President or private citizen? Bloomberg mulls over where he’d have biggest impact on climate and gun control

Michael Bloomberg speaks at a gun safety rally in New Hampshire in October. (Photo: Cheryl Senter/AP)

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is at a crossroads. He’s in the final stages of deciding whether to seek the Democratic nomination for president or continue to push his agenda as a businessman and philanthropist.

“It’s a much harder decision for Mike because he has a lot to give up. He’s built a global business, a multibillion dollar philanthropy and multiple initiatives around climate and guns. How many other candidates have those things to lose?” Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg’s top political adviser and former deputy mayor, told Yahoo News.

For almost anyone, even a long-shot bid for the presidency would have a greater impact on the wider world than whatever else they might do. But Bloomberg, who commands a powerful news organization and wealth estimated by Forbes at $45.1 billion, isn’t just anyone. He is a prominent voice in the fight for stricter gun laws and the leader of a movement enlisting business executives, elected officials and private citizens to fulfill America’s climate commitments under the Paris Agreement — with or without the Trump administration’s support.

His foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, directs significant resources and funding to public health, government innovation and the environment, especially by encouraging local action on climate change and sustainability. For five years, Bloomberg has been U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy helping cities fight climate change. Running for president and leading the free world would require Bloomberg to step down from all of these positions.

When reached for comment, Bloomberg spokesperson Jason Schechter said, “Mike has proudly given over half a billion dollars in recent years to support key progressive causes, from the environment to gun safety to education, and he’s backed the strongest candidates who will keep these issues front and center when in office.”

There’s no rush for Bloomberg to decide. Other candidates need to get out and raise money. That’s not his problem.

Michael Bloomberg, center, looks at solar panels with former Paulson Electric Co. president Ron Olson, left, and Iowa state Sen. Rob Hogg in Cedar Rapids in December. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Back in 2016, Bloomberg considered running as an independent but decided against it, citing data that suggested he would likely split the Democratic vote and help Trump. That wouldn’t be a danger if he ran as a Democrat.

On “Meet the Press” last month, Bloomberg expressed interest in running for president and said he would decide by February.

“Timeline is beginning of the year — end of January, into February maybe. There’s no rush to do it. Everybody wants to know what you’re going to do. The bottom line is: I’m not sure yet,” he said.

As of Jan. 15, the Election Betting Odds website gave Bloomberg a fairly high chance of winning for someone who hasn’t declared his candidacy: 2.9 percent. But there’s also buzz around other prominent Democrats.

Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s failed Senate campaign against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz turned him into a star for Democrats across the country. Nostalgia for the Obama era has resulted in a surfeit of goodwill for former Vice President Joe Biden. And Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders still holds tremendous influence over democratic socialists and younger Americans. Former Obama housing chief Julian Castro recently launched his campaign.

There’s been pushback against Bloomberg from those in the more radical wing of the Democratic Party, who argue that a centrist billionaire from Wall Street is out of touch with the recent burst in economic populism on both sides of the aisle. And there are Democrats who would like to see the U.S. elect its first female president.

These voters are rallying around politicians like California Sen. Kamala Harris, whose tough questions for Trump appointees at confirmation hearings have been applauded by the left. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has long been popular for her populist economic views, has launched an exploratory committee, and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard recently joined the race. In addition, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced Tuesday that she is running for president.

Even failed presidential bids can be worth the effort if the candidate manages to reframe the national conversation or highlight overlooked, though important, issues. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 and Sanders in 2016 were able to push the Democratic Party in the directions they wanted despite failing to get its nomination.

Michael Bloomberg speaks at the Global Action Climate Summit in San Francisco in September. (Photo: Eric Risberg/AP)

But Bloomberg already has that sort of platform and the party already prioritizes the issues important to him. This makes him a more viable candidate, but it also means he doesn’t need to run for office to advance his ideas.

On the other hand, it’s not as if Bloomberg’s reentry into politics would bring his company, charity or nonprofits to a halt. They would carry on without him at the helm. Patricia Harris, who was the first deputy mayor of New York under Bloomberg, is currently the CEO of Bloomberg Philanthropies. All things considered, Bloomberg has to weigh whether the time on the campaign trail will be worth it. Where will he have the greatest impact?

Bloomberg Philanthropies has partnered with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign to help the country move away from coal toward clean energy more rapidly.

Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), has worked closely with Bloomberg to help elect climate champions at the state and national level and push innovative climate policies.

“Certainly, his shoes will be hard to fill and his support for these efforts would be missed. Having said that, having a climate champion campaigning for the president and even better having a climate champion in the White House would be a major boost to our efforts,” Karpinski told Yahoo News.

So early in the process, this vote of confidence shouldn’t be read as an official endorsement. Pete Maysmith, the senior vice president for campaigns at LCV, said the organization will challenge all presidential candidates to prioritize climate action.

“He’s shown he’s serious about fighting the climate crisis, from supporting local efforts to transition to clean energy to working with us to retake a pro-environment majority in the House of Representatives,” Maysmith told Yahoo News. “We’ll be working to make sure all the 2020 candidates prioritize the climate crisis and have bold plans for action.”

Mark Rom, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, said there’s no doubt Bloomberg would be able to make a bigger impact if he were president, especially if he had a Democratic Congress.

“That would really advance his goals for the environment. The question is can he be elected president? And would the campaign for presidency divert his environmental focus for the next 18 months? That would, I think, hurt his environmental causes,” Rom said.

Michael Bloomberg takes questions after a gun safety rally in Nashua, N.H., in October. (Photo: Cheryl Senter/AP)

Whereas Trump embraces the NRA, Bloomberg is the founder and principal funder of Everytown for Gun Safety, a lobbying group that combines two groups advocating for stricter gun control: Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Bloomberg uses his current platform and deep pockets to amplify their message. After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., for instance, Bloomberg announced he would match every donation to Everytown.

Shannon Watts, a stay-at-home mom and former communications executive, originally founded Moms Demand Action as a Facebook group a day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.

“Having worked with Mike now for over six years, I cannot express enough what his leadership has meant in the philanthropic space, particularly for the gun safety movement,” Watts told Yahoo News. “I would always encourage a gun safety champion of Mike’s caliber to run for president, but at the same time we would definitely feel his absence if he were to leave philanthropy.”

Watts said the gun safety movement owes a huge debt of gratitude to Bloomberg for his support, skills and ability to work across the aisle.

“Ultimately, it’s going to be up to Mike. But whatever he decides, I know that he’ll be a force in the private sector or in government,” she said.

Former President Barack Obama strongly believed in gun control but was unable to get a bill passed, even after the Sandy Hook shooting. He called the legislative failure to adopt even modest gun limitations “probably the most disappointing moment I’ve had with Congress.”

Rom said Bloomberg can spend his money and time however he wants right now and deliver the exact message he wants. He said Trump may have changed the presidential norms in many ways, but there would still more institutional constraints on the president than on a private citizen.

“More power and more constraints is kind of the paradox of presidential leadership,” he said.

History shows that some presidents have been largely ineffective — especially with an adversarial Congress — and did not accomplish much despite the prestige and power of the office. There are also private citizens like Microsoft founder Bill Gates who have made large contributions to American democracy and global health — advances that would have been hard to achieve through governmental channels. Unlike a president, who needs Congress to appropriate funds for their projects, Gates and Bloomberg can more or less direct money exactly as they want. “Congress may have goals that are different than Bloomberg’s goals,” Rom says, adding: “That’s a constraint” — one that a self-made billionaire trying to save the world might not want to live with.

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