When Michael Bloomberg comes to Baltimore, money tends to follow — most often to his beloved alma mater, Johns Hopkins, to which he’s donated $1.5 billion over the years, the most any living benefactor has given to a single educational institution.
But last week, the finance and media magnate arrived bearing gifts to the town beyond the gown. Along with the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs, he dropped a $10 million donation to fund a small business initiative in Baltimore for the next five years. That came on the heels of a three-year, $1.5 million grant to City Hall to help reduce violence in Baltimore.
Mayor Catherine Pugh could not be more grateful. Since taking office in December, she has turned increasingly to Bloomberg for advice, and funds. As she comes under increasing pressure from City Council members and community groups to act on the alarming rate of violent crime and other problems wracking Baltimore, Pugh views the former three-term mayor of New York as a valuable resource.
“Bloomberg is someone who’s been there, done that,” Pugh said, “and on top has the resources to make sure you’re as successful as he was as a mayor.”
Since leaving the New York mayor’s office in 2013, Bloomberg’s political influence has only grown, friends and observers say. He has leveraged a vast fortune — more than $50 billion, placing him among the 10 richest people in the world, according to Forbes — to fund advocacy on his signature issues, often at the city and state level. Those interests include climate change, taxes on sugary soda, tighter gun laws, pro-immigration policies and improved infrastructure.
“I can’t think of anybody with a greater ability to influence public policy as much as Mike does,” said longtime friend Edward Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia, governor of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
“He is a significant and recognizable personality, he has unlimited resources, and through all the different Bloomberg companies, he’s tapped into more experts and advisers that often a president doesn’t even have.”
With little of the money spent so far, it’s too early to judge the impact of Bloomberg’s latest contributions to the city. But already, some are wary of the influence that might be wielded by an outsider not accountable to residents.
“My hope is we prioritize the things that the people in Baltimore want prioritized,” said City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, “and in the way they want them prioritized.”
Rendell said Bloomberg has a genuine interest in public policy, and his current philanthropic work with cities is an extension of that. It will be his “life’s work” going forward, Rendell believes, rather than running for office again.
The 75-year-old Bloomberg has flirted with running for president as recently as last year — he ordered polls, and even produced a campaign ad. He was poised to jump in as a moderate independent should the primaries have resulted in Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as the candidates, but decided to stay out once Hillary Clinton expanded her lead over the Vermont senator.
“That ship has sailed,” Rendell said. “He realized a lot of his views were too progressive for Americans as a whole.”
Through his philanthropic arm, Bloomberg has donated and worked with cities across the country on a range of issues. But Baltimore remains first among equals, owing to his long history with Hopkins.
The $1.5 billion he’s given to Hopkins entities over the years is more than a third of his overall $4.9 billion total in philanthropic giving. A member of the class of 1964, he chaired the university’s board of trustees from 1996 to 2002; its school of public health is named for him.
When he speaks of Hopkins, he uses “we.”
“I don’t know what he did at Hopkins,” said Professor Mitchell L. Moss, a friend and former campaign adviser. “But Bloomberg has never forgotten how important Baltimore and Johns Hopkins were to him.
“No matter what occurs in his activities, he’s never stopped caring about and investing in Johns Hopkins,” said Moss, who teaches urban policy and planning at New York University. “Here’s a guy, no matter where he goes around the world, Johns Hopkins always comes first.”
Bloomberg said he sees Baltimore and Johns Hopkins, and his philanthropy to them, as inextricably intertwined.
“I care about the city. Hopkins is part of the city,” he told The Baltimore Sun last week after offering remarks at the CityLab Baltimore seminar.
“As goes the city goes Johns Hopkins,” Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg spent a whirlwind Wednesday in Baltimore. He started at Mount Vernon Marketplace, joining Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein for a live appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. They touted Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses training and loan program, which “graduated” 59 Baltimoreans at a ceremony at Center Stage later that day.
There, Bloomberg announced a $10 million investment with Goldman Sachs to continue the program in Baltimore for five more years.
Bloomberg then headed to the newly renovated Parkway Theatre on North Avenue for CityLab, an afternoon-long series of conversations about issues ranging from addiction to blight. On his way out, he stopped for a photo with two 17-year-old Baltimore high school students spending the summer as Bloomberg arts interns, also funded by his philanthropy.
Through the day, Pugh was at Bloomberg’s side, sharing stages with him and an array of financiers and big thinkers who were in town for either or both of the tightly choreographed, back-to-back events.
“What an honor and highlight of my time thus far as mayor,” Pugh said at Center Stage, where she sat not only with Bloomberg, but also Goldman Sachs’ Blankfein and the Oracle of Omaha, Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett. “The dedication and commitment of the leaders on this stage right here are proof that Baltimore is a great investment,” she said.
Bloomberg, who made his fortune developing a financial data system and growing it into an information and media empire, has funded programs in Baltimore that reflect his background in data and innovation.
Through Bloomberg Philanthropies, Baltimore propped up a data analysis program that sets priorities for areas in need of improving, and then tracks their progress.
The philanthropy also has committed $500,000 a year for three years to provide Pugh with an “innovation team” of four consultants who will focus on reducing violence and addressing what she has identified as contributing factors to the city’s soaring crime rate: homelessness, vacant buildings, insufficient youth and education programs and others.
The Baltimore team is part of an initiative that helps municipalities around the world address their unique challenges. Bloomberg i-teams have addressed affordable housing in Boston, and traffic congestion in the Denver suburb of Centennial.
