Years of giving and activism help Michael Bloomberg raise an army of backers

Mr Michael Bloomberg participates in the Edmund Pettus Bridge crossing re-enactment marking the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, on March 1, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

MCLEAN, VIRGINIA (AFP) - Any national election campaign in the vast United States needs an army of volunteer workers if it is to have much hope of success.

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, a Democratic hopeful in this year's presidential race, went about recruiting his own "army" in an unusual way, relying on goodwill generated over the years by his own activism and his millions of dollars of charitable donations.

Healthcare, education, the environment, gun control... the former New York mayor - one of the richest people in the world - has long put his fortune in the service of those and other causes, financing organisations whose members are now more than willing to repay their benefactor through their own time and effort.

Among them are the many militant members of the group Moms Demand Action (MDA), an anti-gun violence campaign founded after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

They provide much of the energy behind the Everytown for Gun Safety lobbying group, which was founded - and largely financed - by Mr Bloomberg. The group claims six million members nationwide.

"There's a lot of Moms Demand Action volunteers that are out canvassing for Mayor Bloomberg" because of his long-time support for gun control efforts, said Ms Ruth Hoffman, a member of the group who came to hear Mr Bloomberg speak at a rally last Saturday (Feb 29) in McLean, Virginia.

"He saw it was an issue since 2005 and has been committed to the issue," she said. "I think that that says a lot about a person."

On-the-ground experience

Mr Bloomberg's official entry into the Democratic nominating contest will take place on Tuesday, when voters in Virginia and 13 other states cast ballots for the person they hope can unseat President Donald Trump in November.

Because he skipped the first four voting states due to his late entrance into the race, Mr Bloomberg is under heavy pressure to perform well on "Super Tuesday".

The former mayor has poured enormous sums of money into a slick and professionally run campaign - his TV and social media ads have inundated the airwaves in some markets - but he is also relying on a national network of contacts built up over more than a decade.

Mr Bloomberg has spent some US$10 billion (S$13.9 billion) on charitable works and political campaigns to advance the causes dearest to his heart, according to a New York Times investigation. Even after that spending, he is estimated to be worth more than US$60 billion. Beneficiaries have included the ecology-minded Sierra Club and family planning groups like Planned Parenthood.

"When you help someone, like anything in life, they're going to help you back," said Ms Abby Spangler, founder of the Protest Easy Guns group and a co-chair of Mr Bloomberg's campaign in Virginia.

"He has always been there for us, fighting for better gun laws in America. And so, when he decided that he was going to run for president, I said, 'I'm all in!'"

If MDA has not officially thrown its support behind Mr Bloomberg, many of its members have done so individually - and spontaneously.

"We see the type of work that he's done," said Ms Asieh Kehwari, an MDA member who attended Saturday's rally, "so I'm sure that we will definitely assist him."

Red T-shirts bearing the "Moms" emblem were seen throughout the crowd at the event, and Mr Bloomberg made sure to salute their contribution in his speech.

The 78-year-old businessman, co-founder of the big Bloomberg News group, sees the role of such highly motivated backers as essential to his campaign.

The "Moms" actively campaign for their chosen candidates, criss-crossing neighbourhoods to drum up support among voters.

"We have the ground experience, and we know how important it is," Ms Kehwari said.

After the rally, she and other women spent the afternoon going door-to-door on Mr Bloomberg's behalf.

Return on investment

Virginia plays an important role in the Super Tuesday primaries. It will be awarding the fourth-largest number of delegates to the party's national nominating convention in July (99 of the 1,991 needed to win the Democratic nomination).

Mr Bloomberg has a staff of 80 deployed in seven offices across the mid-Atlantic state - the biggest team in Virginia compared with other candidates, according to his campaign.

In this historically conservative state, which in recent years has leaned Democratic as its urban and suburban populations have grown, the support of groups like the "Moms" can make a difference.

In the 2018 midterm elections, they helped three Democratic candidates take seats in the US House of Representatives previously held by Republicans, all three with "A" ratings from the pro-gun National Rifle Association.

And in 2019 came a political thunderbolt when Democrats, boosted by Mr Bloomberg's liberal spending, wrested control of both houses of the state's General Assembly from Republicans for the first time in 25 years.

The fight for tougher gun-control laws had become a top issue among voters, coming only months after 12 people died in a mass shooting in the city of Virginia Beach.

Today, as the Super Tuesday primaries approach, Mr Bloomberg is hoping for the same sort of outcome: a good return on his investment.

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