Two miles from President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the Capitol, Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg are looking to draw a distinction between the improbable and the practical.
The two Democratic White House contenders, former mayors whose chief political experience was gained through leading cities, will both speak this week at the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, a bipartisan gathering where infrastructure and municipal finance are likely to be hotter topics than the trial of a president almost certain to end with an acquittal.
Buttigieg, a Harvard educated former management consultant, has pointed to voter dissatisfaction with Washington as a reason to elect someone like himself, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city of about 100,000. Bloomberg, meanwhile, presents himself as a “doer and a problem-solver” who served three terms as mayor of New York, the largest city in the U.S. with over 8 million residents.
The occasion offers the two an opportunity to contrast their pragmatic, no-excuses mayoral experience with that of their campaign rivals, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet, who serve in a partisan and gridlocked Senate that has passed little substantive legislation in recent years and is all but guaranteed to acquit the president they are seeking to replace.
“Mayors have to get up every day and do something,” said Annise Parker, a former mayor of Houston who is supporting Buttigieg. “It’s a contrast to what’s going on in the Capitol.”
Yet while both Bloomberg, who spoke Wednesday afternoon, and Buttigieg, who spoke Thursday morning, were looking to capitalize on their municipal experience before a familiar crowd, their experiences are decidedly different.
Buttigieg has emerged as an eloquent voice as a married, gay veteran who presided over the rebirth of a Rust Belt city mired by decline. What he lacks in resume length he has sought to make up by presenting himself as a pragmatic Midwesterner and reasoned voice of generational change.
Bloomberg, meanwhile, has promoted himself as a business success who turned to public service with an estimated worth of $60 billion from the financial data and media company that bears his name. He steered New York City through the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, championed politically unpopular charter schools and made taxes on cigarettes and soda a centerpiece of his health care agenda.
Bloomberg was a Republican during his early years as mayor and an independent in his later years. Since leaving office, he registered as a Democrat and has poured hundreds of millions of his own wealth into political causes including gun control, climate change — and defeating Republican officeholders.
That’s earned him goodwill among many party leaders. And he has sought to turn that into a network of support, offering millions in grants to city leaders through his philanthropic foundation while establishing a training program at Harvard.
“Bloomberg isn’t somebody you’re going to want to have a beer with, but he’s made a huge investment in upping the skill set for mayors across America,” Parker said. “But Pete is the up-and-coming best and brightest. He’s a colleague, the guy who sat next to you in class and helped you study.”
Bloomberg plans to use the event to roll out an $850 billion 10-year spending plan to rebuild roads, bridges and other infrastructure. The subject has been a Washington punchline under Trump, whose administration has vowed multiple times to hold an “infrastructure week,” only to be blown off course by the White House’s often shifting priorities.
Bloomberg’s plan is designed to appeal to frustrated mayors, many of whom are backing him or know him through his philanthropy’s investments in initiatives they have championed in their cities.
“He actually knows what it takes to get something done,” said Mayor Michael Tubbs, of Stockton, California, who is supporting Bloomberg. “A policy proposal or plan sounds good. But actually making it work is up to local (leaders).”
While mayors, particularly those who lead smaller cities, may not seem like coveted presidential endorsements, they are more closely connected to voters than most politicians and are responsible for functions of government that often have a more direct impact on voters’ lives.
That could turn into an advantage in closely divided primaries where local support and voter turnout may be the difference between winning and losing.
“When you survey our citizens on what level of government they trust, it always comes down to the local level,” said Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky. “It’s because we’re accountable. We have to get results.
On Wednesday, Bloomberg’s campaign released 11 new mayoral endorsements. Buttigieg has a similar list of at least 60 endorsements, which they call “Mayors for Pete.”
Supporters of both say the two are poised to give voice to mayors who are frustrated by dysfunction and inaction in Washington that has stymied progress at the local level.
“I just wish there was a desire to get things done more than being partisan and scoring points,” said Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler, who is supporting Buttigieg. “Talk about what needs to happen to improve the quality of life, rather than engage in these esoteric back-and-forth battles.”