• U.S.

Michael Bloomberg Wants To Be Mayor of the World

16 minute read
Michael Scherer

These are the parts of Paris you assume exist but never get to see, hidden behind ivy-clad walls, guarded by armed men and surrounded by black Mercedes. The brother of King Louis XVI once staged his immodest fêtes galantes at this 18th century maison, and the building later housed a literary society founded by Balzac, Hugo and Dumas. Now the 13th wealthiest person in the world is walking in from his chauffeured car, having just arrived on a private pond hop from New York, the city he runs for a few more months.

He starts talking right away about the parts of America that still don’t believe in evolution or global warming, how his ex-wife remains his best friend, his aversion to the fanciest restaurants in Paris because, well, they are all just so terribly fancy. White-bread toast, Skippy peanut butter and bacon. That’s how Michael Rubens Bloomberg, 71, describes his ideal meal. “The cholesterol will go right to your veins,” he cautions, shifting in his polished loafers. Health is on his mind, you see. As mayor, he has banned trans fats in restaurants, made chains post calorie counts and tried to limit the size of sodas people can buy. Now health has brought him to France, where as a cause, it is eating a noticeable chunk of his personal fortune.

Through the grand doors, up the double staircase, into the corner salon that once housed the grand bedroom, a high council has gathered. If Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man once sold themselves as superheroes, this group would be the Legion of Doom: leaders from the World Health Organization, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other masters in the international cabal to end smoking. Bloomberg is the guest of honor, the moneyman. And he knows the numbers. “Tobacco is going to kill a billion people in this century unless we do something about it,” he says upon entering the room.

For most people, that is just a fact. For a modern billionaire, it might be a call to action. But for Bloomberg, it’s a work in progress. A slide flashes on the screen, showing the money he has personally spent against smoking since 2007, a straight-arrow chart pointed out the window over the manicured gardens into the sky: 556 grants, 61 countries, $109,244,391, so far. And that doesn’t count the ban on smoking in public spaces that Bloomberg passed in New York City, a policy that took off around the world. You can’t light up in Paris bistros or North Carolina taprooms anymore. In New York, adult smoking rates have dropped nearly twice as fast as those nationwide, and life expectancy has climbed three years in a decade. “California actually passed smoking-ban legislation before New York,” Bloomberg boasts, “and nobody paid attention.”

The team gathered before him has mapped global smoking trends with the precision of a hedge fund gaming currency markets. They know rates are rising in Thailand because of low roll-your-own taxes. They have a plan to end the Chinese tradition of giving cigarettes as gifts. They name the Indian ministers blocking reform because they own bidi factories on the side. This isn’t a meeting about more advertising or another lung-cancer hospital. It’s about using enormous private wealth to change government policies and shift human behavior. “Nothing any of us will ever do will save as many lives as limiting the use of tobacco products,” Bloomberg says.

For the 16 experts at the table, that’s not in question; most of these tobacco fighters have only a single career. But for Bloomberg, the statement is a calculation; his hands are in a lot of different pots and behind a lot of crusades these days. And he is not alone. Over the past 30 years, the world has been transformed by globalization and technology, and from that tumult has emerged a new class of billionaires who profited from the change, innovators, business leaders and heirs. In the prime of their lives, many have turned their attention to remaking the world, often through policy and politics. It’s a return to the era of great benefactors like the Rockefellers, Mellons and Carnegies. It’s their world. You just vote in it.

The examples are so many, they crowd together. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg gives $100 million to rewrite the rules for Newark public schools, spends millions more on political television ads and then travels to Congress to demand immigration reform. The casino magnate Sheldon Adelson bets $100 million to elect Republican candidates who mostly lose in 2012, and then publicly vows to do it again. Without financiers George Soros and Peter Lewis, marijuana legalization would not have proceeded so far in so many states. Without the generosity of conservative industrialists David and Charles Koch, the groups now organizing to defund Obamacare would be a shadow of themselves. Without billionaires like Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Eli Broad and Jim Walton, the revolution now taking place in K-12 education–charter schools, standardized tests, Common Core, merit pay, the end of tenure–would be years behind schedule.

Not since the early 20th century have individuals had so much power to unilaterally shape our lives and shift our ideas. And never in history have they been able to exert their will so easily on such a global scale. This is the backdrop upon which Bloomberg is attempting to define his legacy, as a social and political engineer.

“Bouncing the Check”

He makes no secret of his ambition. “I want to do things that nobody else is doing,” he told TIME on a two-day swing through Europe in late September, where he met with the mayors of London and Paris and chatted with British Prime Minister David Cameron between visits to art galleries and an antique-furniture dealer. Officially he was still serving as mayor of New York City, but in practice he had already begun his next life, a jet-setting blur of wealth, power and international recognition. He launched a privately funded European competition to improve city governance, boasted of his 17-city international effort to increase volunteerism and reviewed plans to impose further helmet and road-safety laws in the developing world. “A lot of elected officials are afraid to back controversial things. I’m not afraid of that,” he said. “You’re not going to hurt my business, and if you are, I don’t care. I take great pride in being willing to stand up.”

