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Controversial Endorsement: Charlotte Mayor Backs Bloomberg


We do not know how the 2020 election is going to end, but voters in eight American communities will give us clues. NPR's asking Where Voters Are - where they are on the issues and on the candidates - or just where they are because your community can really affect how you see the world. Right?

This election year, NPR news teams will visit and revisit Dallas, Fort Worth, Pensacola, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, southwest Washington state. I'm part of a team that's going to Orange County, Calif. We began the project yesterday in Pueblo, Colo., and in Charlotte, N.C. And this morning, we have the story of a presidential candidate with some history in Charlotte.


Michael Bloomberg has been involved here since long before he declared. That work helped him to receive a big endorsement from Charlotte's mayor, which seems good for him. But it became surprisingly controversial, as we will discuss with Steve Harrison of Charlotte member station WFAE.

Good morning, sir.

STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What was Bloomberg's involvement in Charlotte?

HARRISON: Philanthropy. He's donated billions across the country on issues like gun control and climate change. That gives him influence over issues he cares about. It also gives him political connections now that he's running.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

HARRISON: So in 2018, his foundation made a $2.5 million donation to Charlotte to help the city reduce its carbon footprint. That brought him into contact with Charlotte's Democratic Mayor Vi Lyles. She was elected in 2017 and is very popular with both Democrats and Republicans. She was one of the biggest supporters of bringing the Republican National Convention to Charlotte. And Bloomberg came here for a press conference, and the mayor introduced him. Let's listen.


VI LYLES: And with all great endeavors, with all great plans, it's nice to have influential friends. I want to introduce to you, from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge, Mayor Michael Bloomberg.


MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Vi, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I have a special affinity to Charlotte. My mother's name was Charlotte.


BLOOMBERG: Anyways, we're here to talk about an urgent challenge facing Charlotte and the whole world, and that is climate change.

INSKEEP: OK. So the mayor made this grant to Charlotte. What happened then?

HARRISON: So that was 2018. Then less than a year later, Bloomberg declares he's running for president. He, of course, skipped the early states and will be on the ballot for the first time on Super Tuesday, which includes North Carolina. And he opened his very first field office of his entire campaign right here in Charlotte.

And Mayor Lyles endorsed him for president earlier this month. That's a pretty big deal. Democrats see her as a rising figure. Charlotte's the biggest city in the state. And she's also African American. And the black vote is critical in a Democratic primary here.

INSKEEP: Doesn't Bloomberg need some help with African American voters?

HARRISON: He does, I mean, especially among younger black voters, and that's primarily because of the mayor's stop-and-frisk policies in New York City. And Mayor Lyles has faced immediate blowback, even from her own daughter. Her daughter wrote on Twitter right after that endorsement, quote, "I have no words to describe how devastatingly disappointed I am in every Democratic mayor who has endorsed Michael Bloomberg, particularly the black ones and especially the ones closest to me."

INSKEEP: Ow. Now, we followed up with Mayor Lyles' daughter. And she said her mom is understanding, told her to speak her mind. But this is an obvious political problem. So let's follow up with NPR's Sarah McCammon, who's been talking with voters all over Charlotte. And Sarah, what are you hearing?

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Well, I'm also hearing a lot of concern - and not just from the younger black activists. I talked to a couple of black activists in their early 60s, Willie Fleming (ph) and Corine Mack - she's with the local NAACP.

WILLIE FLEMING: I think one of the things, too, that bothers me - that he had his first debate and he get endorsed before he has his first debate. I don't understand that.

CORINE MACK: Unless somebody pays you to support them.

FLEMING: Yeah. Yeah. So...

MACK: I mean, how are you going to endorse people because they paid to be endorsed? What's up with that?

MCCAMMON: And I heard this a few times - the suspicion that maybe the endorsement was tied to Bloomberg's wealth and that $2.5 million donation to Charlotte.

INSKEEP: Naturally, we wanted to ask the mayor about this. We'd already been asking for a broad interview about Charlotte as we start this special series on the city. But day after day, her staff was unable to set it up. A spokesman said that she had a very busy schedule and then said we had to go through a different spokesperson whose name and number we never received.

We asked a person linked with the Bloomberg campaign to connect us to this mayor who'd endorsed him, but the Bloomberg campaign declined to help. It seemed really unusual, so I went and introduced myself to Mayor Lyles at a city council meeting this week. And she was very open face-to-face. She's an NPR listener.

Mayor Lyles.


INSKEEP: Hi. Steve Inskeep with NPR.

LYLES: Hey, Steve. It's so nice to see you.

INSKEEP: Good - I'm glad to be here...


INSKEEP: ...Just want to introduce myself...

LYLES: You sound just like you do on the radio.

INSKEEP: Oh. Well, thank you very much.

LYLES: Oh, my goodness. This is so cool.

INSKEEP: I appreciate that.

She agreed to an interview later that evening, but then a staff member called to cancel. We should mention - the invitation remains open, and her spokesman insists she's just had a busy schedule.

HARRISON: And as someone who covers this city on a day-to-day basis, I'll say this is pretty unusual. I mean, the mayor is really very open. And I think this kind of shows how hard this endorsement has been.

INSKEEP: Does Bloomberg have some appeal in Charlotte?

HARRISON: He does. I've been interviewing voters in the more prosperous part of the city. And there is some interest, including from a retired pharmacist Swati Patek (ph).

SWATI PATEK: I don't think it's the TV ads that have swayed me. I think it's his accomplishments while he was mayor. I feel like he's a businessman, he's successful, and he ran a large economy in New York. And I think, what else do you want someone to prove? Just because they've not - he's been in government, and he's been in private business. So...

INSKEEP: OK. So Bloomberg has some support. But another prominent Charlotte politician has made a different choice than the mayor, and we were able to interview him. Braxton Winston is his name. He became famous locally when he protested a police shooting in 2016. He's now been elected to the city council, and he has endorsed Bernie Sanders.

BRAXTON WINSTON: We are trying to change things. We're not trying to just tweak the system that is built to leave people out. We're here to create a system that works for all people. Unfortunately, that's seen as revolutionary at this day and time.

INSKEEP: Can Sanders win in November?


INSKEEP: Will Sanders win in November if he's nominated?


INSKEEP: You feel sure of it?


INSKEEP: You don't feel it's a risk?

WINSTON: We have organizers. We have organizers. And people are going to organize and organize and organize.

INSKEEP: There is more than a little irony here because Braxton Winston, the Sanders supporter, says he once benefited from the philanthropy of Michael Bloomberg. He got a grant to go to an elite prep school, which changed his life in many ways. But you do see here a divide in the Democratic Party. We should mention, Mayor Mike Bloomberg visits this city on Saturday, and we'll get a chance to see his support in Charlotte. On Monday, another candidate is in town. President Trump campaigns in Charlotte right before the voting on Super Tuesday.

We've been reporting on Charlotte, N.C., as we go Where Voters Are. We've been talking with Sarah McCammon of NPR News and Steve Harrison of WFAE. Thanks, guys.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

HARRISON: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Steve Harrison is a reporter and host at WFAE, covering politics and government. In addition to his on-air stories, Steve hosts theInside Politicspodcast and writes itsweekly newsletter.
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