Pugh says she benefited from an executive training program provided by a partnership between Bloomberg and Harvard College.
The City Leadership Program, intended for mayors and their top aides, includes executive coaching by other mayors, training courses and an on-demand system that mayors can call on for help with policy research and identifying best practices.
Pugh said she attended sessions about problem-solving, dealing with the media and collaborating with city agencies. She said she feels reassured that when she needs advice, she can tap into the network of mayors she met there.
Pugh said that as mayor of New York, Bloomberg “turned a city in a direction where many mayors want to go. The great thing about being a part of the Bloomberg group is I can call up different mayors, like [New Orleans Mayor] Mitch Landrieu, about different issues and you develop this camaraderie around the nation.”
But other Baltimore officials worry whether the alliance with Bloomberg amounts to an outsourcing of the leadership and vision that they were elected to provide.
“What I heard Mike Bloomberg say is they want to help out mayors,” Councilman Dorsey said.
Whatever vision Bloomberg Philanthropies helps Pugh develop for the city, he said, it’s important that it be consistent with what actual residents want.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, who often clashes with Pugh, said city officials need to hire and promote talent from within the city. But Scott also said he has much respect for Bloomberg, and views him as a highly successful mayor in New York. He said the Baltimore should emulate some of New York’s policies, such as posting grades of restaurants’ cleanliness.
“I think the world of Mayor Bloomberg,” he said. “I think it’s important that cities learn from other and work together to implement good policies.”
Bloomberg is clear about his role in Baltimore.
“We’re going to help the mayor,” Bloomberg said. “It’s her job, but we’re going to help her.”
Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels sees Bloomberg’s City Hall involvement as a natural extension of his longtime support of the university and its medical institutions.
“To the extent that Mike has a deep affection for Hopkins ... that affection has now carried over into the city of which we’re part,” Daniels said.
He described Bloomberg as “simply one of the most innovative and creative thinkers when it comes to cities.”
Bloomberg, he said, is “at a stage in his leadership where he’s enjoying sharing the bounty of his experience in New York with other cities, nationally and internationally.
“In that context, he has a tie to Baltimore, he has a deep affection from his time here as a student. I think what he sees here are a lot of possibilities in Baltimore he’s hoping to stoke and realize.
“Ultimately, Mike bets on winners and I think he sees a winning city in Baltimore.”
Since graduating from Hopkins, Bloomberg has supported hundreds of student scholarships, academic programs and medical endeavors including the Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center, named for his mother. With Jones Apparel Group founder Sidney Kimmel, Bloomberg co-founded Hopkins’ cancer immunotherapy institute.
Last year, Bloomberg gave $300 million to his alma mater, the largest gift in the school’s history, to support new faculty positions, scholarships and research on a range of public health issues.
Retired Hopkins political scientist Matthew Crenson, a college fraternity brother of Bloomberg, sees Pugh’s ties to Bloomberg as “politically positive.”
Crenson, whose book, “Baltimore: A Political History,” is to be published next month, said Bloomberg’s experience leading New York can only help a mayor in her first year.
“He’s somewhat of an expert in urban policies and urban affairs,” Crenson said. “He has special ties to Baltimore.”
He said both Democrats and Republicans respect the former New York mayor.
“He’s completely nonpartisan,” Crenson said. “He’s belonged to every party we have, including none at all.”
Bloomberg was a Democrat, but switched to the GOP in 2001 to avoid the Democrats’ crowded primary field for New York mayor that year. He became an independent in 2007, when the popularity of Republicans in Washington and nationwide was reaching a nadir, saying it was more consistent with the nonpartisan way in which he had been governing.
As he approached New York’s two-term limit for mayors, he persuaded the New York City Council to amend the law to allow him to serve a third. He ran again and won.
Even as mayor, Bloomberg played on a national and global field, forming partnerships with other mayors and business leaders to advance causes. In 2008, he, Rendell and Arnold Schwarzenegger, then the governors of Pennsylvania and California, created Building America's Future to unite officeholders in advocacy for infrastructure investment.
President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement in June provided Bloomberg with an opportunity for greater global influence on the issue, Moss said.
Bloomberg joined with California Gov. Jerry Brown to create America’s Pledge, a coalition of cities, counties, states and businesses that plan to uphold the U.S. commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
“Because the U.S. has a leadership vacuum on the top on climate change, Michael Bloomberg has filled that,” Moss said. “Bloomberg is now the leader of cities around the world working on climate change.”
Moss said Washington’s current dysfunction on any number of policy issues creates opportunities for Bloomberg and the cities he is working with to blaze their own path.
“There’s enormous support for Bloomberg’s policy arena on the local level,” Moss said. “This is a great time to do this, because Congress is unable to agree on anything. As the federal government withdraws from policy issues, it creates a chance for localities to do more.”
Moss happened to be in Baltimore on Wednesday as well, and saw Bloomberg on “Morning Joe,” talking about how the U.S. economy needs immigrants. It is yet another issue that puts him in opposition to the Trump administration, which announced plans this week to further reduce legal immigration. In 2010, Bloomberg and News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch formed the Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition of business leaders and mayors who support immigrants.
“It’s really important to have a nonpartisan voice who can speak out on sensible immigration policy,” Moss said.
Bloomberg’s wide-ranging policy interests stem from how he “thrives on solving problems,” Moss said. It’s something he has always done, whether in or out of office.
“The typical billionaire buys a football or baseball team,” he said. “Michael Bloomberg has done it his own way. He’s not on the golf course. He’s in Baltimore … working with small businesses.”