When people think about the political relevance of Michael Bloomberg’s money, they tend to think about how his massive spending helps his campaigns: the record $261 million he spent on his three successful mayoral runs, the billions he could end up spending on his quest for the presidency. What people often miss is that Bloomberg actually spent more of his own money boosting his policy efforts in city hall than he did to get there.
Part of Bloomberg’s presidential sales pitch is that his personal wealth—he’s worth an estimated $56 billion—makes him incorruptible. Not only is he unbribeable; being rich enough to never take political contributions, he can assume office unbeholden to donors. But Bloomberg is so rich that he shifts the direction of potential influence: Donors may not be able to buy influence, but he can use his wealth to push things in the directions he wants.
Bloomberg spent extensively as mayor of New York. He gave massive sums to nonprofit organizations and arts groups. He contributed enormous amounts in political donations out of his personal bank account. (Most politicians make political donations out of their campaign accounts or PACs.) He funded nonprofit organizations that boosted his policy agenda. When church groups or community organizations threatened to get noisy in opposition to him or his programs, he wrote checks that tended to quiet them down. (Top Democrats were known to tease black ministers who got only $25,000 for their churches, when peers who’d held out longer received $50,000—the deal was that these ministers didn’t have to support him, but if they wanted the checks to keep coming, they needed to stay neutral.) His company, Bloomberg LP, made many corporate contributions that lined up with his political interests. The money kept coming and coming and coming and coming. It broke logjams, and overcame institutional resistance. His money allowed him to drown out the opposition—and often made potential rivals hold their tongue. The timely and balanced budgets Bloomberg touted each year in PowerPoint presentations were enabled in part by spending cuts to groups that were then made whole again by the most transparent of anonymous donations. The money he spent led to fewer protests, and deals that were easier to make.