MIAMI - In a warehouse covered in murals in the Design District here, cater waiters served wine and platters of Cuban sandwiches, summer rolls and kosher pigs in a blanket. They wore all black but for red, white and blue T-shirts reading "I Like Mike Bloomberg."
Before the candidate took the stage - set against an oversize painting reading "Mike 2020" that a local artist had been paid thousands to produce in 36 hours - the former mayor of Miami Beach, Philip Levine, introduced him.
"We both started from nothing, and we made a few bucks," Levine said, proudly likening himself to Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who announced his run for president in November. "But he's got more zeros at the end of his name than I do."
Bloomberg, the multibillionaire behind Bloomberg LP, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the race, paying to make his voice omnipresent on television and radio. He has deployed his corporation in service of his campaign, reassigning employees from the various arms of his empire and recruiting new ones with powerful financial incentives, including full benefits and salaries well above national campaign norms.
Entry-level field organizing work for Bloomberg, for example, pays $72,000 annually - nearly twice what other campaigns have offered. In under 12 weeks, Bloomberg's operation has grown to a staff of thousands, with more than 125 offices around the country and a roster of slick events featuring swag, drinks and canapés.
Such spending has helped make Bloomberg an increasingly strong contender in the Democratic presidential primary. While Sen. Bernie Sanders, the leading progressive, has emerged as a front-runner in an exceedingly tight race, former Vice President Joe Biden has faltered and several other candidates have splintered the moderate vote that Bloomberg hopes to capture in the Super Tuesday contests March 3.
In the first quarter of his campaign alone, Bloomberg, who is not accepting political donations, spent $188 million - more than what numerous candidates in the race had spent combined. Seventy percent of that went toward advertising. Millions went toward rent, including for the campaign's Times Square headquarters as well as furnished apartments on Manhattan's East Side where some staff members are living.
Millions more have paid a robust network of consultants, lawyers and campaign staff members - some of whom are new to the speculative work of electioneering and are finding it oddly lucrative.
For David Enriquez, a 23-year-old recent graduate of the University of Florida acting as a field organizer for Bloomberg in Tampa, the pay came as a surprise. "I was expecting 30,000 a year, essentially till March, so whatever that is," he said, referring to a salary that would have translated to $2,500 monthly. He is receiving more than twice that - $6,000 a month - and he expects his work will continue through November, given Bloomberg's pledge to support the Democratic effort to unseat President Donald Trump regardless of whether his own name is on the ballot.
"I was just going to pay the minimum payment on my credit card for an extended period, but when I found out what my salary was, I was like, 'Wow'," Enriquez said.
The campaign's pay for field organizers, the equivalent of $72,000 annually, is well above the $42,000 that other campaigns have offered. Bloomberg staff members have also been issued campaign-owned electronics, including Apple laptops and the latest-generation iPhones, which a spokeswoman said were distributed with cybersecurity in mind.
"I was paid $15 a day as an organizer for Ted Kennedy in 1980," said Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist, referring to a rate that, adjusted for inflation, would amount to roughly $1,500 monthly today.
Trippi called substantial pay such as what Bloomberg was offering plausible for a campaign's staff members in key early-voting states, like Iowa or New Hampshire, but highly unusual as a standard for employees across regions - and even more so for the apparent sense of job security through the fall. "That's never happened before," he said.
Reflecting similar premiums, Bloomberg's state communications directors and state political directors uniformly receive $12,000 monthly, according to the campaign, while state press secretaries make $10,000 monthly and the campaign's national political director commands $30,000 a month, or $360,000 annually.
"Everyone knows that campaigning is hard work, long hours and lousy pay," said Stu Loeser, a Bloomberg campaign spokesman. "We can't change the first two, but we can do something about the third."
For employees working at the New York headquarters, the campaign also offers three meals daily and unlimited snacks in a central cafe that acts as a hub of the office. In late December alone, according to the campaign's first filing with the Federal Election Commission, it paid more than $16,000 to a sushi restaurant in Manhattan as well as roughly $200,000 to FLIK Hospitality, a catering company.
James Thurber, a professor of government who founded the Campaign Management Institute at American University, said money was an unlikely motivator in campaign work, but he called some of Bloomberg's spending necessary.