Bloomberg’s money flows out through a complex web of nonprofit foundation work and private entities, often in chunks so small or anonymous that they are difficult to track. He has invested in local government, funding teams of consultants to work for the mayors’ offices in New Orleans and Chicago on issues as vital as murder and as mundane as small-business permitting. He has spent more than $100 million to genetically engineer a better mosquito, in the hopes of eliminating malaria, and given $100 million to stamp out polio in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Africa, he has built maternal-health centers. In Vietnam, he pushed for stiff helmet laws. On the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific, he is funding ocean conservation.

Closer to home, he helped shutter coal-fired plants and lobbied Congress with Rupert Murdoch on immigration reform. He’s involved in setting fracking policy, supporting Planned Parenthood and passing gay-marriage referendums. In local, state and federal elections around the country, he is spending millions more to back candidates who would further gun control and education reform and defeat those who oppose them. And then there is the money he has spent to get himself elected three times in New York City, north of $250 million, more than any single person has ever spent on U.S. elections.

That investment in U.S. politics is likely to grow in the coming year. “I’m not going to play golf like I threatened to do full time,” he says of his plans after leaving city hall on Jan. 1. He also has pledged not to return to managing his old company. On Oct. 6, he announced a $1 million advertising effort to support the New Jersey Senate campaign of Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a friend and ally he can no longer speak to without risking a violation of campaign-finance rules. “I would be interested whether Cory really was surprised,” he jokes. He is looking to sink more money into the Virginia governor’s race this year to support the candidate more in favor of gun control. And he plans to spend heavily in Arkansas to defeat Senator Mark Pryor, who recently voted against federal background checks. How heavily? One plan would involve calling every Democrat in the state to discuss Pryor’s record. “If you support reasonable background checks, I will support you, even though we have probably nothing in common on any other issue,” Bloomberg says he told Senator Pat Toomey before the conservative Pennsylvania Republican decided to back more gun control this spring.

Later this year in Colorado, Bloomberg will be backing a tax-hiking school-reform initiative, and he plans to continue the spending on state and local school-board elections around the country. “We need to elect reformists to city councils,” Bloomberg says. He has also looked at finding a way to bring nonpartisan redistricting and elections to more states, in the model of recent election-law reforms in California. He blames the current shutdown in Washington and the prospect of a debt default on a refusal to attend to these issues. “It all comes from gerrymandering,” he said of the brinkmanship. “That pulls people away from the center.”

There is no clear limit on how much Bloomberg is willing to spend on politics. His political adviser and deputy mayor Howard Wolfson, a former aide to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, oversees Bloomberg’s political spending without an annual budget. “What will it take?” Bloomberg will ask people as they pitch him. And if they digress from the hard numbers into storytelling, Bloomberg will cut them off. “Quit finger painting,” he will say.

Bloomberg is a data guy, so the numbers matter. When he first ran for mayor in 2001, he was worth about $4 billion, owing to the news and financial-information company he founded that bears his name. When he leaves office on Dec. 31, he will be worth about $31 billion, or about 400,000 times the median American family’s net worth. Trust funds have already been established for his daughters and other loved ones, and he is not far from owning as many houses, planes, paintings and sculptures as he needs. The rest he has promised to give away–“bouncing the check to the undertaker,” as he puts it.

In 2013, Bloomberg plans to spend about $400 million on pet causes, which at 1.3% of his fortune is barely a rounding error. If his net worth holds steady, or even if it fails to gain a bit of interest over the coming decades, the annual giveaways will have to rise substantially to meet his goal of spending down the fortune in the lifetimes of his daughters, ages 30 and 34. Ask him about the challenge, and Bloomberg will smile. “That’s a nice problem to have,” he says.

London’s city hall is a swirling glass seedpod of a building perched on the Thames. It was designed by British architect Norman Foster, whom Bloomberg happens to have commissioned to create two new buildings for his company a few blocks from the river’s far bank. That project is massive, consuming an entire block, and it sits atop an ancient Roman temple where archaeologists have already discovered thousands of artifacts from the first years of the city’s existence. Several hundred feet over the site hangs a video camera put there by builders and which Bloomberg, and only Bloomberg, can control from his computer in New York. Most of the time, when he logs in, it’s night in London, so the view isn’t that great. But such are the hardships of someone with his stature.

Besides, at the moment, he is not far away, having gathered the mayors of London, Warsaw and Florence at city hall to announce a competition offering a €5 million prize for the European city with the most innovative idea to improve local governance. It’s a repeat of a competition Bloomberg held in America in 2012, a part of his effort to fund improvements in local governance. The winner of the last prize was Providence, R.I., which will now buy small digital recorders to track the number of words the city’s low-income children are exposed to daily. Research has shown that poor kids enter school with a more limited vocabulary, and the goal of the project is to give the tools to their parents to encourage more communication with their children.

