- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
CHARLOTTE, N.C.—A corporate attorney and his gynecologist wife rolled up soundlessly in their silver Tesla to canvass for Mike Bloomberg.
They parked their Model S 75D at the edge of a parking lot by a Harris Teeter grocery store and an upscale espresso shop. This was a recent sunny Saturday, just three days after Bloomberg’s abominable debate debut in Nevada, and they joined a group of roughly a dozen people, about half of whom were paid campaign staff. Vijay Bondada wore an “I LIKE MIKE” shirt. Renuka Tyagi wore an “I LIKE MIKE” pin. They had brought along their 9-year-old son and their cockapoo named Cocoa.
A smiley Bloomberg staffer clapped his hands.
“You guys ready to knock on some doors?”
Here in a desirable neighborhood known as Dilworth, three miles south of Bloomberg’s bland, cavernous state headquarters at the foot of this city’s skyscrapers, they walked up East Boulevard and took a left at the First Christian Church and stood surrounded by handsome homes with well-tended lawns. BMWs and late-model minivans sat in driveways in this precinct where nearly two-thirds of the voters in the Democratic primary in 2016 chose Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders—friendly terrain, presumably, for Bloomberg, not to mention a couple of canvassing novices.
Holding a list of 20-some addresses, Tyagi and her husband set out. Four years ago, they both gave the maximum amount of money to Clinton. Three years ago, they moved from Manhattan’s Upper East Side for a higher-paying job for him. And last year, initially, he was thinking about Pete Buttigieg, while she was thinking about Amy Klobuchar. But that was before Bloomberg announced his candidacy in late November. “When Bloomberg got in,” Bondada told me as we walked, “I knew.”
Now, as Super Tuesday loomed, he and his wife wanted to help make the case that Bloomberg has been putting forth with his unprecedented onslaught of ads that have dominated the airwaves since he entered the race. The many-times-a-billionaire and former three-term mayor of New York has sought to cast himself as the divided Democrats’ best bet—first the stopper of Sanders the socialist, then the slayer of a well-funded, post-impeachment-emboldened President Trump. Tuesday, though, marks Bloomberg’s first real test—the first time he’s even been on a ballot. Can he turn all those ads into actual votes?
This, the biggest city in the biggest swing state that votes this week, will provide one of the earliest answers to that question.
Charlotte, after all, is blue, fast-growing and finance-centric—the corporate base of Bank of America and (along with New York and San Francisco) one of America’s top three banking hubs. It’s a trove of moderate, well-to-do Democrats and independents who are looking increasingly frantically for Sanders alternatives and somebody, anybody, with a discernible capacity to take down Trump. It’s a city in a county in which Clinton beat Sanders in the primary and then beat Trump just as handily in the general. And Bloomberg has the backing of the city’s mayor, Vi Lyles, and its most influential private citizen, retired Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, who’s a campaign state co-chair. If, in other words, Bloomberg can’t do well here, where, exactly, would he?
How important is Charlotte to the Bloomberg bid? “On a scale of zero to 10, it’s an 11,” the campaign’s state director, James Mitchell, a city councilman who goes by “Smuggie” (spelled like that, sounds like “Smudgie”), told me last week. With Bloomberg polling third in North Carolina, close behind Joe Biden and Sanders, respectively, Mitchell considers both the city and the state must-wins.
It won’t be easy. For all its New South sheen, Charlotte is a capital of virulent inequality, too, last on a list for upward mobility among the nation’s biggest cities. The other day, for instance, better than a thousand people stood in a line in the rain for a chance at one of 129 affordable apartments. It’s also a majority-minority city, where 35 percent of the population is black and another 14 percent is Latino and one in six residents is now foreign-born. Lately it’s become a magnet for millennials. Charlotte, in short, is no shoo-in for a 78-year-old magnate mayor from the Northeast who promoted a stop-and-frisk policy that targeted overwhelmingly innocent black and brown New Yorkers and whose uninspiring and even off-putting efforts on the debate stage have spooked middle-class pragmatists and specifically women who cringe at allegations of his sexist, uncouth comments.
