Is Bloomberg's Pledge to Help Arizona Democrats Backfiring?

Former New York City Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg in Phoenix on February 1, 2020.
Former New York City Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg in Phoenix on February 1, 2020. Gage Skidmore
At an early January meeting of Arizona’s Legislative District 24 Democrats, a dozen or so staffers from Team Bloomberg fanned out in the front of the room. Among attendees, eyebrows rose.

“We were definitely surprised at the number of staff that walked up,” Jade Duran, the chair of the LD24 Democrats, recalled to Phoenix New Times.

At a time when presidential campaigns typically send a staffer or two to local district meetings, Duran marveled not just at the sheer numbers representing Michael Bloomberg, but also the fact that they all were paid staff — not volunteers — and all local to Arizona.

“Obviously, [the point] was to show how many staff they’d hired and how serious they were about organizing,” she said.

To Michael Bloomberg, few states are as important as this one, a battleground that, historically red, is becoming purple.

“The road to the White House runs through Arizona,” the billionaire Democratic presidential hopeful and former New York City mayor told supporters at a rally at the beginning of February.

Nationally, Bloomberg has poured close to half a billion dollars of his own money into his presidential campaign, but his emphasis on Arizona gives his prolific spending here a special cast.

His campaign, which currently has 50 staffers in Arizona, dwarfs the presence of other Democratic presidential candidates in the state. Those employees, along with their counterparts in other states, are compensated handsomely (entry-level field organizers make $6,000 a month, and receive a work MacBook and iPhone), and his overall spending in Arizona — more than $5 million — outstrips that of the other candidates, federal campaign finance data shows.

click to enlarge A banner at Mike Bloomberg's headquarters in Phoenix. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
A banner at Mike Bloomberg's headquarters in Phoenix.
Elizabeth Whitman
While other campaigns focused on the first four states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, which offer just 4 percent of total Democratic delegates — the Bloomberg campaign concentrated its resources in states like Arizona, where he has opened six offices.

"No one single state is going win us the nomination," said Joe Wolf, the campaign's senior adviser in Arizona. "We have to invest everywhere, and that’s what this campaign has been able to do — invest in states on Super Tuesday, states on March 10, states on March 17, that have large delegate totals," he explained, referring to the dates of Democratic primaries.

Tim O’Brien, Bloomberg’s senior adviser, also has pledged the campaign’s assistance to down-ballot races and has promised that Bloomberg staffers will remain in Arizona through November, no matter who becomes the Democratic nominee.

Local staff, like Wolf, describe the campaign's operations in Arizona as building unprecedented political infrastructure for the Democratic party. As field organizers knock on doors and make phone calls, they're gathering gobs of data about voters to share with the state party that will help Democrats in the long run, Wolf said.

"One thing we’re doing is generating an absurd amount of data that will make campaigning a hell of a lot easier, and just more efficient, more accurate, for every single candidate running as a Democrat in 2020,” he said.

But to others, all that hiring and spending could come at a cost. This saturation of generosity, from a man whose extensive largess blurs the lines between giving and buying, is already having perhaps-unintended consequences, with the November elections nine months away.

Some cash-strapped local campaigns say they are are struggling to find talent at rates they can afford, and blame the Bloomberg campaign for inflating wages. Several people involved in Democratic politics in Arizona declined to speak publicly about Bloomberg, citing his spending.

“It’s like they’re being bought,” Stephanie Adames, co-owner of a local progressive political consulting firm, said of people Bloomberg has hired. “It takes away from … building a movement.”

click to enlarge Spending by presidential campaign in Arizona, through January 2020. - DATA COMPILED FROM FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION
Spending by presidential campaign in Arizona, through January 2020.
Data compiled from Federal Election Commission

$6,000 a Month

Last November, Bloomberg visited Arizona to register for the state’s Democratic primary, which is scheduled for March 17. He opened offices in Arizona ahead of all other Democratic presidential candidates except for Senator Elizabeth Warren. By January, he had hired dozens of staffers, seemingly overnight.

Chris Love, the chair of the board for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona and a vocal Warren supporter, recalled first seeing “a swarm of people, a team for Bloomberg,” at the Phoenix Women’s March in January.

They had two full tables with "young Latinx folks," she remembered. “It made me do a double-take."

