On March 4, former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg suspended his presidential campaign after spending more than $250,000,000 on ads and winning just 44 delegates in 20 Democratic primaries. Bloomberg undoubtedly believed he could appeal to Democratic voters, but his campaign had the opposite effect — reminding them that the egocentric billionaire shares few of their values. An open question is what will now become of his gun control empire, which is fueled by the volunteer labor of thousands of progressive-minded women across the country.
The alliance between Bloomberg and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (Moms), the grassroots arm of his gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, has always been a tenuous one. The overwhelming majority of Moms volunteers are Democratic voters and Bloomberg is a well-known Independent who leans Democrat only when it suits his political aspirations. So far, the financial resources that Bloomberg brings to the table have made Moms founder Shannon Watts look past his personal/political shortcomings. But now that Bloomberg’s failed presidential campaign has heightened public awareness about his regressive views on race and gender, that might no longer be possible.
Moms Demand Action was originally launched as a Facebook group in the wake of the horrifying mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012. The group quickly evolved into a legitimate grassroots operation with volunteers across the country working for stronger gun laws. Watts, a former corporate executive, used her “experience in communications, branding and messaging” to raise the group’s national visibility minus a budget (Moms was unincorporated and did no fundraising). She succeeded, and within a matter of weeks was taking meetings with high-dollar philanthropists regarding a potential merger with Moms.
Watts said she ultimately chose Bloomberg because “if you don’t have brand name recognition, it’s harder to raise money, and Mayor Bloomberg needed an army.” According to Watts, Bloomberg — the 9th richest person in the world in 2019 — personally contributes ¼ of the Moms Demand Action budget. As recently as 2018, that figure was reported as ½.
Bloomberg’s gun control group at the time, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, merged with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America in December 2013 to form Everytown for Gun Safety. The new organization was buoyed by an immediate $50 million commitment from Bloomberg. “This partnership ensures mothers will continue to play an important role in gun violence prevention for decades to come,” Watts stated in a media advisory.
Bloomberg’s wealth has allowed Everytown/Moms to do things that no gun control group has ever done before. His Independence USA PAC gives millions in campaign cash to gun control champions in Congress and attacks the NRA’s political lackeys with TV/radio ads. Bloomberg is also helping to finance exciting new ballot referendum campaigns that allow voters to decide what gun laws they want, bypassing corrupt state legislators. Everytown/Moms hires professional lobbyists to work the halls of Congress and state legislatures across the country. Previously, no gun control group had more than one paid lobbyist on Capitol Hill and none at the state level! Finally, the merger gave Watts and Moms the ability to organize and fundraise on a massive scale, using the best (most-expensive) technology available.
Today, just about every legislator in America recognizes women wearing red t-shirts as constituent-volunteers with Moms Demand Action who support gun control. It’s made a big difference. Whereas in the past, pro-gun advocates routinely outnumbered gun control advocates at legislative hearings, lobby days and the like, now the situation has reversed, in blue and red states alike! This increased presence/pressure by Moms — in conjunction with the work of other gun control groups — has generated some significant victories at the state level, particularly on instant background checks expansion and extreme risk protection order (ERPO) policies.
Victories at the federal level have proven more elusive because of Bloomberg’s remarkably modest policy agenda and insistence on “bipartisanship” in passing legislation. Inevitably, this strategy results in the gun control movement starting out asking Congress for crumbs and ending up with nothing.
Kara Vought of Mother Jones recently published an outstanding article on the tragic fate of the Manchin-Toomey amendment. The amendment was a modest piece of background checks legislation that would have regulated certain private sales of firearms. Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Americans for Responsible Solutions (now known as Giffords) lobbied for it in Congress following the Sandy Hook tragedy even though none of the guns used in that shooting were obtained through private sales.* The Manchin-Toomey amendment had a façade of bipartisanship with Toomey as one of the primary co-sponsors, but only two other Republican senators supported it. The gun control movement was humiliated and weakened when the Senate rejected the legislation on April 17, 2013 with gun violence survivors from across the country looking down from the gallery.
Even if it had passed, the Manchin-Toomey amendment wouldn’t have reduced America’s gun death and injury rate. The gun lobby was allowed to add some minor, but harmful, pro-gun provisions to the legislation. More relevantly, few Americans with a history of violence need to access unregulated private sales to get guns, including mass shooters. Why? Because they routinely pass weak, instant, computerized background checks and get their guns over-the-counter from federally licensed firearm dealers (FFLs). The Manchin-Toomey amendment didn’t address FFL sales at all.
Everytown/Moms is also infamous for overruling their volunteers and backing Republican incumbents over Democratic challengers with far better records on the gun issue. This happened in Pennsylvania, where the group spent nearly $12 million on GOP Senator Toomey and fired Moms volunteers who refused to conceal their support for Democrat Katie McGinty. It happened on Long Island, where Everytown/Moms saw their volunteers canvassing for Democrat Liuba Grechen Shirley and instead backed racist Republican congressman Peter King. And it happened in Florida, where Everytown/Moms inexplicably gave Republican state senate president Bill Galvano half a million dollars months before he shepherded legislation to arm K-12 teachers to passage.