The notable absence of much fervor for his candidacy is evident on the ground.
Back in Dilworth, Bondada, Tyagi, their son and their dog knocked on doors. A woman said she was voting for Biden. A man said he was voting for Elizabeth Warren. A cluster of canvassers for Buttigieg walked by. House to house, Bondada and Tyagi gave their ad hoc spiels. “He can actually do the work,” Tyagi said. “And the fact that he’s willing to put his wallet behind it all,” Bondada added, “that means a lot.” They heard in return a stream of censure concerning his Nevada debate. “Terrible,” the Biden voter said. “He didn’t debate well at all,” the Warren voter said. “Bloomberg needs to …” one woman started. “Get better on the debate stage?” Tyagi said with a half-laugh of a sigh. The assessments of Bloomberg, at least the ones I witnessed, added up to a whole lot of not so sure.
“I’m considering him,” one man said.
“I’ll give it some thought,” said another.
“I don’t know who we’re going to be able to elect,” another woman lamented. “But anybody’s better than Trump.” She pointed plaintively at her patio furniture. “I’d vote for that chair,” she said. Maybe that would mean Bloomberg. Or maybe it … wouldn’t?
“Renu,” Bondada said to his wife, “how much more do we have?”
They had been knocking on doors for a little more than an hour.
“Five more houses,” she said.
“I’m going to take this phone call,” he said.
As Bondada talked on the phone, Tyagi wrapped up the rest of the list, and then they walked back to the Harris Teeter and their Tesla. “I just feel like if people know who he is and then get to hear from me at least, you know, as a New Yorker who lived under his administration, that I thought it was extremely effective,” Tyagi told me. “At least hopefully they’ll look at him.”
Bloomberg’s sterile, vibeless, 17,000-square-foot office in Uptown Charlotte is on the main business drag, three blocks down from the sleek Bank of America tower and past the Capital Grille and the homeless people sleeping under bus shelters. Inside, through the buzzer-locked door and past the airy lobby and down a long hall, the supply closet is well-stocked, and so is the row of fluorescent-lit cubbies filled with swag and shirts sorted by size. Taped to a conference room wall are posters to sign up to phone bank and canvass. The first time I dropped by, they were blank. And the second time. The third time, too. Visitors can take selfies with a life-size Bloomberg cardboard cutout.
One recent Friday some of the staff hosted a lunch. They fed black pastors catered fried fish, grilled shrimp, collards and cornbread.
To win here as a Democrat, a candidate has to appeal sufficiently to two disparate parts of the party’s coalition. The first: white, mostly wealthy moderates—a bloc Bloomberg staffers and I in our conversations over the last couple weeks took to calling “McCready Democrats,” as in Dan McCready, the candidate who in 2018 (and ’19) almost flipped North Carolina’s 9th district, or “McColl Democrats,” as in the bank bigwig. But the other part: the third of the local Democratic electorate who are black.
“You gotta keep both happy,” Mitchell said. Polling shows Bloomberg’s doing better with the former than the latter. “We’re polling around 19 to 22 percent with the black community,” he said. That’s probably not good enough to win. “I need it to be three out of 10 instead of 1 out of five.”
Hence the black pastors and the soul food.
The gathering began well enough. Everybody agreed, the pastors and the staffers, that it’s utterly imperative to vanquish Trump come November. “TRUMP HAS TO GO,” Veronica Cannon from the Bloomberg team wrote in red letters at the top of a big piece of easel paper. One of the pastors urged her to use some exclamation points. She gladly added three.
She made her pitch. “I know that there are issues concerning him,” she said. Hanging in the air, of course, was “stop and frisk,” the contentious policing policy Bloomberg employed when he was mayor and which critics have condemned as racist. “All of you who are people of faith,” Cannon continued, “you know there are no perfect people. There was one perfect person. We know who that perfect person is. All of us are sinful and we all fall short of the glory of God. I’m speaking to preachers. Y’all know …” She reminded them that he’s apologized.
