Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, two Jewish candidates who bookend the Democratic presidential spectrum, both elicit strong reactions from voters. I wanted to look at their financial behavior, as I think it is a facet worth exploring. I’ve deliberately not spoken to other aspects of their positions or their history; those are separate discussions for another day perhaps. (And as a personal disclaimer, I am in neither one’s camp.) My purpose in researching and writing this is to try to broaden the pictures we have.
By the numbers
Mike Bloomberg is worth $62 billion, is this country’s biggest philanthropist, and donated $3.3 billion dollars last year alone, over 5.3% of his entire worth (and, I imagine, multiples of any conceivable single year’s salary).
Bernie Sanders is estimated to be worth between almost two and two-and-a-half million dollars. In 2018, his income was over half a million dollars and he donated under $19,000, or 3.35% of that year’s income, to charity.
Beyond the numbers
Bloomberg has supported mayors in other cities as well as other Democratic candidates; these moves have been met with both cynicism and appreciation. Going back further, though, for almost a decade and a half, his Bloomberg Philanthropies has supported issues like combating climate change and gun violence, while also promoting health and education. His alma mater, Johns Hopkins University has been a recipient of his largesse over the years, and in a 2018 New York Times op-ed, Bloomberg articulated that he wanted his donation of $1.8 billion to purposely allow all students to attend without having to take student loans. He further noted other ways his foundation’s initiatives are working to level the college playing field so that all students can enjoy opportunity without future burden. Also worth noting, as mayor of New York City for over a decade, Bloomberg not only declined to take his $225,000 annual salary, but also spent his own money – at least $650 million dollars – on everything from feeding his staff daily to official travel to office renovations to contributions to improve lives, enhance the arts and as political contribution. Unlike President Trump, he added to public coffers.
Bernie’s financial history is a winding one. Besides his $174,000 annual salary as senator, he collects a monthly pension for his eight years serving as mayor of Burlington, VT during the 1980s (he also did a good job of running the city in a fiscally responsible manner). His prosperity stems mostly from being an author. When asked about his millionaire status, he curtly told the New York Times, “I wrote a best-selling book. If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.” With the income from the books, he has purchased real estate. Of his three homes, only his Washington, DC. row house, purchased for $489,000 still has a mortgage on it. He paid $405,000 in 2009 for his Burlington, VT four-bedroom colonial (paying off his entire mortgage five years in, thanks to his 2016 advance from his publisher), and he paid $575,000 in cash for his third home, a family getaway which includes a guest house, sits on 500 feet of shorefront line and is less than an hour north of Burlington. In the New Hampshire debate, Sanders contended that thousands of Vermonters have seasonal homes. This article loosely backs that up, noting that 8,000 entities showed ownership of 17,000 seasonal homes. But with an estimated population of 628,061, just under 1.3% of Vermonters own second homes – if each entity owns only one; if there were companies with multiple rental properties, the percentage in whose company Sanders finds himself in is even smaller. As for his charitable giving, in 2017, his income was over $1.1 million and he donated 3.15%, comparable to his 2018 percentage. In 2016, he also earned over a million dollars, but donated less than 1%. In 2015, he directly donated all the proceeds from his book The Speech (about $3000) to charity, and so that wasn’t reflected in his tax returns.
If one views the system as favorable to the rich and wants the rich to carry their fair share, as does Sanders (and Elizabeth Warren), then attacking Bloomberg who has not taken from the public coffers and who has distributed his money in impactful ways, seems very much like a misdirected arrow to shoot. Instead of implying that money itself is inherently evil and determining that billionaires (but conveniently not millionaires) are the problem, I would suggest the candidates might be better off focusing on the system itself and how their vision fixes the issues they have with it.
Regarding funding, Bloomberg self-funded his campaign in order not to be beholden to anyone. Sanders (and Warren) originally took the position of not taking corporate or special interest money for the same reason. All of these are good positions to stake. But there is more to each picture.
The sheer amount of money that Bloomberg has poured into his campaign creates an unlevel playing field towards his Democratic competition. And the appearance of financial support to candidates or groups in exchange for their vocal support paints a very unflattering picture that bothers voters. On the other side of the spectrum, Sanders founded a nonprofit political organization, Our Revolution, which behaves like a super PAC. It “can raise unlimited sums from wealthy patrons that dwarf the limits faced by candidates and conventional PACs. Unlike a super PAC, however, the group doesn’t have to disclose its donors – a stream of revenue commonly referred to as ‘dark money.’” This lack of transparency begs the question: Who will he be beholden to? (Warren too, recently reversed course and now gladly accepts super PAC money.) How are these moves any different from attacking the rich simply for “playing the game” others play? There is no moral high ground when one moves the line one has to cross to be denoted as the cause of our country’s issues. Convenience doesn’t trump hypocrisy.
On that note, it is also worth contrasting both candidates to Trump’s financial behavior. It is worth noting first that both Bloomberg and Sanders left their cities in a financially better place than they had found it. Bloomberg left Di Blasio with no budget deficit and Sanders took a solid fiscal approach to balance his budget too. Trump promised if elected to release his taxes and has fought it tooth and nail since; we cannot know if he has paid his fair share of taxes or how much he donates personally. One 2016 study shows he donated less than $10,000 over seven years; what percentage of his income is that? Yes, he has taken his presidential salary and donated it. And after being pressured, kept his million dollar pledge towards vets five months after making the promise. At the same time, he has hurt the public coffers. Trump has used taxpayer money to not only pay for travel to his golf properties but also to pay for Secret Service personnel to stay on his properties. And he has pushed through tax changes which gave enormous tax breaks and even refunds to major corporations and benefited his friends. Instead of balancing a budget, he’s made the country’s national debt and federal deficit skyrocket.
Neither Bloomberg the billionaire nor Sanders the millionaire reflects the financial profile of the typical American voter. This is something to keep in mind, as is how they treat the money they do have. And if this is the yardstick you use, then use it when you take a look at the other candidates. No mater how you choose to judge the candidates, measure them all the same way.
Perhaps this can help: Here is how much all the candidates donated in 2018. Here is information about their net worth. And here are search results for their town halls (although it is worth seeking full length interviews than just looking at the clips). Learn as much as you can and then go vote.