Bloomberg Has Years of Experience Trying to Buy Elections. This Time He Isn’t Succeeding.

Mike Bloomberg has spent nearly half a billion dollars to try to buy the presidency.  But after yesterday—Super Tuesday, when fourteen states voted—it doesn’t look as though he’s going to be able to realize his investment by becoming the candidate of the Democratic Party.

I have really just begun to think seriously about the meaning of Bloomberg’s candidacy.  After all, I live in Ohio—not a Super Tuesday state.  Because our primary election isn’t until March 17, we have only this month begun to see the flood of Bloomberg’s ads.

I had started thinking back about what I know about Bloomberg’s takeover of the New York City Public Schools from 2002-2013. (See here and here.) But I had sort of forgotten that one of Bloomberg’s pet causes over the years has been contributing gobs of money to candidates all over the country who are strong supporters of charter schools. In a recent blog post, Diane Ravitch refreshed my memory that trying to buy elections isn’t a new practice for Michael Bloomberg,

Bloomberg didn’t invest exclusively in New York, where he lives and where he was mayor. Bloomberg has made large political donations, for example, to candidates for the local school boards in Oakland and Los Angeles, and to candidates in Louisiana competing to join the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Ravitch directs readers to a new report in Time Magazine, where Alana Semuels describes Bloomberg’s political investment habits when it comes to candidates running for positions that control public education policy: “Bloomberg’s money has gone especially far in California, where two ethnically and economically diverse school districts, Los Angeles and Oakland, have embraced charter schools. He gave $500,000 to the California Charter Schools Associations Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee in February of 2017, which in turn spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on two pro-charter candidates running for the Los Angeles Unified School District school board.  After that race—at the time, the most expensive school board race in U.S. history—pro-charter board members held the majority on the school board for the first time and then appointed Austin Beutner, a former investment banker with no experience running a school or a district, to be superintendent. Beutner is still superintendent of LAUSD, the second-largest school district in the U.S., after New York City’s.”

Semuels continues: “It’s become normal for billionaires to spend lots of money on political causes. In 2010, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision overturned restrictions on independent expenditures and opened the door for groups like Families and Educators for Public Education to receive unlimited amounts of money.” Semuels tells the story of a special education teacher, Chris Jackson, who ran for the Oakland Unified School Board in the fall of 2016: “(A) few weeks before the election, Bloomberg gave $300,000 to the political action committee sponsored by Go Public Schools Advocates, an Oakland-based nonprofit that supports charter schools. The committee, Families and Educators for Public Education, then spent $153,000 in support of James Harris, Jackson’s opponent. Dwarfed by funding, Jackson watched as the PAC paid for web ads and campaign literature and phone banking for Harris, and then as it posted an attack ad about Jackson on Facebook…  Bloomberg was not the only donor to Families and Educators for Public Education, but his $300,000 stands out.  In the campaign-finance records, there are pages upon pages of donors who gave $10 or $25 apiece; the second-biggest contribution on the filing in which Bloomberg’s donation was disclosed  was $250 from a retiree.”

In an in-depth, NY Times investigation, Alexander Burns and  describe Bloomberg’s donations to support the campaigns of pro-charter school candidates running for office in Louisiana: “A champion of charter schools, Mr. Bloomberg has used his wealth in numerous ways to sway education policy in Louisiana… As mayor, he began giving relatively small donations, several thousand dollars each, to candidates in Louisiana school board races.  But that investment sharply increased after former New York City deputy schools chancellor, John White, became Louisiana’s state education chief in 2012. Mr. Bloomberg has made more than $5 million in political donations in the state, including $3.6 million to Empower Louisiana, an education-focused political committee chaired by a powerful Republican donor… Over the same period, Mr. Bloomberg gave nearly $15 million to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to promote charter schools…”

It’s hard to be sure exactly how much Mike Bloomberg has spent to build political support for charter schools.  The California Bay Area, Mercury News reported in February of 2020 that Bloomberg has spent over $7 million on contributions to candidates and pro-charter school organizations in California alone.  But not all of the money Bloomberg contributed to the coffers of pro-charter school candidates bought Bloomberg those elections.  The Mercury News reports that Bloomberg gave $3.5 million to a pro-charter school PAC supporting, Antonio Villaraigosa for governor in 2018, but Villaraigosa was defeated by California’s current Governor Gavin Newsom.  And Bloomberg donated $528,000 to Marshall Tuck, the president of Green Dot Charter Schools, and a PAC supporting his campaign in 2014 and 2018.  Tuck ran in both elections for the post of California Superintendent of Public Instruction. He  was defeated in 2014 by Tom Torlakson and in 2018 by Tony Thurmond, who has worked to improve oversight of the state’s out-of-control charter school sector.

Yesterday’s Super Tuesday election results should reassure us that even the ninth richest man in the world still can’t buy an election in the United States any more than he can always purchase candidates who will flood the states and the nation’s biggest cities with charter schools. Despite that our society would appear in many ways to have lost its morals and its principles, and despite that we may still get four more years of Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, it ought to be at least a little encouraging that one billionaire can’t yet seem to be able—flat-out—to buy the presidency with television, facebook and twitter advertising.