Nine weeks ago, Michael Bloomberg, the centrist, septuagenarian, multibillionaire former presidential candidate, made a promise to Texas voters: He would “help turn Texas blue.”
“Unlike New Yorkers, Texans have a Democratic cry: Texas is the biggest [battleground] state,” Bloomberg told a crowd of skeptical Texans, fervent supporters and pragmatic Democrats at an East Austin brewery.
But his promises were short-lived.
After his political prospects dimmed following a humiliating performance on Super Tuesday — the billionaire won only American Samoa — Bloomberg shuttered his massive campaign. Soon after, his operation began the rocky process of determining how to redeploy that campaign as a new independent committee in service of Joe Biden, whom Bloomberg has endorsed and who has emerged as the Democratic frontrunner in the primary after a wave of recent wins.
The change was abrupt: After declaring his candidacy in November, Bloomberg ramped up operations in the Lone Star State. Using pay as a powerful bargaining chip, he built a massive operation with roughly 20 field offices and nearly 200 staffers in Texas ahead of Super Tuesday.
Now, he’s devoting his resources to six battleground states — Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — with Texas noticeably absent from the list. His exit and the ripple it has caused are being felt in ways big and small: Several of his laid-off Texas staffers said they were promised job security through November, while Texas lawmakers say they were hoping Bloomberg would follow through on his promise to invest in the state during the general election even if he wasn’t the party’s nominee.
“Bloomberg was promising a long-term commitment to Texas regardless of who won the primary,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who attended the Austin event. “It’s disappointing that with his defeat in the primary, the campaign has decided to reverse course and not maintain a Texas presence.”
Earlier this month, the Democratic National Committee expanded its “Battleground Build-Up 2020” to include Ohio, Texas and Georgia. In addition to hoping to compete in the 2020 presidential and U.S. Senate races, Texas Democrats are eyeing several suburban state House and congressional districts they think are within their grasp.
In 2018, Democrats had a 12-seat pick-up in the Texas House. They also flipped two congressional seats blue. This year, Democrats are nine seats away from nabbing the majority in the state House. The party is targeting seven U.S. House seats in November.
Even Bloomberg reportedly believed at one point that the state was a worthwhile investment, and former staffers said they were given the impression he would use his gusher of cash to help Texas candidates down ballot.
“The entire Houston team was told by a top Bloomberg adviser that Texas is a battleground state,” said one Houston-area field organizer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We were told Texas is important and that the team would try to transition into helping down-ballot candidates if Bloomberg wasn’t the nominee.”
Howard was one of several curious state lawmakers who joined Bloomberg at the Austin event. At the time of the gathering, she said, little was known about Bloomberg’s candidacy other than the fact that he was eschewing the four early states and setting his sights on delegate-rich Texas and other Super Tuesday prizes.
Howard, along with several other Democrats who met Bloomberg and his staff in Austin, said it was “encouraging” to see a presidential candidate recognize Texas’ importance in unseating President Donald Trump — especially during an election cycle when most other big-name candidates had their sights set on the four early states and winning back the states Hillary Clinton lost in 2016.
“I am disappointed. I do wish he had followed up on that commitment,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, who also attended the Austin event. “I personally know people who accepted jobs within the Bloomberg campaign because they were so excited about the way he was investing in Texas.”
Those former employees say they’re just as disappointed as lawmakers are. Earlier this week, on a statewide conference call, a top campaign aide broke the news to Bloomberg’s legion of workers that they were all being laid off.
Six staffers on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing nondisclosure agreements they had signed with the campaign, said they were told upon their hiring that they’d have jobs through November — mitigating the risk that typically comes with high-pressure campaign organizing. Now, they said, they were told to expect their final paycheck at the end of the month and that they only had health, vision and dental coverage until March 31. As a consolation prize, all were allowed to keep Bloomberg-provided iPhones and MacBook Air laptops, so long as they agreed to pay taxes on both electronics.
“There are a lot of folks who came down here from New York or Iowa who are now out of jobs,” said one Dallas-area field organizer, who was paid $6,000 per month since his hiring Feb. 17.
“People made decisions based on thinking they had a job until November,” said another former regional director for the campaign. “Someone dropped their insurance to pick up Bloomberg’s insurance, for instance.”
A Bloomberg spokesperson told The Texas Tribune that the campaign had been upfront about its intention to focus on a smaller cluster of battleground states.
“Mike Bloomberg entered the race to defeat Donald Trump, and he will keep up the fight to remove Trump from office in November,” the spokesperson said. “As we’ve said over the course of the campaign, this election will come down to six battleground states. It’s imperative that we invest there with staff and infrastructure.
“Staff who were working in non-battleground states and would like to learn about future opportunities in the battleground states are being asked to let us know so we can consider them for jobs there.”
While the description of Texas as a “non-battleground state” might be disappointing to optimistic Democrats, it isn’t causing them to lose hope. Especially after staggeringly high Democratic turnout last week, members of the party say they’re remaining bullish.
“I can’t speak for the Bloomberg campaign, but I can tell you that we’re not discouraged about our chances of flipping the House because Michael Bloomberg isn’t able to fulfill his commitment,” said state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, who also attended the event at the Austin brewery. “We were excited about flipping the House before Bloomberg’s campaign, and we remain as excited or more excited since he left. If I’m going to take a positive away from this it’s that he and his campaign helped train 200 Texans in the field.”
“We had plans to flip the Texas House long before Bloomberg got in the race, and his support was never an essential part of that plan,” Howard added. “With 2020 being so unpredictable ... I’m not discounting anything in the future and certainly welcome anyone's help, billionaire or not, in electing a Democratic House majority.”