After the initial presentation, a reporter asks the mayors to speak in general about the importance of private philanthropy, a tradition that is far more developed in the U.S. than in Europe. Bloomberg takes the bait. It’s a topic on which he has thought quite a bit. “You can do things that the public does not think are appropriate or conventional for public moneys,” he says. “If we didn’t have private philanthropy, you never would have had Impressionism, for example. Nobody thought that that was art, and today that commands prices 10 times that of the old masters.”

This conviction, that big money should operate independently of public opinion, is at the core of Bloomberg’s philosophy, and it is the reason so many people have come to regard him as a cause for concern. In conservative circles, he is the poster child of the nanny state and a punch line for Sarah Palin’s road show, the ultimate big-city elitist in monogrammed shirts imposing his will on a freedom-loving country. Two states, Mississippi and North Carolina, have passed anti-Bloomberg laws that prevent their cities from banning soda drinks sold in supersize containers, undermining another project of the mayor’s. Both Virginia and West Virginia have passed laws to outlaw Bloomberg’s pet practice of hiring private investigators to show how easy it is to buy guns outside the law at high-traffic gun stores.

Bloomberg takes all the populist backlash as validation. He talks of tobacco firms and soda companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi as enemies of long life. And he is open in his condescension for those who resist the data on which he bases his decisions. “I feel sorry for the people of Mississippi,” he says later, when I mention the legislation there to ban restrictions on soda size. In New York City, life expectancy is now above 80. “In parts of Mississippi, by the delta, it’s in the 60s. Now what did I miss here? Who’s right, and who’s winning? They are not winning.”

At the center of Bloomberg’s worldview is a notion that he exists beyond the baser irrationality of the political process. When he wrote his memoir in 1997, he spoke of the importance of having a loyalty to a political party, saying he sometimes supports Democrats “even when I don’t really believe they are the best on the ballot.” Today he casts himself outside of partisanship and ideology, telling a story about teasing liberal billionaire Soros about being the same as conservative David Koch in his giving. “He had a heart attack, but they are [similar],” Bloomberg says. “Whether one’s view is left, one’s view is right, so what?”

But on most issues he is involved in, from climate change and abortion to guns and obesity, Bloomberg sits squarely at the liberal end of the political spectrum. (His defense of Wall Street and support for stop-and-frisk policing are clear exceptions.) This is clearest in his gun campaign, an effort to almost single-handedly fund a grassroots effort to counter the effect of the National Rifle Association, even if it means defeating Democrats and electing Republicans. Earlier this year, Bloomberg’s money proved instrumental in passing background-check laws and other restrictions in Connecticut, New York, Colorado and Maryland. More recently, the NRA struck back, funding successful recall campaigns, with some help from the Koch family, against two state politicians in Colorado. Bloomberg refuses to see that defeat as a setback or to revise his ambitions. The Colorado gun-control law, he notes, remains on the books. “What do you mean we lost? I’m sorry for those two people,” he says. “But we won in Colorado. On to the next state.”

In addition to his homes in Bermuda; London; Vail, Colo.; upstate New York; and the Upper East Side, Bloomberg has acquired perhaps the best symbol of this new gilded age of philanthropy. In 2006, he purchased for $45 million a six-story Beaux Arts limestone-and-brick mansion on East 78th Street in Manhattan as a home base for his philanthropic efforts, his own money-management team and the opinion section of his media empire, Bloomberg View. The building was erected at the end of the 19th century by Stuyvesant Fish, a railroad baron.

After gutting and refurbishing it as a futuristic office building, with window shades that automatically respond to the sun, Bloomberg outfitted the place with rotating art exhibits along with giant saltwater fish tanks that long ago became a trademark of any Bloomberg outpost. In many ways, he sees himself as the legatee of the last great boom in American wealth and even a few before that. His New York home is appointed with a Georgian Chippendale couch estimated to be valued at $1 million, and his friends have mused about his admiration for the lifestyles of the 19th century railroad barons. “Look, there have been great billionaires all along,” Bloomberg says when asked about his place in history. “If you think of what the Rockefellers have done, or the Carnegies or Mellons, and there were plenty of others, and there were plenty back in the Renaissance days.”

And like those before him, he is happy to exploit his status as a master of the universe. At the end of his European barnstorm, he found himself in a corner room at 10 Downing Street, admiring the view out a back window. “The building you should look at is at this end,” he said knowingly, as he pointed across a yard toward the building in which Winston Churchill ran the war effort. Then he began talking about his former father-in-law, who served in the Royal Navy.

When Cameron, the Prime Minister, entered, the two men spoke broadly about Cameron’s plans for a speech to his party and the recovery of the British economy. Bloomberg’s advice was characteristically confident, spoken like a man who has made it and has the vast wealth and power to prove it. “The worst combination of things is to not try to do the right thing, and to lose,” Bloomberg remembers telling the Prime Minister. “Then you have nothing to hold your hat on.” Whatever happens, this is not a fate any would predict for Bloomberg himself.

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