“New Yorkers, they really are over the stop and frisk conversation,” added Tonya Rivens, an area radio and television personality who serves on the Bloomberg staff as the director of constituency here. “They really are.”
“I think Mike did the same thing I would’ve done,” Mitchell told the group. “When you see a problem, you try to address it. Stop and frisk was trying to make neighborhoods safe.”
Then it was the pastors’ turn to talk.
“Stop and frisk is connected to Eric Garner,” said the Rev. Robert Scott, the senior pastor at Charlotte’s St. Paul Baptist Church, referencing the unarmed man killed by cops on Staten Island in 2014, even as he kept saying, “I can’t breathe.”
“To Tonya’s comment about the people in New York,” Scott said, “the pastors in New York haven’t forgotten about stop and frisk. No.”
“I’m not feeling good about the stop and frisk,” said the Rev. Dwayne Walker from Charlotte’s Little Rock A.M.E. Zion Church. “At all.”
“I really think that he needs to do more than apologize,” said the Rev. Glencie Rhedrick, the associate minister at Charlotte’s First Baptist Church West. “I think it would be in his behalf for the black vote that he wants to get that he shows a little more empathy around that decision.”
“He’s got to show repentance,” Scott added. “It’s hard to give forgiveness when there’s no repentance.”
James thanked them for their feedback. “I would tell you,” he said, in a somewhat specious assertion, as the pastors readied to leave, “there’s a lot of momentum going our way.”
“We’ve got goodies over here on the table—T-shirts, placards, bumper stickers, buttons, yard signs,” Cannon told them. “We really would love for you to support Mike Bloomberg.”
Henrico White, the pastor of Charlotte’s Weeping Willow A.M.E. Zion Church, told me he believes Bloomberg can “overcome” the stain of stop and frisk. “I think most people at least appreciate someone trying to address the real hard issues,” he said.
In general, though, I was as skeptical as most of the pastors seemed to be.
“A huge issue,” Rhedrick said when we talked at the end of the event. “Candidates, people of European descent, are quick to apologize. But when the apology appears to be, ‘You just need to get over it,’ that leaves an extremely bad taste. We as people of African descent have experienced so much harm from our law enforcement, and when you add policies that give them liberty to do what they do without consequences for what they do when it’s unjust, that’s not going to get you elected.”
Two and a half miles away, on the edge of a part of town thick with breweries, coffee shops and taco joints, the Charlotte office of the Bernie Sanders campaign couldn’t be more different than the Bloomberg headquarters but is equally on-brand. It occupies space in a non-denominational church with an emphasis on social justice and “transforming broken systems in society that create human suffering.” The aesthetic: rug on a rustic floor, warm Edison lights, homemade art and signs on the walls.
“Why do you fight for Bernie??” reads a hand-lettered prompt on a poster. It’s filled with an assortment of responses from supporters and volunteers.
“So I can go to the doctor without worrying about rent.”
“He has fought long and consistent for us.”
“I want my democracy back.”
The official opening of the office was late last month, shortly after Sanders’ runaway victory in Nevada. The evening get-together crackled with zeal, and a conspicuous confidence. A field organizer who moved here from Iowa after the caucuses stood on the top of a table and led the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of 129 people in a chant.
“I believe that we will win!” she shouted.
“I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!” the rest of the room roared back.
“Ray McKinnon, a county commission candidate, a Sanders-supporting member of the Democratic National Committee and an “automatic” delegate, and a black pastor, too, gave a rousing speech.
“We’re not a part of a cult! We’re a part of a movement!” he bellowed, as beads of sweat began to build on his bald head. “We’re not a part of a cult! We’re a part of a revolution! A political revolution! To say that it isn’t about us! It’s about the many and not just a few! It’s about saying to the moneyed interests, ‘Your time is up! Your time is up! If you scared, BE SCARED. ‘CAUSE WE COMIN’ FOR YOU!’”
The Sanders campaign can point to polls, too—and the latest public figures in the state show him trouncing Bloomberg with younger voters, beating Bloomberg with white voters and all but even with black voters.
