On back-to-back days last week, Hugh McColl attended invitation-only gatherings for his preferred presidential candidate. The 84-year-old former Bank of America CEO still draws a room full of influential people when they know he’ll be there. Local and national candidates jockey for his support each election season.
The meetings are different this year. For one, McColl has a personal relationship with his candidate. They’ve met several times over the years in various settings, from rounds of golf at Augusta National to boardroom discussions about community policing in New York. But what really makes this presidential primary season strange in a room full of potential donors is that the candidate doesn’t want McColl’s money. Or anybody else’s, for that matter.
Michael Bloomberg is worth about $60 billion and is funding his own campaign.
At the gatherings last week, McColl watched as guests fumbled to figure out what to do with their wallets.
“It’s actually caused a little bit of trouble. Some people think if we could all give him money we’d all be on the same page,” McColl told me on Sunday.
“But what people find distasteful, that he’s not asking for money, I think is fine. I want a president who doesn’t owe anybody anything.”
Bloomberg’s campaign confounds a lot of people, from devoted supporters of his opponents to his own fans. But as North Carolina voters line up to join 14 states in next week’s Super Tuesday primary, it’s very clear that Charlotte is crucial in determining whether he’ll be a blip or a force in the rest of the 2020 election.
Clear, as in he has a 17,000-square-foot state headquarters on North Tryon Street. Clear, as in he paid the $83,335.34 in rent up front for several months in the space. Clear, as in he hired a Charlotte city council member, James “Smuggie” Mitchell, to run the statewide campaign.
Few cities are better suited for Bloomberg than Charlotte, the country’s second-largest banking center and a place where corporate leaders have doubled as civic leaders for decades. In fact, Charlotte may be the siren city of his campaign: If he doesn’t perform here, he’s not likely to perform anywhere.
Partly because of his presence and partly because of his influence, Bloomberg has gathered votes of noteworthy people. There’s McColl and Mitchell, but there’s also the nod from Vi Lyles, the city’s first African-American female mayor. Recent Bloomberg events around Charlotte have drawn everyone from wealthy businesspeople to top pastors at black churches.
Around the state, former Governor Bev Purdue is on board, as is Raleigh mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin, along with state senate Democratic leader Dan Blue and house Democratic leader Darren Jackson. Former state Democratic Party Chairman Tom Hendrickson, the lead developer on the proposed affordable-housing project at Brookhill Village in Charlotte, endorsed Bloomberg last week.
The endorsements boosted support throughout the state even as national news outlets dive deeper into his troubles, from poor debate performances, to his past support of the controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy for policing, to the numerous claims of sexist comments over his years leading Bloomberg LP.
On Tuesday, Civitas Poll numbers showed Bloomberg tied with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders with 20 percent apiece in North Carolina. Elizabeth Warren was next at 9 percent.
North Carolina has the third-most delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday. And considering the two larger states are the always-blue California and the always-red Texas, North Carolina might provide the most insight into Democratic voters’ enthusiasm going into November’s general election against president Donald Trump.
Bloomberg’s rise, though, comes at a time when Charlotte’s most pressing issue is the gap between poor and rich.
In a city where people line up for affordable housing units, where more than 4,500 kids will experience housing instability this school year, and where last year produced more homicides (106) than any other since 1993, a significant number of voters are just as likely to be turned off by a candidate who can afford television ads during every break in Wheel of Fortune.
The endorsement from Lyles stirred up a simple snapshot of that tension. On one hand, Bloomberg stood beside Lyles in 2018 and committed millions to helping Charlotte reduce its carbon footprint. He also selected Lyles as one of 40 U.S. mayors to join a Harvard City Leadership Initiative that provides yearlong education and professional development.
On the other hand, he was the mayor of stop-and-frisk, a policy that allowed police officers to search anyone they believed to be engaged in criminal activity. The majority of those stopped under the program were black and Latino men. Bloomberg has apologized, but it’s hard to tell if the apology resonates in Charlotte, a city that had a weeklong uprising against excessive police force in 2016.
The person most critical of Lyles was her daughter, Aisha Alexander, who grew up here but now lives and works in Washington. The night of Lyles’ endorsement, Alexander released a string of tweets criticizing any mayor who supports Bloomberg, “particularly the Black ones, and especially the ones closest to me.”
Bloomberg’s candidacy has also run through political alliances. McColl was one of the first people in Charlotte’s old guard to endorse a wave of young candidates in the 2017 city council elections. The two candidates he spent the most time with then were 50 years younger than him — Braxton Winston, now 37, and Dimple Ajmera, now 33. Each won in 2017, and re-election in 2019.
But Winston, who grew up in New York the son of a fire captain, recently announced his support for Bernie Sanders. And Ajmera, who is running for state treasurer, says she won’t endorse a primary candidate, but says she’ll help any Democrat against Trump in the general.
“I really hope whoever is the nominee will be able to unite the party and ensure a strong turnout in November,” Ajmera said Tuesday.
That argument gets complicated, of course, because the most ardent supporters of any candidate believe their person will unite the party. I asked Ajmera, who serves as an at-large council member, what she hears when talking to voters in Charlotte.
She sees more of an economic split than a generational one.
“If you see Bernie or Warren supporters, you see more working-class voters,” Ajmera said. “And if you look at people who have money, it seems to be more Bloomberg.”
Just a few days before the 1992 election, McColl called Bill Clinton’s campaign to let them know they had his endorsement.
McColl has supported Republicans over the years — including Bob Dole in the 1988 primary and George W. Bush in the 2000 general election. But his most famous relationship with any president was with Clinton.
