Analysis: Michael Bloomberg woos DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond



Georgia's presidential primary is still more than a month away, but current signs point to a Democratic donnybrook between former Vice President Joe Biden, if he can hang on through Super Tuesday, and Michael Bloomberg, the upstart billionaire and former mayor of New York.

You’re about to hear a lot about “stop-and-frisk.” And who is the best positioned to beat President Donald Trump.

That Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has been a top surrogate for Biden is well known. She’s anchored debate spin rooms and trekked to Iowa for the former vice president, whose future depends on continued out-sized support from African-Americans – particularly in the South.

But the Bloomberg campaign has made serious inroads into Georgia since its well-funded debut last month. It already boasts 53 paid on-the-ground staffers and a host of offices across the state.

Now Bloomberg has his own heavy artillery in the surrogate department. U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath of Marietta endorsed him on Wednesday. State Sen. Jen Jordan of Atlanta, a fast-rising star in the Legislature, has also endorsed the billionaire media executive. Even more important, the Bloomberg campaign is currently wooing DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond.

“How can one not be intrigued by his candidacy, non-traditional in so many aspects? But looking at the Democratic field, as it now stands, it’s clear that Michael Bloomberg will be a player throughout the primary season,” Thurmond said Friday morning on GPB’s “Political Rewind.”

“I’ve studied his policies and positions, particularly around jobs and economic development. I think there’s a tremendous upside opportunity. However, I’m still in those discussions,” he said.

So we may be headed for a two-candidate battle for the larger, more moderate wing of the Georgia Democratic party, with candidates Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and even Elizabeth Warren attempting to turn the March 24 primary into a wider brawl.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders lost Georgia to Hillary Clinton, 71% to 28%. So yes, a fracturing like the one we saw last week in New Hampshire – in which the Sanders camp scores a plurality — could happen here, too.

Beyond Stacey Abrams, who has thus far stayed out of the presidential contest, Bottoms and Thurmond are probably the two most important voices among Georgia Democrats. Both office-holders have pragmatic reputations. Traditionally, the mayor of Atlanta holds more sway at a national level. But DeKalb County contains the largest cache of Democratic voters in Georgia.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Since announcing his candidacy late last year, Bloomberg has spent hundreds of millions of dollars from coast to coast on TV and internet advertising – betting that Biden, the early frontrunner would stumble in the early going. And indeed, Biden finished fourth in Iowa and an even more disappointing fifth in New Hampshire.

South Carolina, which votes on Feb. 29, is the former vice president’s firewall. In Georgia, Bloomberg operators are already quietly touching base with Biden supporters – just in case that firewall doesn’t hold.

"The outreach has already begun," said Howard Franklin, senior adviser to the Bloomberg campaign in Georgia. Franklin is a managing partner in Ohio River South, a political consulting firm lodged in an old brick office building blocks away from both the state Capitol and City Hall.

Bloomberg made his Georgia debut in January with a rally at Paschal’s, the Atlanta soul food restaurant with a long civil rights legacy. Since then, Franklin has been fielding inquiries from undecided Democrats – especially fellow African-Americans.

On the plus side, Bloomberg’s philanthropic activities mesh well with Atlanta’s reputation as a hub for black entrepreneurs. There’s the Greenwood Initiative aimed at increasing home ownership and business ownership among African-Americans. His campaign spending includes a $3.5 million ad buy through the trade organization representing 230 black-owned newspapers.

“There’s so many hand prints, fingerprints of Bloomberg the man and the organization across the country that people don’t know about,” Franklin said. “On the merits, I think he’s got a really strong record of service that comports with what African-Americans – progressive, conservative, moderate or otherwise – what to see from their leadership.”

But then there’s “stop and frisk,” the policy that – during Bloomberg’s 12 years as mayor of New York – allowed police to stop millions of men of color on neighborhood streets without cause. Last November, before he launched his presidential campaign, Bloomberg stood before one of the largest African-American congregations in New York and apologized for the policy.

“I was wrong,” Bloomberg said. “And I am sorry.”

I asked Franklin how he approached the topic. “New York was going through an unprecedented crime surge, and a lot of it had to do with gun violence,” he said. “’Stop and frisk’ was already on the books from Mr. Bloomberg’s predecessor.” (Franklin couldn’t bring himself to name Rudy Giuliani.)

“This just seemed to be one of the tools in the tool kit that could be used to address this issue,” he continued.

But this was Franklin’s more important point: “I think it’s fair to grant an elected leader who happens to be the leader of a very diverse city – probably the most diverse city in the country – some grace on an issue like addressing crime prevention and keeping people safe,” he said. “This issue has cropped up when our leaders have been black, when our leaders have been white – any color, male, female, young or old. We haven’t quite figured out exactly the best way to make sure people feel both safe and their civil rights are protected.”

He’s not wrong.

In 2011, Mayor Kasim Reed ordered the fatigue-wearing, hard-charging Red Dog unit of the Atlanta police department disbanded. Joe Biden and many other former U.S. senators have lived to express regret for anti-drug legislation in the 1990s that filled prisons with African-American men.

But the timing of Bloomberg's apology may trouble some voters. An audio recording of a 2015 defense of "stop-and-frisk" by Bloomberg leaked this week. The next day, his campaign rolled out the endorsement of McBath, who lost her son to gun violence. Before her election to Congress in 2018, she was a spokeswoman for Everytown USA, an anti-gun violence group funded by Bloomberg.

“Mike gave grieving mothers like me a way to stand up and fight back. Nobody running for president has done more for the gun violence prevention movement than Mike,” McBath said in the press release.

In addition to Mayor Bottoms, any short list of Biden’s most important supporters in Georgia would include the names of state Reps. Calvin Smyre of Columbus and Billy Mitchell of Stone Mountain.

Both say they are rock-solid for the former vice president. “I’m sticking with Biden. This is a race that I think is going to go all the way to the convention,” said Smyre, who has been a member of the Legislature since 1974. This is his 10th presidential campaign, and he admits that “by far, this one is a little more complicated.”

Even so, Smyre is happy that Biden has put Iowa and New Hampshire behind him, and has moved into the more supportive arms of South Carolina.

Mitchell is the incoming president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. He’s brought 200 other NBCSL members into the Biden camp. “I’m not worried,” Mitchell said.

He dismisses the results of Iowa and New Hampshire. “We emphasize these two states more than they should be. New Hampshire, for instance. Dekalb County and Fulton County are bigger (1.8 million souls) than the entire state of New Hampshire (1.4 million),” Mitchell said.

I asked Mitchell if he might consider Bloomberg should Biden fall on March 3, when a coast-to-coast array of 14 money-sucking states hold their Super Tuesday primaries.

He’s not sure. “I don’t know Mike Bloomberg. I’ve never interacted with him – so I’m not going to be one of those who would immediately embrace him,” Mitchell said. “There’s a number of legislators — my colleagues from New York, and they don’t have good descriptions of him when he was mayor of New York.”


Note to readers: An earlier version of this post stated that Michael Thurmond had agreed to endorse Michael Bloomberg’s presidential bid. Thurmond said no formal endorsement has occurred yet.