The McColl and McCready Democrats of Charlotte agree on one thing: Sanders is a total no-go. I heard it again and again canvassing with Bondada and Tyagi, and I’ve heard it repeatedly from voters here in the run-up to this week.
But after that very shared aversion?
I’ve talked to people who are voting for Biden. I’ve talked to people who are voting for Warren. I’ve talked to people who planned to vote for Buttigieg (before he dropped out Sunday). I’ve talked to people who are voting for Klobuchar. And I’ve talked, to be sure, to people who are voting for Bloomberg, or who have already.
With Bloomberg, though, that support is complicated—and in a way that should worry a candidate who’s attempted to position himself as a better version of Trump.
For starters, that first debate was a disaster, a blow to his image as the above-the-fray safe play—the quantifiable ramifications of which won’t be known until Tuesday and perhaps not even then. People “were excited about Bloomberg,” said Carolyn Eberly, a chemist-turned-activist from suburban Waxhaw who led an Indivisible chapter to try to get McCready elected and now is supporting Warren. “But I think the debate in Nevada just kind of killed all that. At least that’s what I’ve heard locally.” Susan Roberts, a political scientist at Davidson College, just up the road, has heard similar sentiments. “Right now,” Roberts told me, “people that early voted for Bloomberg are having a bit of buyer’s remorse.”
To dig deeper, though, I called Mary Conlon, the executive director of Moderate Chic, an assemblage of approximately 140 women in and around Charlotte, “just super strong, smart women,” as she puts it, “in lots of different fields of work,” the name itself a nod to what are generally their political sensibilities. It means Conlon sits at the center of the spokes of Bloomberg’s target audience in this critical city. She sent an email to the members of Moderate Chic asking them about how they were approaching the primary, and this year overall, and Bloomberg in particular. What she got back, she told me, was “fascinating.” In snippets with no names attached, she shared a cross-section of responses.
The mixture of feelings in Conlon’s inbox read often like a litany of misgivings.
“His comments about women are disturbing.”
“It wasn’t about a couple jokes. The treatment of female employees …”
“… more concerned about stop and frisk.”
“Hate the idea that we need a billionaire to come in and fund this opposition.”
“Don’t like that his strategy has exempted him from doing the regular work of campaigning.”
“Haven’t met him.”
And yet the takeaway for Conlon was this: “Most” of these women were Bloomberg voters, and most of their husbands, if not all, were, too. “My husband and I debated this the other night,” Conlon said one woman wrote to her. “I’ve also had this discussion with several friends. They all say the exact same thing. They’re supporting Bloomberg because they think he can win.”
For Conlon, though, between the lines was something more interesting, and even poignant. The emails in the aggregate seemed to her like pent-up distress let loose, laced with feelings of dread and guilt. In 2016, moderate Republicans, in the estimation of these moderate Democrats, ultimately turned a blind eye to Trump’s crude comments about women and the racist parts of his past because they wanted to win—and, more than even that, because they wanted so badly for Clinton to lose. Now, in 2020, are these moderate Democrats starting to make the same sorts of rationalizations? Because they want to win? Because they want so badly for Trump to lose?
“Republicans who voted for Trump, they felt a lot of guilt and hypocrisy around doing that. I have Republican friends who just hated what he did, what he said about women, but voted for him because they hated Hillary,” Conlon told me. She grappled with the echoes in the emails in her inbox. “A lot of sadness,” she said, “a lot of words around justifying their choice. A lot of apologies for considering Bloomberg.”
Still, though, I said—votes for Bloomberg.
“Pouring their hearts out about how difficult this has been, and how there aren’t great choices, and the people that they would really like to see run the country, they don’t see being able to win,” Conlon said, “and trying to find the lesser of two evils, and understanding the hypocrisy about the decision that they’re making.”
“Colder,” I offered. “More pragmatic.”
