Jennifer Leeper was on her last night of maternity leave with her second boy when Donald Trump was declared winner of the 2016 presidential election. When she recovered from shock, like millions of women across the nation, she decided she had to stop sitting on the political sidelines. She ran for a seat on the local Board of Education in Fairfield, Connecticut, and won. In 2018, Leeper threw herself into the 2018 midterms, helping a Democratic state Senate campaign.
Last November, a Connecticut state House seat opened up when the Republican incumbent announced her run for a new office. It was the kind of suburban district Democrats had been flipping across the country, and Leeper decided to take a shot at the special election, set for January 14, 2020.
She had the backing of a former Connecticut congressman and current senator, Chris Murphy, and a team of volunteers out knocking doors. Her campaign manager had just run a successful reelection campaign for the mayor of Bridgeport. He posted on Facebook in mid-November that Leeper’s race had real meaning for him, explaining that his family had lived in the district since 1962. “Nowhere is more ‘home’ to me than my story and this district. It’s personal,” he wrote. “And that’s why I believe in Jennifer Leeper and her vision for this place that we both love so much.”
With just three weeks until the election, however, he was back with a new status update. “I’m taking my talents to Madison, Wisconsin,” he posted on December 26. He had taken a job with billionaire Mike Bloomberg’s newly launched presidential campaign, which was offering lucrative salaries, as a deputy organizing director, it would later emerge.
Without a captain in the final weeks, Leeper’s campaign flagged. On Election Day, Leeper lost to her challenger by just 79 votes, and Republicans held on to the seat.
Bloomberg entered the presidential race in November, and has since spent more than $300 million of his own money in his effort to secure the Democratic nomination. Much of the focus on Bloomberg’s historic spending spree has been on the TV ads he’s running in at least 29 states, helping boost him into the top tier in polls and driving up the price of air time for other candidates. Beyond pushing out his competitors, though, Bloomberg’s spending is having a shockingly disruptive effect on Democratic politics throughout the country: He is hiring armies of staffers and canvassers in nearly every state in the country at eye-popping salaries, poaching talent from other campaigns and progressive organizations that are now struggling to fill jobs. In just three months, the Bloomberg campaign has hired thousands of people to staff more than 125 offices around the country, the New York Times reported Thursday.
For a swath of voters, there’s something comforting about the money he’s willing to spend. But for candidates across the country, the billions in spending means quite the opposite.
The former New York City mayor, who has committed to directing his money in support of whoever the eventual Democratic nominee is, claims that his billions of dollars will save the party. Neither Leeper nor her campaign managers responded to requests for comment, but hers is a story that is unfolding in local, state, and federal races across the country. The promise of Bloomberg’s campaign — “Mike Will Get it Done” — is meant to assure anxious Democrats that he and his money will rescue a moribund party. For staffers, working for Bloomberg means guaranteed employment through November, something campaigns that are competing in primaries can’t promise to their employees. The billionaire is now opening an office in New Hampshire, just as other presidential campaigns are packing up and leaving after Tuesday’s primary. For a swath of voters, there’s something comforting about the money he’s willing to spend. But for candidates across the country — the type needed to hold majorities in Congress and in state legislatures, and to boost turnout for the presidential election — the billions in spending means quite the opposite.
Progressive groups, local campaigns, and presidential operations are either losing staff to the Bloomberg campaign, or are struggling to hire people because the former mayor has picked so many political operatives and canvassers up, according to interviews, emails, and messages from dozens of people involved in hiring. Several of them spoke to The Intercept on condition of anonymity, either not to offend the biggest spender in political history, or not to expose publicly that they are having a hard time finding staff, which the public could perceive as suggestive of weakness.
Chris Larson is running for Milwaukee County Executive and said he has watched Bloomberg siphoning talent, including from his own campaign. “We have a bad case of the Bloombergs here,” he said. “It’s been a big part of the story no one is talking about in Wisconsin.”
Larson said he lost one junior staffer, who Bloomberg is “running … ragged for $6k/month. Other campaigns for county exec lost a field coordinator and another lost his campaign manager. There’s a ton of other politicos pulled over from other campaigns and government jobs.”
