CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) – According to presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, the rally he held Wednesday in Chattanooga on the first day of early voting for that state’s primary went better than expected.
Supporters – many who had already cast ballots in the primary’s early voting period – filled the room where New York City’s former mayor spoke, some with pieces of grass – roots and all – pinned to yellow name tags.
Others draped white campaign T-shirts over their shoulders. They crowded into a spillover room. A few hundred more stood outside on a soggy lawn in a drizzle. About 1,100 in all, according to Bloomberg.
Before his speech, Bloomberg stepped outside the Bessie Smith Cultural Center to address those gathered, including the group standing on the sidewalk with signs decrying the stop-and-frisk policies employed by New York City cops while he was mayor.
“I’m really speechless, but I’m also embarrassed that we don’t have more room inside,” Bloomberg said.
Some gathered outside chanted for Bernie Sanders. Inside as the rally began, a woman with grey curly hair interrupted it. “That is not Democracy! That is a plutocracy!” she said before jumping on stage.
Bloomberg’s name was absent from the ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire. He did not file to be on the ballot in Nevada.
As other hopefuls for the Democratic nomination for president dig out of New Hampshire and take their chances in Nevada’s primary Saturday, Bloomberg focused on a city that does not normally get much attention from presidential campaigns: Chattanooga, once regarded as gateway to the Deep South.
At the end of January, Bloomberg set up a campaign headquarters in the city of 180,000 and hired three, full-time staff members from the area.
In the narrow room that is the headquarters’ office space, wrinkled, star-shaped balloons float near a wall of Mike Bloomberg yard signs. A white board hanging at one of four cubicles announces there’s only 21 days until Super Tuesday.
By the end of the week, the Bloomberg campaign expects to open seven headquarters across Tennessee, according to Holly McCall, a campaign spokeswoman. In 2016, Hillary Clinton hired three full-time staffers in Nashville ahead of Super Tuesday. Bloomberg has hired 45 statewide.
Some Tennessee Democrats hope Bloomberg’s presence in the state will come with a lasting impact that will help Democrats make a better showing and win down ballot races for years to come in the state that voted for President Donald Trump by a 20-point margin in 2016.
Speaking to the crowd in Chattanooga, Bloomberg called himself the “Un-Trump” and said he planned to visit all 50 states during his campaign in order to stress unity.
“Donald Trump’s insults do not bother me,” Bloomberg said. “I’ve never run away from a fight and I can just tell you he’s not going to bully me … and I won’t let him bully you either.”
Earlier in the week, Bloomberg faced criticism regarding comments he made at the Aspen Institute in 2015 that included, for instance, comments defending the city’s policy of stop and frisk because it reduced the number of guns carried by young male minorities.
Speaking to reporters in a museum devoted to black history in Chattanooga after the rally, Bloomberg expressed regret about the comments.
“Those words don’t reflect the way that I’ve governed or the way that I run my company or the way that I live. I’ve led the most diverse city in the country and the public there elected me and reelected me two other times,” he said.
McCall said, based on her own experience running for office in the state, it would be ambitious to flip the state blue. However, the Bloomberg campaign is hoping to do better than Democratic candidates usually do.
McCall said the campaign is trying to create a “blue wall” in the Volunteer State, something it hopes will help state races and the race for the Senate seat vacated by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander.
“For the last 40 years, there really has not been much attention paid to the South at all,” McCall said. “Republicans haven’t paid attention because they figure they’re going to win. Democrats have kind of given up. And he, again, has been very clear about his investment in the South is to try to help down-ballot candidates as well as himself or whoever the Democratic nominee is.”
McCall, who once ran for the state Democratic Party chair position, says the state party has lacked resources in the past – particularly in funding. And the Bloomberg campaign may provide some of the support a state party typically provides.
In September, the Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini told a reporter she had not considered how to do things differently in order to build the Democratic Party in the state, which earned at least one call for her to step down, as reported by Cari Wade Gervin of the Dog and Pony Show.
Mancini did not respond to Courthouse News’ request for comment.
Lawrence Miller, secretary for the Democratic Party of Hamilton County, said that Bloomberg seems to be building a ground game similar to that of Barack Obama in 2008.
“Democratic voters sat out the 2016 election cycle and we lost local races as a result,” Miller said.
While Chattanooga is a blue city, Miller thinks county races can become competitive once again. Key local races are coming up in 2021 and 2022, he said, races that require preparation now.
However, Scott Golden, chair of the Tennessee Republican Party said the chances of Bloomberg flipping Tennessee blue in the general is “zero.” But his strategy may serve him well in the primaries.
“For the main candidates, I don’t know when the last time that they were here in Tennessee,” Golden said. “Most of them, quite frankly, have been shooting through Nashville when they came.”
But he’s skeptical of Bloomberg’s hiring and offices in the Volunteer State.
“There’s a difference between motion and momentum, right? You can buy all the AstroTurf you can afford but the question is, are there people really behind that?” Golden asked.
Dr. Elenora Woods, president of the Chattanooga chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, does not fault Bloomberg for his stop-and-frisk policies. He did what he had to do to reduce the murder rate 50%, Woods told Courthouse News before the rally.
Woods, a dentist, said Bloomberg’s focus on funding public schools, for instance, helps close the economic gap for black families.
“Black people stay at home and don’t vote because nobody showed interest in them. … He’s showing interest,” Woods said.
Introducing Bloomberg at the rally, Woods said she had already cast her early ballot in support for him.
“Who better to fight a billionaire than a billionaire?” Woods said.