“Which is really hard for this group,” she said, “because I’ve been running this for five years, and they go with their heart, they go with their passion, and all of them got kicked in the face in 2016. And I think it has changed them, and they’re in this real struggle. What’s the moral thing? What’s the right thing? What’s the definition of the right thing?”
As for Conlon? She told me last week she was “leaning” toward voting for Buttigieg, but she hadn’t decided once and for all, either, against voting for Bloomberg. After Buttigieg dropped out Sunday night, I called her back. She told me she now probably was going to vote for Biden. I said it sounded to me like she really didn’t want to vote for Bloomberg.
“I don’t,” she said. “I don’t.”
Bloomberg was due at the Hilton by UNC Charlotte.
His appearance was his fourth trip to this state since he started running. He had come in December and January and earlier this month to open offices and do a bus tour. He has in North Carolina 11 offices and 125 staffers on the payroll— by those measures more of a presence here than any other candidate. On Saturday, he had made a stop in Wilmington for a rally but nixed another that had been scheduled for the late afternoon in the Charlotte area—too tight on time was the word from the campaign. A quick speech at the Blue NC gala would have to suffice.
In spite of Mitchell’s insistence that this city and this state are must-wins, others around the campaign pushed back on such do-or-die talk, tempering expectations.
“It’s a long primary,” Justin Vollmer, a native of nearby Gastonia and a UNCC grad who’s a senior Bloomberg adviser here, told me. “The race will go on, and I think that Mike will compete till the very end.”
In Charlotte? In North Carolina? “He doesn’t need to win,” McColl told me. “He just needs to win enough.”
“Twenty to 25 percent,” he said. “If you do that in 10 states …”
“I’m not a political analyst,” McColl said.
And these conversations happened before Saturday, and Saturday night at the Hilton, as people gathered in a ballroom as the news from down in South Carolina lit up their phones with the potentially race-changing result that Biden not only was going to win but win big—a revivified Biden hurtling toward Super Tuesday something like a worst-case scenario for Bloomberg.
And outside the ballroom in a hallway, all of a sudden, there he was, not the cardboard cutout, not the man from the ads, but the man himself. Wearing a light blue sweater, a navy-blue suit and shiny black shoes, Bloomberg had his head down and his hands in the pockets of his pants. He looked up and stood still and stared straight ahead. A staffer gave him a slim stack of paper-clipped papers, the one on the top telling him where he was, who was introducing him, whom he needed to thank, and the start of the text of the speech.
Once on stage, where he was greeted with lusty applause, Bloomberg initiated his remarks, in his nasal, workmanlike way, over the course of 15 minutes, telling the cutlery-clinking crowd that this was his fourth city of the day. “After this,” he said, “I’m going to go get some sleep.”
He made his case. That he’s running to be the commander in chief, not the “college debater in chief.” That he raised teacher salaries and even the life expectancy in New York. That he has “the record and the resources” to beat Trump, and in the states that matter the most, like North Carolina. That he made his money instead of inheriting it, like Trump. That he tells people who are conflicted about the money he’s spending on his run that he’s spending it to beat Trump. “Spend more, spend more,” he said they say. The people cheered.
After he finished, back out in the hall, he was quickly surrounded by a crowd. Black and white, young and old, they held up their phones and clamored for selfies. “Thank you for running,” I heard. I spotted Bondada and Tyagi, and Bondada managed to sidle up and shake Bloomberg’s hand and make small talk about the Upper East Side. A tall young man told him he lived not far from Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence in New York, and Bloomberg reminded him he never spent a night there—preferring his own homes. The man, from what I could hear, mentioned Bill de Blasio. Bloomberg said he had committed to never talking about his predecessor or his successor, “but I will say this,” he said. “Always be careful in picking your predecessor and successor.” The young man responded, “Well said, sir.”
Staff kept Bloomberg moving steadily in the direction of a door through which he could depart.
“Gotta go,” they said.
“That’s it,” they said.
It was the end of Bloomberg’s last public appearance on the Saturday before Super Tuesday. Sanders was still in the lead in the delegate count, but Biden was surging out of South Carolina. The door opened. The door closed.