John Rocco Calabrese is running for State Assembly in Wisconsin. “I’ve heard from friends across the state who are affected by Bloomberg sweeping up managers and staff. It’s a tsunami of Bloomberg. He’ll have a rep at our County Dem meeting Thursday and even at a small County Board Spring Election fundraising event next Monday,” Calabrese said, adding that the campaign reached out directly to him for help with information on his district, but he “politely refused and never heard back.”
“I’ve heard from friends across the state who are affected by Bloomberg sweeping up managers and staff. It’s a tsunami of Bloomberg.”
During an interview this week on The Hill TV’s show “The Rising,” a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders, Chuck Rocha, said the campaign recently lost a staffer in South Carolina to Bloomberg.
“I’ve heard it in every state that we’ve been in,” said Rocha of the Bloomberg effect, adding that one staffer recently came to him and said, “‘Hey Chuck, I’m with Bernie, I’m gonna vote for Bernie, but I’m gonna go get this money, cuz he’s gonna double my salary and pay me till November and I’ve gotta pay my bills when this thing is over.’ And I was like, ‘Look brother, go do what you’ve gotta do. Out of respect, we’d still like your vote, and ask your mommy and daddy if they’ll vote for Bernie as well,’ and he goes, ‘Oh, no problem.’ That’s a real thing.”
The salaries being paid to Bloomberg staffers are well above market rates, and often come with housing included, as well as a laptop and an iPhone. One operative lured to Bloomberg’s office in New York said she observed a seemingly endless wall of iPhones stacked like bricks as far as she could see. Another said that Bloomberg offered a job to one operative who didn’t take it, but still received a laptop and iPhone from the campaign in the mail anyway, presumably by sheer dint of onboarding momentum. One progressive consultant in Arizona has lost multiple hires to Bloomberg and is having a hard time finding workers. “I have heard of new organizers being hired by Bloomberg and then saying they are secretly still knocking for Bernie,” the consultant said.
The Bloomberg campaign is offering field organizers, or FOs) $6,000 per month and guaranteed pay through November, and many have realized that if they demand more, they will likely get it, according to hiring managers. A typical salary for that position at the state or federal level might be $3,000 to $4,000, and multiple operatives in charge of hiring FOs say they’ve never had a harder time recruiting, and applicants are making extreme demands. Regional organizing directors are being offered $8,000 a month to start, significantly more than typical campaigns.
Elijah Manley, a 20-year-old activist running for Florida state House, was offered $6,500 a month to be an adviser on Social Justice & Black Youth Policy on the Bloomberg campaign, he said. He told the campaign he was a Sanders supporter but that didn’t seem to sway them, he told The Intercept. Asked how temping the offer was on a scale of 1-10, he said that it was a 10, citing the poor health of his mother and grandmother. “We’re barely above water. The money would have been a plus financially,” he said. “But hell, I’d rather be broke than a sellout.”
After audio of racist comments Bloomberg made about New York’s stop and frisk program, which he oversaw and expanded as mayor, surfaced, Manley offered him some free advice. “This is not enough,” he said of Bloomberg’s semi-apology. “If I were advising you on this, I would tell you that impact matters more than intention. Also, to drop out.”
Bloomberg’s network is even trying to recruit the children of big donors. As one donor messaged a friend: “Saw Nancy Pelosi yesterday at a fundraiser. Very inspiring. Lots of folks are starting to agree with [us] about Bloomberg. I know [your daughter] is a progressive but we have to win this time. One of the sons of our group is now on Bloomberg’s staff and he said they’re hiring young people with no experience at $8k a month. Any way we can talk [your daughter] into getting paid for real on the campaign?” (A Sanders supporter, the daughter declined and forwarded the message to The Intercept. It is edited to conceal identifying information, so as to avoid an unpleasant conversation with mom.)
Rob Quan, a political operative in Los Angeles, is currently consulting for a local city council candidate. “This is hands down the toughest time I’ve ever had finding field staff,” he said. He’s posting jobs for canvassers, paying $18 an hour, and is “getting crickets.”
Courage California, a major progressive coalition in the state, lost its top digital staffer ahead of the March 3 California primary, “hobbling their political program,” said one operative the organization approached to try to fill the gap quickly.
Regardless of whether Bloomberg wins the nomination or not, the Bloomberg effect will continue through the end of the election cycle. His operation in support of whomever becomes the Democratic nominee will be well staffed. Everybody else is on their own.
Correction: Feb. 14, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy once represented the district in which Leeper ran for office. In fact, he represented a neighboring district.