In 1994, Clinton and McColl found themselves in a Georgia hotel, staying up all night talking about the issue that mattered most to McColl — interstate banking. Back then, laws prohibited financial institutions from acquiring banks outside of their state borders. Clinton soon signed a bill into law that removed those barriers, much to McColl’s delight.
McColl’s NationsBank went around the country swallowing others like a whale on minnows. In 1998, it became Bank of America, making him the CEO of the first coast-to-coast bank in U.S. history.
That is, to some extent, the story of how the Charlotte of the 21st century was born. As the banks grew, McColl and his counterparts reinvested in the city where their employees lived, building bus stations and arts organizations and neighborhoods. A wheel here and a deal there, and suddenly you have a city with a million residents that’s bursting with big-city successes and troubles.
It’s easy to see, then, why Bloomberg would focus on Charlotte.
The city is home to the Foundation for the Carolinas, the sixth-largest community foundation in the United States, with $2.6 billion in charitable assets to be used at donors’ discretion. Bloomberg has become somewhat of a community foundation himself, pledging to give away at least half of his wealth to charitable causes.
The more you read about him, the more you get the sense that had he not been New York’s mayor, Bloomberg would’ve blended in quite nicely in Eastover or Myers Park, Charlotte’s wealthiest zip codes. There, making money and giving some of it away are part of the neighborhood’s fabric.
“We are a city that is determined to lift itself and its citizenry,” McColl told me, “especially when we find out things that we don’t like about ourselves.”
I asked Mitchell, the city councilman who’s running Bloomberg’s statewide campaign, where Bloomberg has his best poll numbers. “Southeast Charlotte,” he said, without hesitating.
Then I asked where he’s weakest, and Mitchell said, “around Asheville,” which makes sense because, you know, counterculture billionaires aren’t exactly a population group.
Then I asked what part of Charlotte shows the weakest support for Bloomberg. Mitchell said a small pocket off of Randolph Road around Grier Heights, a historically black neighborhood adjacent to Eastover.
Other influential Democrats are putting their support elsewhere. U.S. Congresswoman Alma Adams has said she’s still behind former vice president Biden. So is former Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx, a West Charlotte High School graduate.
Pat Cotham is a county commissioner who regularly secures the most votes in the at-large race. She’s nearly impossible to place in a political box. She consistently votes against tax increases, including this fall when she opposed the sales tax to fund the arts, parks, and education. But she was also a superdelegate at the 2016 convention supporting Bernie Sanders, a Democratic socialist.
She’s still not sure who she’ll vote for next week, but she knows who it won’t be: Bloomberg.
“I like to kick the tires and look under the hood, and I don’t think the tires have been kicked yet (with Bloomberg),” she said Tuesday.
“I think like a Democrat. I don’t think Bloomberg thinks like a Democrat.”
Cotham said she’s waiting to see what happens in Saturday’s South Carolina primary before deciding. South Carolina is the first stop on the primary tour that has a significant percentage of black voters; Cotham said she needs a reading from there before deciding what she’ll do here.
Catawba College professor Michael Bitzer compared early voting for the 2016 primary and the 2020 primary this week and found that the state is on pace to have about a similar overall turnout. But he also found that this year’s turnout is higher among white voters, lower among black voters, and higher among all other races. So it makes sense to conclude that many folks — and many black voters — are waiting on South Carolina’s results.
“It’s more representative of the Democratic party as a whole,” Bitzer said of South Carolina, compared to Iowa, New Hampshire, or Nevada.
In the most recent campaign filing, Sanders has received more donations from people in Charlotte than any other candidate. That’s true in wealthy southeast Charlotte, where he received 811 contributions in 2019. It’s also true in west and northwest Charlotte, where he hauled in 577, three times his closest rival in Biden, who had 177 in those areas.
Mitchell acknowledges those numbers. He says Bloomberg needs to perform better with several groups, with a focus on black women 55 and up.
Mitchell, who is black, points to Bloomberg’s role in developing The Young Men’s Initiative to address disparities between young black and Latino men and their white counterparts. Three years later, President Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, which took the program a step further to include boys.
“He knows brown and black boys have different issues, from mentoring to creating jobs,” Mitchell said. “I think that plays very well with (Charlotte) as we challenge our mobility issues.”
Even a casual meeting at the Bloomberg campaign office feels like a meeting with an executive at an Uptown bank. Someone has to buzz you in through the front door. The lobby is full of brand paraphernalia. A long hallway leads back to offices. And upstairs are the leadership offices.
Earlier this week, when I walked in to meet Mitchell, the front desk receptionist told me to wait in the lobby and offered me a water before getting called upstairs.
Mitchell says Bloomberg’s staff approached him about running the North Carolina campaign the week of Thanksgiving, just a few days before he announced his candidacy.
Mitchell left his job as senior business development manager at JE Dunn Construction. They negotiated the state headquarters — Bloomberg first proposed Raleigh, but Mitchell convinced him to move it here. Mitchell then set out to organize 10 offices throughout the state.
The campaign signed the lease on the huge North Tryon Street office through later this year. And Mitchell says his employment will last through the general election, regardless.
“He made a promise to all of us: We got a job through November,” Mitchell said. “He’s said, ‘If for some reason we come out of the convention and I’m not the one, my infrastructure is in place to support the Democratic nominee.'”
In a city built around business, that kind of investment and commitment has sway, especially with folks like McColl, who believes it’s a sign that a Bloomberg presidency might lead to Charlotte establishing a working relationship with the White House.
“I would feel like I could see him and talk to him: Here’s what I think, and he can do what he wants with that information,” McColl said. “You don’t have to expect favors but mainly you just want to be able to sit down and talk.”