City

How Mike Bloomberg Ate Joe Biden’s Lunch in Philadelphia

The former veep loves Philly so much, he put his headquarters here. Now he’s reeling, Bloomberg has our town wired, and Mike Nutter is trying to defend those controversial statements about stop-and-frisk. Scenes from a political earthquake.


mike bloomberg joe biden

Here’s how Mike Bloomberg ate Joe Biden’s lunch in Philly. | Bloomberg photo courtesy the Mike Bloomberg campaign

This article started out as a fairly pro forma Gee Whiz Joe Biden Chose Philly For His National Campaign Headquarters What Do All The Local Politicos And Party Pooh-Bahs Think Of That? story — you know, the kind of article you write when the former Vice President of the United States chooses your town for the headquarters of his last ditch, legacy-defining, Hail Mary campaign to take out a sitting president in a sudden death match that will decide the future of American democracy itself. So I made some calls and started asking the pooh-bahs why here?

Ed Rendell — two-term Pennsylvania governor, two-term mayor of Philly and current Biden proxy — points out that Biden is a native son, born and raised in Scranton before his family moved to Delaware, where he served as a senator for 36 years. Technically speaking, Biden repped the Diamond State on Capital Hill, but given his geographic and ideological proximity and all the legislative alliances he forged as a result, Biden was widely regarded as Pennsylvania’s de facto “Third Senator.”

Neil Oxman, vaunted poli-sci guru and co-founder of the Campaign Group, which has consulted on more 600 campaigns, seconds that. “Wilmington is 29 miles away; New Castle County is just another county in the Philadelphia media market,” he says. “If you’re from Wilmington, you’re an Eagles fan, you’re a Phillies fan, you’re a Flyers fan, you’re a Sixers fan, and you are essentially just the suburbs of Philly. It is no different from Bucks County or something.”

Larry Ceisler, communications wizard and principal of Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy, as well as a hawk-eyed observer of the various intrigues of the political class, notes that Philly is the locus of some of the Democratic Party’s most connected money men — Ballard Spahr heavy hitter Ken Jarin, Comcast majordomo David Cohen, Duane Morris super lawyer Alan Kessler — all of whom got on board the Biden train before it left the station.

And because they would be remiss to do otherwise, everyone I speak with dutifully points out the gravely self-evident: All roads to the White House pass through Pennsylvania, which, as Trump’s 2016 victory taught us the hard way, now includes the flyover country of Pennsyltucky in the electoral calculus. Okay, got it. Bada bing bada boom, my work is done here, right? Well, a funny thing happened on the way to my deadline: the Bloomberg Blitz.

As you may have noticed if you’ve been near a TV recently and it was turned on and dialed in to pretty much any channel, ever since Mike Bloomberg formally announced his intention back in November to throw his hat into the Dem presidential ring, he’s been aggressively prosecuting a coast-to-coast air campaign, carpet-bombing swing states and inflection points all along the primary map with a vast arsenal of pithy, pointed anti-Trump television spots that run with the kind of ubiquity and perpetuity you’d have to be a billionaire many times over to bankroll. His 60-second Super Bowl ad alone cost $10 million. But it just so happens that Bloomberg, captain of industry and three-term mayor of New York City, is the ninth richest man on Earth, according to Forbes’s 2019 ranking of the world’s 2,153 billionaires, with a net worth just south of $60 billion. When you get to that level of wealth, buying the American presidency outright — which was unthinkable before Citizens United — is, in the grand scheme of billionaire things, chump change. Bloomberg could single-handedly bankroll the next 10 American presidencies at a cost of a billion per term and still be among the 10 richest men alive. Think about it: If each candidate wins two terms, that’s nearly a century’s worth of American presidents chosen by one guy.

“He is spending more money on television than Apple or Microsoft or Ford or GM or McDonald’s,” says Oxman. “Between now and the convention, that [media] buy will approach a billion dollars — a billion with a ‘b’! His marketing is the best; his spots are the best spots on TV. The guy’s already in third. He’s only been doing this in a serious way for two months, and he’s already one point behind Biden.”

While Bloomberg’s ads always have Trump in the crosshairs, the real target all along has been Biden, who has enjoyed front-runner and presumptive nominee status in national polls since kicking off his campaign back in May with a rally at the foot of the Art Museum steps. Tanned, rested, flashing his trademark thousand-watt grin, and clearly still basking in the reflected glow of Obama’s halo, Biden radiated a gentle decency and warmth, not to mention stability, that both contrasted sharply with his presumptive opponent and resonated with his no-frills/no-thrills back-to-the-future message: Let’s Make America 2008 Again. And despite the occasional gaffe (to be expected; he is, after all, the LeBron James of putting your foot in your mouth, and we love him for it) and unmistakable signs that, at 77, he has “lost a step,” as the euphemism goes, Uncle Joe had an aura of soft-spoken inevitability, all the while rocking his badass midnight black aviators, with his malarkey meter set for kill.

