As mayor of the nation’s largest city for twelve years, Michael Bloomberg enjoyed bountiful power. New York City’s annual budget exceeded that of all but three states, and his position in the country’s media capital gave him an enviable pulpit. But his power went much further.
The multi-billionaire spent hundreds of millions of dollars from his immense personal fortune to leverage his influence as mayor. As Bloomberg now pursues the Democratic nomination for president, he faces criticism for making political donations to Republican candidates who supported his favored causes, such as gun control, and for spending so much on his three successful mayoral campaigns.
But the more serious problem with Bloomberg’s use of money in politics is the way he merged his wealth with his political agenda while in office. Bloomberg is again trying to make a virtue of his fortune, asserting that he “has always been independent from special interests—he has never accepted campaign contributions—and has worked to eliminate the corrosive power of money in politics.”
But there are two sides to the coin of campaign contributions. While Bloomberg doesn’t take, he gives—plenty, and in a way that corrodes democracy. The amounts he spent to win friends and influence people as mayor of New York are staggering. For starters, he spent more than $260 million (or $361 million adjusted for inflation) on his three mayoral campaigns. In his last race ($108 million), he outspent his Democratic opponent 18 to 1, and won by just 4.4 percentage points. In doing so he made a joke out of New York City’s model campaign-finance law, which limited participants in public funding to $6 million in spending. As he left office at the end of 2013, the New York Times calculated Bloomberg made $23 million in donations to other candidates during his twelve years in office. He donated another $263 million to New York’s influential nonprofit sector.