On one hand, Love was pleased. "I was like, ‘You know, all right, I want all those folks to make that money.'”

But, she added, “I think that is work that he could be doing here without running what I would call a vanity presidential campaign.”

The Bloomberg campaign says it's proud of the competitive, livable wages it offers.

“Most campaigns end up paying their folks an effective rate of $9, $10, $11, $12 an hour,” Dan Kanninen, Bloomberg’s states director, said in a statement about field organizer salaries. “But companies generally pay interns $15 an hour. We’re asking employees to take on far more responsibility and certainly more hours and pressure than a typical internship, so an annualized rate of $72,000, which works out to $6,000 a month, was really very appropriate, not extravagant.”

Andrew Tucker, the Bloomberg campaign’s spokesperson in Arizona, said that of its approximately 50 paid staffers in the state, roughly 60 percent are organizers.

Their backgrounds are a mix, and while some have past experience in politics and organizing, others do not — the implication being that the Bloomberg campaign is not, say, poaching people from other political campaigns and firms.

The salary breaks down to $1,500 per week. If they work 70 to 80 hours a week, which is what Bloomberg field organizer Annie Johnson typically does, their hourly wages range from $18.75 to a little over $21.

Johnson, a Phoenix native and niece of former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, who has endorsed Bloomberg, previously worked as a superintendent in construction, "which is a really good life, pretty good pay," she said.

"You can't buy an election. You can buy exposure." - Joe Wolf, senior adviser to the Bloomberg campaign in Arizona

tweet this

Initially, she had no plans to get involved in politics this year. "I've knocked on enough doors," Johnson said, just from working in politics with her family.

"But then a lot of my friends were being affected, like parents being deported," she added, and "it was a no-brainer to get involved with Mike, who's going to be the best chance of beating Trump."

She said she "absolutely" planned to vote for Bloomberg.

The rumors about three catered meals per day are false, at least in Arizona, staff say, although the campaign will occasionally buy staff "some meals." (At the campaign's headquarters in Phoenix, inside one cabinet sat a small stash of snacks including granola bars and — Mike Bloomberg's personal favorite — Cheez-Its.) Staffers do receive a MacBook and an iPhone, although they have to give it back when they leave the campaign. And Johnson's position, like that of other field organizers, is guaranteed through November.

Compare all that to a local field organizer position with, say, a political firm, where you’d be offered $800 to $1,000 a week to work “extended” hours, including weekends, for a short but unspecified number of months. And, it's BYO laptop. Who would you rather work for?

Hiring figures from the Bloomberg campaign also far outstrip those from other presidential candidates in Arizona.

The campaign of Elizabeth Warren, for instance, says it has about 20 paid staffers in Arizona; the campaign declined to say how much they were paid. Bernie Sanders has two full-time staff in Arizona, spokesperson Joe Calvello said, and “a very active volunteer base.”

The campaigns of Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and Amy Klobuchar did not respond to questions about staffing in Arizona. (Steyer and Buttigieg dropped out of the race over the weekend.) According to federal campaign finance data, none are paying salaries in Arizona.

Bloomberg’s spending on digital ads has also far outpaced his competitors. According to data collected by Bully Pulpit Interactive, Bloomberg has so far spent $1.2 million on Facebook advertisements. Steyer was in a distant second place, with just $156,000.

click to enlarge Here's how much candidates have spent on Facebook ads in Arizona. - BPI MEDIA
Here's how much candidates have spent on Facebook ads in Arizona.
BPI Media
Only three presidential candidates have bought and aired campaign ads in Arizona, according to data compiled and published by FiveThirtyEight, and Bloomberg, again, tops the list, with $6.36 million on 44 different ads so far.

Tom Steyer spent $3,600 on two ads. President Donald Trump has spent $49,000 on one.

Limited polling has been done on the Democratic primary in Arizona, although at least one local firm plans to do a poll in mid-March. According to FiveThirtyEight's analysis, Bernie Sanders is forecast to win the most votes (on average, 34 percent) and Joe Biden the second most (21 percent).

The site's projections have Bloomberg in third place, likely to win an average of 15 percent of the vote. His projected share of the vote has increased considerably in recent months, rising from the single digits in early January and reaching 20 percent in mid-February before slipping slightly in the last week.