Bloomberg’s embrace of a right-wing concept of “law and order” has also gotten him into trouble. For example, in 2015 and 2017 Everytown/Moms quietly sponsored the Fraternal Order of Police annual conference even though FOP endorsed Donald Trump for president and supported a host of pro-gun and racist policies. Better known is the failed, unconstitutional “stop and frisk” policy Bloomberg implemented as NYC mayor, which racially profiled young black men for intrusive body searches by police looking for guns/drugs. Bloomberg defended the policy for years after stepping down as mayor, abandoning it only recently when deciding to run for president.
Bloomberg’s actions have generated criticism and resentment among gun control volunteers (including Moms!), Democratic Party officials, and rival organizations. But Everytown/Moms has managed to hold on to its leadership position atop the gun control movement despite the resulting breakdown in trust. Despite this, Watts must have been nervous to learn Bloomberg was considering a high-profile run for president in 2020, as the remarkable ambivalence in her response demonstrates.
In December 2018, Watts traveled to Iowa with Bloomberg for an event celebrating “the election of state Senator-elect Claire Celsi.” Bloomberg was photographed pressing the flesh and chatting with Iowans who attended the event. Bloomberg also visited key battleground states like Pennsylvania, boasting of Everytown/Moms’ prowess in electing gun control champions in the 2018 midterms. These trips laid the foundation for Bloomberg’s run in the Democratic presidential primary in 2020.
Bloomberg announced his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president on November 21, 2019. The same day, Moms volunteers received a curious email from Aimee Tavares, a senior national organizing director with the group, which stated, “Given [Mayor Bloomberg’s] unique role in launching Everytown, his leadership in advancing the cause of gun safety, and the significant investments he’s made in helping to grow our movement, Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign is temporarily renting access to our [email] list of supporters so they can communicate his plans for achieving our shared goal of a nation free from gun violence.”** Not a word was said about whether Moms would endorse its founder and chief funder for president of the United States.
Perhaps anticipating pushback from the group’s volunteers, Watts followed with her own message to them: “I want to be clear that it is entirely your choice regarding how you spend your volunteer time in this  election and which candidates you choose to support. Elevating the voices of all gun sense champions is part of what you do every day, and that should continue.” She made it clear that Moms Demand Action would not be automatically endorsing their founding chair, Mike Bloomberg — he would have to earn their “Gun Sense Candidate Distinction” like everyone else.
The leader of the gun control movement had to prove his bonafides on the issue to his own organization? [With friends like these…]
Sadly, he did. Bloomberg ran the top organization in gun control, but had one of the weakest agendas on the issue among Democratic primary candidates. In May 2019, Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker set a marker by endorsing a series of bold and comprehensive gun policies, including national gun licensing/registration, microstamping, Consumer Product Safety Commission regulation of firearms, and an assault weapons ban. Other candidates quickly followed suit (Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, etc.). Then, in August 2019, the youth-led group March For Our Lives introduced the boldest gun control agenda of any contemporary national gun control organization. It included Booker’s plan but went well beyond it (e.g., by calling for the next administration to conduct a formal re-examination of D.C. v. Heller, the controversial Second Amendment decision by right wing of the Supreme Court in 2008).
In comparison to March For Our Lives’ bold “Peace Plan for a Safer America,” the agenda of Everytown/Moms is strikingly modest. The only policy items listed on their websites are: 1) Expansion of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), a failed system for screening gun buyers; 2) Seizing domestic abusers’ guns when they’re under an active restraining order and prohibiting stalkers from buying guns; 3) Stronger federal criminal penalties for gun traffickers, and; 4) emergency risk protection order laws.
On December 5, 2019, candidate Bloomberg remedied this problem by announcing a new gun control agenda for his campaign — by far the strongest he has ever supported. It included national gun licensing, required safe storage of firearms in the home, an assault weapons ban, and a minimum age of 21 for long gun purchases. In a tersely-worded press release the same day, Everytown/Moms announced Bloomberg had qualified for their Gun Sense Candidate Distinction award and “applauded” him for “elevating [the] issue of gun violence prevention in [the] 2020 presidential campaign.”*** Everytown/Moms did not endorse Bloomberg or change its own modest agenda as an organization, however.
Bloomberg was given a lift on February 12 when freshmen Congresswoman Lucy McBath — a well-known gun violence survivor and former Moms Demand Action activist — endorsed him. McBath’s son Jordan Davis was killed by a racist white man over loud music in a horrifying “Stand Your Ground” shooting in Florida in 2012. Everytown’s c(4) spent $1.35 million in support of McBath’s successful challenge in Georgia’s 6th congressional district. “Mike gave grieving mothers like me a way to stand up and fight back,” McBath said in a statement. “Nobody running for president has done more for the gun violence prevention movement than Mike.”
