Democratic front-runners Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have enjoyed vilifying the billionaires.
For Boston business leaders who bleed blue, it has been hard to support — let alone give money to — candidates who make a sport out of beating up capitalists. Poring over election filings last fall, I found that local corporate titans were sprinkling money across multiple candidates, because they weren’t sure whom to back in the primary.
Then, in November, along came two moderate candidates with business backgrounds that local business bigwigs could identify with: Deval Patrick and Mike Bloomberg. Just like that, the major-donor class didn’t feel so shunned; there was genuine excitement.
Plenty of Boston business leaders maxed out their contributions to former governor Patrick’s primary campaign, including General Electric executive Mo Cowan, Vertex founder Josh Boger, and Suffolk construction CEO John Fish.
It turned out to be a short-lived and ill-fated endeavor. With a dismal showing in the New Hampshire primary, Patrick dropped out the next day.
Bloomberg, the media mogul and former New York City mayor, won’t appear on a ballot until Tuesday, when 14 states hold primaries, including Massachusetts. His campaign has been working the Boston business community for support, even though he doesn’t need anyone to cut him a check.
The billionaire candidate is famously paying his own way, having spent about $516.7 million so far on TV and digital advertising, which is more than the rest of existing Democratic field combined, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising.
If Bloomberg doesn’t need money — his website doesn’t even have a “donate” button —what becomes the ask?
“We’re asking them to open their networks and to spread the word,” said Jim Anderson, a senior adviser for policy and strategy for Bloomberg 2020, who spoke to about 80 business and community leaders at a breakfast at the Boston law firm Foley Hoag last Friday. “We can’t get across the finish line without people opening up their networks.”
Foley Hoag partner Doug McGarrah hosted the event, and yes, he’s backing Bloomberg. “Despite his performances in debates, I think he is the best candidate to take on Trump and restore decency and the rule of law in the US.” McGarrah told me in an e-mail.
Boston PR executive Micho Spring was among the attendees, and she’s with Mike, too.
“Bloomberg is a proven executive, successful businessman, and powerful advocate for important issues, such as climate change and gun-control,” Spring said. “Has he made mistakes? Of course. But he has learned from them and evolved, and that matters.”
But what about the critics who say that Bloomberg is buying his way to a nomination?
“I find not having to raise money for a candidate refreshing and liberating. It changes the power dynamics of the campaign and equalizes access,” Spring said. “Self-funding by a candidate is not ideal, but it does bring total transparency and eliminates the influence of bundlers and special interests. It focuses all the energies of supporters around mobilizing other voters — quite a change.”
Bloomberg supporters, however, are harder to track, because there is no money trail. So there’s that. I did find another big name who is Team Bloomberg: former Bentley University president Gloria Larson.
She got to know the former mayor, who made his billions as the founder of the financial media and data company Bloomberg LP, because Bentley had a partnership with Bloomberg Radio. If the billionaire comes across as brusque in the debates, he is being true to himself. “There’s no small talk with Michael Bloomberg,” she said.
Larson, a Republican turned independent, had supported Patrick. She likes Bloomberg because he is a progressive on social issues yet a moderate on fiscal issues. As for the question of whether he or his company discriminate against women, Larson told me that having visited Bloomberg headquarters many times, she can attest that women working there today are treated well.
“He is all about equality,” she said.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that business honchos are in lockstep on a candidate. They’re all over the place:
* Boston developer Dick Friedman, after supporting California Senator Kamala Harris, who has since dropped out, is backing the former vice president, Joe Biden.
* Vertex founder Boger — who has given to multiple candidates, including Warren and Harris — told me he pulled the lever for Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., during early voting this week. Boger joins former advertising bigwig Jack Connors and former state treasurer Steve Grossman as Mayor Pete fans.
* There are even Warren supporters, including Gail Deegan, former chief financial officer at Houghton Mifflin, who describe the Massachusetts senator as someone who is smart, data-driven, and has a good handle on “how money is made and the people who are suffering.”
And, remarkably, after 10 Democratic debates, I found a bunch of business leaders still undecided.
Sounds like like a lot of people will be making a game-day decision.
Shirley Leung is a Globe Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.