Michael Bloomberg on Friday brushed back critiques about his wealth and bristled at the suggestion that he was using it to buy success in the 2020 presidential race, arguing that other Democrats who have complained about his entry into their party’s primary could have taken it upon themselves to earn their own personal fortunes, as he had done.
In a television interview, Bloomberg’s first since he announced his presidential campaign, the billionaire and former mayor of New York City rejected the idea that he had an unfair advantage, saying that while other candidates asked donors for money, he had made his money himself and then given most of it away.
“I turn and they’re criticizing me for it,” he said to Gayle King on “CBS This Morning.” “They had a chance to go out and make a lot of money. And how much of their own money do they put into their campaigns?”
“I’m doing exactly the same thing they’re doing, except that I am using my own money,” he added. “They’re using somebody else’s money, and those other people expect something from them. Nobody gives you money if they don’t expect something. And I don’t want to be bought.”
The interview with Bloomberg, 77, covered a wide range of topics, including the candidate’s recent apology for having defended so called stop-and-frisk policing as mayor of New York. Asked about the timing of his about-face, Bloomberg asserted that “nobody asked me about it until I started running for president.”
Discussing his reasons for entering the race, he said he worried that if other Democrats took on President Donald Trump in a general election, Trump would “eat ’em up.” He described one of those Democratic hopefuls, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, as “very well-spoken,” a phrase that quickly drew criticism as belittling of a black politician.
In addressing his wealth and the way he has deployed it to help him play catch-up after his late entry into the race, Bloomberg confronted the central critique of his candidacy that his Democratic rivals have deployed early on: that he is seeking to “buy” the election and the presidency. Bloomberg, who built a successful financial information and media company, spent more than $30 million on his first week of advertising as a candidate last month — far more than the entire rest of the Democratic field spent that week.
For months, progressive candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have criticized billionaires, saying the rich have not paid their fair share in taxes and proposing a tax on wealth to help pay for the wide-ranging government programs they have pledged to install if elected.
Warren and Sanders, two of the leading candidates in the race, have shunned high-dollar fundraising events, relying instead on smaller contributions from grassroots supporters and arguing that such a strategy prevents influence by wealthy donors.
Warren took aim at another top-tier candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, on Thursday night, calling on him to open his fundraising events to the news media. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the leader in national polling of the primary contest, has allowed journalists to attend his private fundraisers.
In his interview, Bloomberg said he did not come from money and noted that his “father made $6,000 the best year of his life.”
“Nobody gave me a head start,” he said.
Still, the power of money in elections has been on full display in the 2020 race, as candidates have scrambled to meet donation and polling thresholds in order to qualify for the Democratic National Committee’s televised debates. Another billionaire, Tom Steyer, got into the race relatively late but has spent millions of dollars on advertising and other resources that have helped him become one of just six people in a 15-person field to qualify for the debate this month.
The surprise departure this week of Sen. Kamala Harris of California from the race has forced the Democratic Party to grapple with the possibility of having only white candidates on the stage in Los Angeles and prompted some candidates of color — like Booker and the former housing secretary Julián Castro — to sound an alarm about the diversity of the field.
Asked about Booker and the concerns he had raised, Bloomberg praised the senator’s ideas but said the current makeup of the field did not worry him.
“If you wanted to enter and run for president of the United States, you could have done that. But don’t complain to me that you’re not in the race. It was up to you,” he said. “I thought there was a lot of diversity in the group of Democratic aspirants. Entry is not a barrier.”
Bloomberg’s description of Booker as “well-spoken” ricocheted on social media and on morning radio talk shows. Asked about the comments Friday morning on “Signal Boost,” a radio program on SiriusXM, Booker said he was “taken aback.”
“It’s sort of stunning at times that we are still revisiting these tired tropes or the language we have out there that folks I don’t think understand — and the fact that they don’t understand is problematic,” Booker said, also noting that his relationship with Bloomberg dates to when they both were mayors.
At another point, Bloomberg agreed with King that his longtime companion, Diana Taylor, would be a “de facto” first lady. He said he had been living with Taylor for 19 years, which would not change if he became president.
Bloomberg’s interview aired one day after he released a sweeping plan on gun control, putting an issue on which he has a long record at the center of his emerging candidacy. He said Friday that the National Rifle Association, whose leadership has been in turmoil, “has basically been beaten.”
Bloomberg’s gun-control plan, which calls for a national gun licensing system and stricter background checks, among a host of other measures, represents some of the most left-leaning views of a candidate who is something of an ideological moderate. Bloomberg described himself in the interview as “a social liberal, fiscal moderate, who is basically nonpartisan.”
Bloomberg, who was elected mayor first as a Republican and then as an independent, and who registered as a Democrat more recently, has given millions of dollars to groups and candidates who he believes share his goals, including Republicans.
He delivered a speech just before kicking off his campaign in which he apologized for the controversial stop-and-frisk policing tactics that he defended as mayor. Under the program, officers stopped, questioned and often searched people on the street millions of times. The vast majority of those stopped were young black and Latino men, even though they were no more likely than white people to be arrested as a result.
In the interview, King pressed him on his assertion that “nobody” had asked him about his position on the tactics until he began his presidential run. He responded by once again expressing remorse.
“I’m sorry. I apologize,” he said. “Let’s go fight the NRA.”