Wolf, the campaign's senior adviser in Arizona, rejected the notion that Bloomberg, a billionaire 56 times over, is trying to purchase the election.

"We can buy exposure," he said. "We can buy the ability to offer our view, our plans, what this campaign's about, what Mr. Bloomberg's about."

The more people hear about Bloomberg and his record as mayor or as a philanthropist, the more they like what they hear, according to Wolf, who said, adamantly, "You can't buy an election."

'You Just Can't Compete'

Stephanie Adames, co-owner of SPM, a progressive political consultancy in Phoenix, is critical of Bloomberg’s “overnight” entrance into Arizona and the way it has shifted the market for political labor. Her firm is feeling the pinch.

This year, they are working on about a dozen local races; Adames declined to say for whom. “We work with a lot of candidates who don’t have a lot of money,” she said, adding that those candidates depend on donations and don't take money from political action committees or dark money groups.

Because Bloomberg has hired people with “very little experience” and given them perks like MacBooks and iPhones, people looking for jobs in politics can now demand more, Adames said. Organizers who would usually get paid $15 per hour now want $25, she said. Her company has had to be “more creative” to find talent.

“We have talked about trying to get people outside of the state to come and work,” Adames said. One avenue they've looked at is coaxing staffers for former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who dropped out in mid-February, to come to Arizona.

“It’s like this false inflation that’s happening behind the scenes,” she said. “We’re having to pay canvassers more money to help, but we’re not taking any more profit in. You just can’t compete.”

click to enlarge The foyer of Mike Bloomberg's campaign headquarters in Phoenix. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
The foyer of Mike Bloomberg's campaign headquarters in Phoenix.
Elizabeth Whitman
Wolf rejected claims that the campaign overpays organizers. The fact that $6,000 a month is viewed as too much is really "a critique of the industry," Wolf said. It exposes how, in general, political campaigns "underpay entry-level staff, dramatically, for the amount of work we ask them to do."

Adames disputed the campaign's claims that it is merely paying organizers a fair wage when workers have typically been so underpaid. "They are overpaying underqualified staff," she said.

Her firm has always paid workers a livable wage, she said. The going rate for canvassers was $15 an hour, she said, "and we've bumped it up to $20 this year."

As for the Bloomberg campaign’s promises to help down-ballot races, Adames was skeptical.

She’d received an emailed offer of help from a staffer on the campaign, but when Adames replied with grateful acceptance, she never heard back, she said.

"They are overpaying underqualified staff." - Stephanie Adames, co-owner of a local political consulting firm

tweet this

A different staffer on a local Democratic race said that Bloomberg’s presence in Arizona had made hiring difficult this year. Paying an entry-level field organizer $6,000 a month was “really unheard of,” the staffer said. “It does make it really challenging for smaller races with a smaller budget to really retain staff.”

“It’s understandable, people want to make a decent wage,” the staffer added. “But again … it’s hard when another campaign cannot come to that level.”

The staffer said it was too early to tell if Bloomberg’s prodigious hiring and salaries would come at the expense of local races, and was optimistic that whatever happens with Bloomberg and the nomination, his hiring, especially of entry-level positions, “presents a good opportunity for [Democrats] to train folks and get them to the place we need to be.”

State Representative Jennifer Longdon, who is running for re-election this year and has endorsed Bloomberg for president, lost her campaign manager, Amber Rivera, to the Bloomberg campaign in January.

“Her transition to the Bloomberg campaign is entirely her decision," Longdon told New Times. "Adults get to make their own decisions.”

Longdon, who has since hired a new campaign manager, indicated that Rivera's departure had not dealt a blow to the campaign.

"The truth is that campaigns, when they're well-organized, aren't individual-reliant," she said. "We certainly miss Amber. She’s a very talented and energetic young woman, but, you know, that’s her decision to make. We wish her all the best.”

Rivera told New Times, "It's been a lifelong dream of mine to work on a presidential campaign."

One other person involved in local Democratic politics in Arizona declined to speak with New Times about the influence of the Bloomberg campaign on hiring and staffing in the state.

“I wouldn't want to call them out,” the person said, because “they're still helping ... a lot.”
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.