contrary to the infamous Citizens United decision earlier this year, money isn't speech.
This article originally appeared in The New York Observer, June 16, 2010.