Bloomberg makes his case to Dems on Capitol Hill

By Sarah Ferris and Laura Barrón-López

Michael Bloomberg on Thursday took his pitch to Capitol Hill as he looks to squeeze his way into a crowded Democratic primary.

The New York billionaire met with dozens of Democrats as he sought to convince them of his highly unconventional — yet extraordinarily well-funded — road to the White House. Bloomberg’s message to members: His campaign isn’t wasting time on Iowa but is focused on defeating President Donald Trump with an unprecedented ground game in battleground states.

And for some, at least, it’s working.

“I came away thinking, you know, this guy could win,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), who attended back-to-back meetings with Bloomberg on Thursday.

When Vargas asked the former mayor how he could actually secure the nomination, Bloomberg pointed out that “no one’s gotten the Democratic Party around them.”

On paper, the New York businessman might have a tough case to make. The former Republican has a contentious track record on policing minorities and voiced doubt on the #MeToo movement. He entered the Democratic race months after the rest of the field, missing the ballot deadline for the four earliest states — a decision Bloomberg argued during Thursday’s meetings that gives him the time to focus on more delegate-heavy states.

But Bloomberg used a slate of closed-door meetings to frame himself as a centrist who can go the distance against Trump and invest heavily in swing states. He's now working to woo lawmakers across the spectrum whose endorsements could be crucial to boosting his credibility as a national candidate outside of the early-voting states.

That includes a group of Democrats who might otherwise be among his fiercest critics: the Hispanic Caucus, whose members have condemned the kinds of “stop and frisk” policies Bloomberg helped promote in New York.

In a breakfast meeting with Hispanic Caucus members, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) pressed Bloomberg on providing protections for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Bloomberg assured her that he would “absolutely” put his “political muscle” behind getting it done.

“He came across as sincere and knowledgeable about immigration and the need to get that done and make it a priority,” Sanchez said.

The visit comes amid a growing Washington buzz about the former New York mayor, whose campaign staff has exploded in numbers in recent weeks, including some former Hill aides drawn to Bloomberg’s message as well as the significant pay bump.

Bloomberg’s campaign — like other centrists seeking the nomination — has stressed electability in purple states. But he also sought to distinguish himself with efforts in must-win states like Michigan by pointing out his massive ground game in both urban centers and smaller cities that were virtually ignored in 2016.

He also nabbed his first congressional endorsement this week from Rep. Max Rose, a freshman Democrat from Staten Island who backed Bloomberg despite Bloomberg’s donations to his GOP opponent, former Rep. Dan Donovan, in 2018.

Some of Bloomberg’s staff have been quietly reaching out to more congressional offices, including Democrats who had previously endorsed Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who pulled out of the presidential race earlier this week.

One Democrat, who declined to be identified, described Bloomberg as “one of the biggest vultures” among the 2020 contenders — but then acknowledged the candidate's strength in the field.

In all, Bloomberg sat down separately with campaign arms of the Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, as well as the pro-business group New Democrats and leaders of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition. He also held individual meetings with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Top Bloomberg aides also met with a group of Democratic chiefs of staff.

As he looks to make inroads on Capitol Hill, Bloomberg is going up against Hill heavyweights like Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who have steadily amassed far more endorsements over the past year.

Bloomberg has struggled with outreach to black and brown voters, who have not been quick to rally behind him in the two months he’s been running. Super Tuesday states, a number of which have large Latino and black populations, are key to Bloomberg’s pathway to the nomination.

Still, both Hispanic and black House members said Bloomberg came off as contrite for his history on New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy and again called it a “mistake.”

Bloomberg’s message, according to people in the room, was essentially: “I know I’m not the smartest guy on everything, but I know how to attract good people, talented people and I know how to delegate.”

At one point in the meeting, Bloomberg began speaking Spanish, a language he's been practicing for years, including with a tutor, according to attendees.

Sanchez, who hasn’t endorsed anyone and is uncertain whether she will before the March 3 California primary, credited Bloomberg for engaging Latino voters early.

“He’s the first candidate that’s not thinking about the Latino community as an afterthought or as icing on top of the cake, but as a primary bloc of voters that needs to be engaged early and continuously,” Sanchez said.

A majority of the Democratic Caucus has not publicly backed a candidate, and several say Bloomberg’s centrist views — and his promise to use his personal fortune to spend unprecedented sums in battleground states — have piqued their interest.

Bloomberg has shown interest in Hispanic outreach in South Florida, said freshman Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), who in 2018 flipped a GOP-held seat that includes Little Havana. Shalala, who is not endorsing until her state’s March 17 primary, said she coordinates with candidates who want to hold events in her district. She has helped Biden and plans to help Bloomberg, with whom she has a long history.

Many swing-seat Democrats have generally gravitated toward moderate candidates in the presidential primary, for fear that the liberals will imperil their reelection in red-leaning territory.

“I am impressed by him. I’m very impressed by his history. I think he is a very capable candidate,” said freshman Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), who flipped an Orange County seat in 2018. “His business acumen coupled with his political experience running New York City, which I think is larger than 39 states. It’s a great combination.”

Asked whether he planned to make an endorsement in the Democratic presidential primary, he said: “Stay tuned.”

Unlike most in the 2020 field, Bloomberg has never held public office as a Democrat, let alone worked in Washington, though he holds extensive ties to the nation’s political establishment.

Still, he won praise from many D.C. Democrats after pouring $80 million into the 2018 midterms. He helped finance some of the biggest Democratic upsets, making late investments that boosted Reps. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.) and Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) to victory in Trump-won districts.

“I think that this fight will go to the floor of the convention and I think anything can happen,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.).