But the sad fact is, the Dem faithful’s support for Biden’s candidacy has had a slow leak for the better part of the past year. Back in the April 2019 Quinnipiac poll, 38 percent of Dems named Biden as their top choice for the nomination; by November, that support had fallen to 24 percent, and by the beginning of February, it had deflated to just 17 percent. And this is to say nothing of the shellackings he just took in Iowa and New Hampshire. “His status as The Only Guy That Can Beat Trump seems to be eroding,” says Oxman.

In a direct inverse of Biden’s descent, Bloomberg has slowly but surely risen in the polls from the single-digit sub-basement to 15 percent, just two clicks behind the former vice president in the latest polling. It was a telling study in contrast the night of the disastrous Iowa caucus, which unwittingly made the Democratic Party and all who sail on her look to all the world like a confederacy of dunces. While Biden was trapped in his Des Moines hotel-room purgatory, bracing for the bad news of a fourth-place finish that wouldn’t officially come in for days — an eternity in the age of nanosecond attention spans and blitzkrieg news cycles — Bloomberg was rallying the troops at a splashy soiree at the National Constitution Center, complete with DJ, wine bar and light show, that drew 2,000 people, according to the campaign’s crowd estimate.

From the looks of things, Bloomberg has outflanked Biden in the local ground war. While Biden has almost no public-facing campaign infrastructure in Philly beyond his mysterious national headquarters, the exact location of which remains a closely guarded secret (reportedly “somewhere in the Center Square building”), Bloomberg has opened a state headquarters on Arch and a volunteer field office on North 3rd in Old City that’s already hosting phone banks and Quizzo nights. With its soft lighting, high-shine hardwood floors and tastefully exposed brick walls, the place could be a Brooklyn fern bar — if not for the PHILLY LIKES MIKE 2020 signs that plaster every available surface.

There are plans to open a second field office somewhere in Northwest Philly in the coming days, as well as satellite offices in Bucks County, West Chester, Ardmore, and Media. Statewide, there are Bloomberg field offices in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, with more on the way, and a paid staff of 35 with boots already on the ground, plus plans to staff up to 100 by the end of February. So you can see why this story about Vice President Biden siting his national HQ in Philly morphed into a Mike Bloomberg Is Eating Joe Biden’s Lunch In Philly story faster than you can say “lying dog-faced pony soldier.”

There’s one more piece to Bloomberg’s ground game that proved to be a prescient and invaluable asset this week: Michael Nutter. The former three-term Philadelphia City Councilman and two-term mayor has signed on as national political co-chair for Bloomberg’s campaign, and since November, he’s been crisscrossing the nation, coalition-building and preaching the Gospel of Mike, which essentially comes down to this: Mike Will Get It Done. Which is to say, Bloomberg can and will beat Trump, and he’s willing and able to spend whatever it takes to make the Donald a one-term president.

“We told people what we were going to do early on: run a general-election-style national campaign during the early primary season,” Nutter told me just hours before the news cycle was rocked earlier this week by a damning 2015 tape in which Bloomberg defended stop-and-frisk. “We opened our first office in Philly in December, and we are building from the ground up a full-fledged campaign all across the state of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia is certainly critical, as are the Philly suburbs, but we’re not taking anything for granted. We will be active on the ground all across the state. We are confident the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is through the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

“In addition, we are fully staffed in every Super Tuesday state. We are staffed in nearly 40 states, 2,100 paid staff. With all due respect to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada [all states where Bloomberg is not on the ballot],  they’re less than 3.9 percent of the delegates. Super Tuesday represents 60 percent of the delegates. We’ve been up on television, radio, digital, social media, just about any place that you could see or hear something about a political campaign. And last week, we announced a doubling of our ad spend.”

The unspoken subtext of Nutter’s pitch is this: Unlike the current occupant of the White House, Mike Bloomberg isn’t a raging asshole; he’s an aggressively rational, cool-handed, data-driven technocrat who gets results. There are those, however, who will make the case that he is racist. Exhibit A is that damning 2015 tape, which was unearthed by a podcaster and Bernie supporter named Benjamin Dixon. On the tape, Bloomberg explains why he considers stop-and-frisk an essential tool for reducing crime and gun violence in minority neighborhoods: “Ninety-five percent of murders — murderers and murder victims fit one M.O. You can just take a description, Xerox it, and pass it out to all the cops. They are male, minorities, 16 to 25. That’s true in New York, that’s true in virtually every city. [inaudible] And that’s where the real crime is. You’ve got to get the guns out of the hands of people that are getting killed.”

