RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg headlined a Democratic event in Virginia Saturday night, hoping to win the state come Super Tuesday despite his history with controversial actions and statements on race.
“If we want to beat Donald Trump in 2020, we absolutely must win this Commonwealth,” said Bloomberg to the loudest applause of the night; a request for support to campaign for him after the Trump threat required a “yes, you can applaud for that.”
He also mentioned Richmond’s history as a slave trading town, calling it among the state’s darkest past where “thousands of slaves were bought and sold and separated from their loved ones.”
“That history is one of the reasons America felt so much pain when President Trump said ‘very fine people’ of the Nazis and Klansmen who marched to Charlottesville,” he said, channeling the August 2017 Unite the Right rally that left one woman dead. “But as painful as that moment was, it was galvanizing because Virginia, and across the country, Americans said we cannot accept that.”
The crowd, again, remained tepid.
Roars returned when he mentioned the success of the Democratic Party in turning the state’s Legislature blue for the first time in 20 years – something he helped with his influx of cash – but it once again got mum when he addressed one of the elephants in the room: stop-and-frisk.
“There is one practice I deeply regret,” he said, after discussing his success in reducing gun violence in New York City, of the controversial practice which targeted people of color for aggressive searches with staggeringly low prosecution rates. “I defended it too long cause I didn’t understand the pain it caused to black and brown kids and their families.”
“For that I apologize,” he added. “I can’t change history, but I can learn lessons and use that to change.“
While Virginia hasn’t had a specific program like stop-and-frisk, the state’s history of racism is still a fresh wound, and as former Vice President Joe Biden has faded in popularity, his long-time link with the black community appears to be waning. According to polling, black Democrats are looking at Bloomberg as an alternative.
A Feb. 10 Quinnipiac University national poll put the billionaire businessman’s support within the black community around 22%, second only to Biden’s 27%.
And a Florida poll put Bloomberg even higher with black voters at 28%, even beating Biden in the state by almost 2 points. Sanders came in fifth.
While black voters make up only a portion of primary voters, they are still key in southern states where they can make up large portions of primary voters.
But what puzzles activists is where black support for Bloomberg is coming from.
In the last few weeks, video and audio has surfaced showing the former New York mayor touting the success of his stop-and-frisk program, as recently as 2015.
He also claimed Congress’s rollback of redlining, the practice of denying bank loans to people of color, literally outlining their neighborhoods in red to show the danger of lending to them, helped cause the 2008 economic downturn.
“It all started back when there was a lot of pressure on banks to make loans to everyone,” said the candidate in a September 2008 Georgetown University event. “Congress got involved — local elected officials, as well — and said, ‘Oh, that’s not fair, these people should be able to get credit.’ And once you started pushing in that direction, banks started making more and more loans where the credit of the person buying the house wasn’t as good as you would like.”
The historic Main Street train station where Bloomberg spoke is in the heart of Richmond’s historically redlined downtown.
There’s also the collection of sexual harassment claims he and his companies have faced. ABC News counted at least 17 cases in the last 30 years, with some being dismissed, others settled out of court and a few more still being litigated.
Outside Richmond’s Main Street train station, anti-Bloomberg protesters lined the streets.
Allan-Charles Chipman, an organizer with Initiatives For Change USA based in Richmond, came out to express his disgust at Bloomberg’s success so far.
A black man who grew up in Baltimore, he said he was familiar with the political tactics Bloomberg championed.
“The fact that we celebrated Fredrick Douglas’s birthday on February 14th, and the day after [Virginia Democrats) are platforming someone such as Bloomberg, given his record,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. Trump-lite isn’t going to beat Trump.”
But Bloomberg has tried to apologize or distance himself from these controversial comments. At a campaign event earlier this week in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he said his comments and actions then did not reflect the way he governed.
“I’ve led the most diverse city in the country and the public there elected me and reelected me two other times,” he told reporters.
Ravi Perry, Chair of Howard University’s Department of Political Science, said he could understand the gains Bloomberg has had in the black community. Black primary voters especially are some of the most fervent and ardent members, he said, but they tend to be older women and historically cautious and more moderate.
“In the 2008 election, Most black people were behind Hillary Clinton,” Perry said in a phone interview, noting how little was known about then-Senator Barack Obama. “It wasn’t until Obama got white validation’ by winning Iowa that black folks began to pay attention.”
And as for Bloomberg’s history with racism, Perry isn’t too surprised to hear black voters overlooking that too.
“It’s not a new phenomenon to think a white politician would further discrimination against black and brown folks,” he said.
But don’t think the decision to back Bloomberg comes from any place but a desire to win. Perry said the black community has been living with a rich white man in the White House for much longer than not, so if they have to have one more for another four years, as long as it’s not Trump who has decimated public services, public schools and other urban support systems, then that’s just another hurdle in the short term.
“[The black community] might not like it, but we’re used to it,” he said, noting some black folks see getting rid of Trump as a do-or-die scenario and, in Bloomberg and his money, they see a possible win.
Bloomberg’s Virginia stop isn’t a huge surprise either. He wasn’t even on ballots in early primary states, so he instead invested heavily in Super Tuesday options like Virginia. He’s reportedly spent $350 million of his own money on ads and infrastructure so far, including a campaign office in downtown Richmond.
He’s also got a history of campaign spending in the state, with over $100,000 donated to Democrats in 2013 and again in 2019, according to the money in politics tracker the Virginia Public Access Project. And his climate-based action fund Beyond Carbon spent over $600,000 on two Norfolk-area House races, for Democrats Shelly Simonds and Nancy Guy, in 2019. Both candidates, who were white women, won.
According to Bloomberg’s press release, Guy has endorsed his bid.
But that money doesn’t appear to have influenced other elected officials in the state.
Democratic Congressman Donald McEachin, VA-4, took to Twitter Friday to post multiple stories about Bloomberg’s controversial past and went as far as questioning why he was invited to host Saturday’s event.
The congressman, who is black, detailed one time the former mayor claimed Obama was partially to blame for racial divisions in 2016, calling it “unbelievable.”
“Mr. Mayor you tout your so called ‘relationship’ with President Obama now…but you weren’t there for us in 2008 and most of 2012. Now you want us with you…NO!” McEachin said in another tweet atop a story about a campaign ad hoping to align Bloomberg with Obama.
But Virginia’s history with race – both recent and over the last 400 years – is also nagging at activists. In February 2019, after a college yearbook photo showed the state’s Democratic Governor Ralph Northam either in black face or a KKK hood, he’s all but disappeared from the political spotlight.
He resisted calls to resign and has instead phoned in an agenda via press releases and meetings at the Governor’s Mansion supporting laws that address issues that impact the state’s black population – from criminal justice reform to marijuana and efforts to remove civil war monuments.
But even before Democrats took the state’s Legislature for the first time in over two decades this past November, voters in the state – 48 vs 42 – were ready to give Northam a pass, according to another Quinnipiac poll released shortly after the photo was made public.
“Two wrongs don’t make it right,” said Chipman, holding a hot pink sign emblazoned with “Mike is not a Democrat.”
“This is the second Black History Month where corporate Democrats have messed things up,” he added.
Is Bloomberg’s words, or his money, enough to earn that same level of forgiveness given to Northam? Voters in Virginia will decide on March 3, 2020.