Up to this point, Bloomberg’s campaign was receiving considerable support from Everytown’s grassroots arm without generating significant controversy among the group’s volunteers. One week later, the wheels fell off the cart.
Bloomberg participated in his first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas on February 19 and was dismantled by progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren onstage. Barely two minutes into the debate, Warren declared, “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against — a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians’,” adding, “And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”**** Later in the debate, Bloomberg was asked about numerous allegations that he created a “hostile workplace” for women at his companies. After he stumbled on an answer, Warren jumped in and said, “He has gotten some number of women — dozens, who knows? — to sign Non-Disclose Agreements both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace.” Then she looked directly at Bloomberg and asked if he would release these women from the NDAs “so we can hear their side of the story.” Bloomberg demurred (he later released just three women).
Other ugly aspects of Bloomberg’s record received equal attention in the debate: his less-than-transparent tax returns (“I just can’t go to TurboTax”); and his opposition to the 2008 prohibition on “redlining,” a “discriminatory practice by which lenders denied African-American homebuyers access to loans in the same neighborhoods where white homeowners lived.” By the end of the night, Bloomberg’s opponents had successfully defined him as a pampered, out-of-touch billionaire with personal values akin to Donald Trump. Any shot he might have had at the nomination was over.
But Bloomerg stayed in the race, and additional ugly revelations/allegations about him began to appear in national headlines and on social media:
- Bloomberg told a pregnant female staffer to “kill it” in 1995. When she asked, “What did you say?” he repeated, “kill it.” Then he muttered “great, number 16” and walked away.
- Bloomberg shouted the following at a female staffer having trouble finding a nanny at a company meeting in 1993: “It’s a fucking baby! All it does is eat and shit! It doesn’t know the difference between you and anyone else! All you need is some Black, who doesn’t even have to speak English, to rescue it from a burning building!”
- Bloomberg gave a speech at the Aspen Institute in 2015 in which he defended his stop and frisk policy and remarked: “95 percent of your murders, murderers and murder victims, fit one M.O. You can just take the description, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male minorities, 15 to 25. That’s true in New York. It’s true in virtually every city. And that’s where the real crime is … And the way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw ’em against the wall and frisk ‘em.”
- Bloomberg refused to fire an editor who gave female employees unsolicited massages and created a favored group of subordinates called “Al’s Angels” who dressed and behaved the way he liked.
Soon, Moms Demand Action volunteers were in open revolt (see screen-capped images at bottom), and it was only exacerbated when Bloomberg took credit for founding Everytown/Moms in the next Democratic debate in South Carolina without name-dropping Watts.
Watts began to publicly distance herself from Bloomberg even before Warren eviscerated him on the debate stage in Las Vegas. On February 17, she shared a long Facebook post from a Moms volunteer gushing about how she had just met her “dream candidate” Elizabeth Warren at a town hall in Reno, Nevada. The post included a knock on billionaires and a photo of a Warren sign reading, “Courage Over Cynicism.”
On February 27, Watts did more damage control, posting on Facebook: “This organization certainly isn’t about me or who founded it — it’s about letting women lead … It’s not Mike or me that’s making this thing go — it’s YOU. The volunteers, gun violence survivors, and supporters.”
Three days later, Bloomberg traveled to Selma, Alabama to participate in events honoring the 55th anniversary of the bridge crossing there by civil rights protesters on March 9, 1965. Bloomberg was one of the Democratic presidential candidates who spoke during morning services at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma. As he did, several people of color in the audience stood and faced their backs to him, a powerful image that was captured by photographers.
That was the final straw. On March 4, Bloomberg dropped out of the race and personally endorsed Joe Biden for president. Everytown/Moms endorsed Biden five day later.*****
Watts is undoubtedly overjoyed that Bloomberg’s disastrous presidential run is over. But now that every Moms volunteer in America knows exactly what kind of man he is, her problems are far from over. I would be shocked if Watts has not reached out to potential new financial suitors for Moms Demand Action. It doesn’t take much imagination to see March For Our Lives, the student-led organization that is serious about inclusiveness, capitalizing on Bloomberg’s unpopularity in the gun control ranks and laying claim to leadership of the movement.
In the weeks ahead, look for Watts to take additional steps to distance her grassroots creation from the troglodyte billionaire who owns it. By the time 2021 rolls around, Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense could be two separate organizations.
* The Sandy Hook shooter’s mother passed instant computerized background checks and then simply gave the guns to her son (they lived together).
** Obviously, as founding chair of Mayors Against Illegal Guns/Everytown for Gun Safety, Mike Bloomberg does not need the permission of his organization’s grassroots arm (Moms) to use the emails. You can’t “rent” something from yourself!
*** Two months later, 17 other Democratic presidential candidates received the same distinction.
**** Senator Warren was referencing a 1990 booklet titled “The Portable Bloomberg: The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Bloomberg,” which was created by his employees and contained “actual quotes” by him.
***** Everytown (Moms) didn’t endorse any Democratic presidential candidate until the primary was over.