Ed Rendell defends the remark. “I don’t think that reflects that Mike Bloomberg is a racist. He is a very data-driven politician, and that was a data-driven answer.” Agree with him or not, you’ve got to respect the integrity of Rendell’s opinion and the courage of his convictions, because it does Joe Biden no favors if Rendell helps Bloomberg get his dick out of a bear trap. This is where my Mike Bloomberg Is Eating Joe Biden’s Lunch In Philly story turns into a Stop-And-Frisk Is Really Really Complicated story.

So I gEt Nutter back on the phone to tell Bloomberg’s side of it. But before we get to that, if you’re from out of town or new to Philly or haven’t read a newspaper for, like, the past 12 years, you should know two things: First, Mike Nutter is African American. Second, like Bloomberg, when Mike Nutter became mayor in 2008, he inherited a homicide rate viciously spiraling out of control. Here in Philly, there were 391 murders annually and counting, earning us the unwelcome nom de guerre Killadelphia, which, as you might imagine, looked terrible in tourism ads. By the time Mike Nutter left office in 2016, he had reduced the number of homicides in Philadelphia by 32 percent. By the time Mike Bloomberg left office in 2013, he had reduced the number of homicides in New York City by 40 percent.

When I get Nutter on the phone, it’s clear he’s in damage-control mode and has already gotten his “everyone chill the fuck out” ducks in a row. “This is a tape from 2015; that’s five years ago. We know from his comments, end of this year into this year, he has evolved; he has acknowledged the damage,” he intones calmly and methodically. “All the while trying to reduce crime in communities of color in New York City, where, unfortunately, most of the crime was taking place. He has acknowledged he made a mistake and didn’t take action soon enough. By the time Mike left office, there were 95 percent less stops than when he took office.”

Let’s put Mayor Nutter on pause for a sec while I provide some much-needed context here. First, Mike Bloomberg was the mayor of New York City from 2003 to 2013. According to statistics assembled by the New York Civil Liberties Union, there were 160,851 stop-and-frisk police stops in 2003, the year Bloomberg took office. In 2011, at the end of his second term, there were 685,724 stop-and-frisks. In 2013, the year Bloomberg left office, the number of stop-and-frisks had dropped to 191,851. Second, the reduction in stop-and-frisk numbers was court-ordered by a federal judge, and Bloomberg fought it tooth and nail before crying uncle.

Now, back to Mayor Nutter: Last year there were 356 homicides in Philadelphia, compared to 319 in New York, which has a population nearly 5.6 times as large as Philadelphia, he tells me. “His focus was on public safety. He thought 600 homicides annually was too many and vowed to do something about it. Stop-and-frisk was already in place in New York when Mike came into office, just as it was in Philadelphia when I came into office. Neither of us started it, but when done properly, it is an effective tool for changing the culture of violence. For getting people to stop carrying guns, which really is the primary focus of stop-and-frisk, because when you don’t have a gun, you can’t shoot somebody.”

Nutter goes on to speculate about the provenance of the tape: “It is more than a coincidence that Bloomberg’s continued rise in the polls did not go unnoticed by other campaigns, especially the Trump campaign, and that Mike Bloomberg is the number-one threat to his re-election,” he tells me. “The tape is the tape and his comments are his comments, but we are going to be subject to attacks. That’s what campaigns do when a rival candidate is gaining ground. It’s politics; that’s what happens.”

I ask Nutter if he’s ever been racially profiled by the police. He goes quiet, and then, after a pregnant pause, says: “I was stopped as a teenager. Don’t know what was in the mind of the officers at the time, but as a young black man growing up in West Philadelphia, it was always on my mind. When I was a member of City Council, I was the one who created the Police Advisory Commission in my first year, because of experiences I had as a young black man in Philadelphia. I was stopped by police while I was a member of City Council. I don’t know why. I had a suit and tie on and was driving a civilian vehicle. I’ve been stopped since. What can I say? It does happen. The question is, how do we restore the African American community’s trust in the police? People want to feel safe, want to be protected; they just don’t want to be abused.”

Before I let Nutter go deal with the mountain of media requests for comment about the stop-and-frisk tape that have come in over the course of our conversation, I ask him what he makes of the galling irony of the most blatantly, unapologetically bigoted president in modern memory, if not all of American history, calling Mike Bloomberg a racist on Twitter. He laughs hard and long and finally says: “There is no bottom with him, no depth that Donald Trump won’t lower himself to. Donald Trump lies about lying. It’s beyond pot calling the kettle black. It’s beyond the beyond.”