"Since he's gotten in so late, he's got to pay above-market salaries to get good people to jump in at all levels," Thurber said. "You can't win a campaign on an air war," he said, referring to a blitz of advertising. "You've got to have a ground war. He knows that, so he's buying the ground war."
On the ground, an aura of abundance has extended to Bloomberg's campaign events, where an array of shirts and buttons are laid out for the taking. On offer at recent rallies: "I Like Mike"; "Women for Mike"; "Ganamos con Mike"; "United for Mike," with a Jewish star; "Mishpucha for Mike"; as well as permutations tailored to different states - "Florida for Mike," unembellished; "Florida for Mike," decorated with palm trees.
For a rally in New York City in January, Bloomberg rented out the very same Times Square hotel ballroom in which he had celebrated one of his mayoral victories, with a DJ presiding and wine and beer and goat cheese puffs on hand for all.
At a Philadelphia rally last week, more than 1,000 people were offered cheese steaks, hoagies and platters of honey-coated brie, fig jam and gourmet flatbreads. Michael Dacosta, who was posted up at one of the drinks stations, raved about the selection, expressing regret that he had eaten at Papa John's beforehand. "I think it's classy," said Dacosta, a New Yorker who'd paid $55 to have "Let's Get Bloomin Again" embroidered on his bomber jacket but also grabbed a "PA for Mike" shirt.
"He's generous," Dacosta said, as colorful lights projected Bloomberg's name on a wall of the National Constitution Center, where the rally was held. "I feel like it's a nightclub in here. This is what he needs to get people going."
The fanfare has also drawn some who don't plan to vote for the billionaire. "Don't get me wrong, I like Mike Bloomberg," said Ramon Vivas, who attended Bloomberg's Miami rally in January and wore one of the free shirts bearing that message, along with two Bloomberg buttons. "But I don't think he's going to get the nomination, and I support Bernie."
Still, Vivas said he thought the Democratic Party had "moved too far to the left" and called Bloomberg a good influence on the race, adding that at other rallies he'd attended, "you typically have to pay for the T-shirts."
The large-scale painting that Cindy Franco, the Miami artist, produced - a colorful streetscape decorated with the candidate's name and "Miami Will Get It Done," a variation on the campaign's slogan - was a central backdrop for little more than an hour.
"I only had a day and a half to make it," said Franco, who worked round the clock in the Miami warehouse with security guards provided by the campaign on hand. "They were always asking if I needed anything," she said, declining to specify exactly how much she was paid but adding: "It was a lot. They were very good to me." (The campaign did not name the amount, which it will be required to report in its next federal filing.)
Day-to-day, some Bloomberg campaign workers with prior political experience, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about their work for Bloomberg, described what they saw as an unfathomable luxury: the ability to brainstorm and act on their ideas without concern for costs. The campaign has, for instance, hired 70 staff members in Florida and opened field offices in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
But being forced to think about how to stretch dollars in politics can have its advantages, Trippi said, recalling that in 2004 - when he worked for Howard Dean's campaign, which broke the record at that time for Democratic presidential fundraising - "a lot of the things we pioneered were exactly because we had to be that creative."
Nonetheless, he added, laughing: "Picking between the advantage of being a little bit more creative with your money, versus having the money to do whatever you want to do - most campaigns would pick having more money."
Thurber, the American University professor, said that self-funding a campaign could make it difficult to know a candidate's true popularity. "When you've got a lot of money, you can try all kinds of strategies and tactics, and also have the money to measure whether they're working or not," he said. "But in a primary, small donors are really the invisible measure of how excited people are about you."
Financially invested supporters, no matter the size of their donations, also tend to be more loyal and engaged, Trippi said. "If I give $10 to a candidate, I'm much more likely to stay with them and do other things, like call my friend about them," he said. "There's buy-in."
Bloomberg has crisscrossed the country hoping for emotional buy-in. He has come and gone on a schedule, reflecting a candidate famously focused on efficiency. A Bloomberg LP plane has often been waiting to shuttle him to the next destination, with pilot costs and in-flight catering expenses also figuring into the recent report to election authorities.
For some younger staff members, the degree to which the campaign's finances are unusual has not necessarily registered. "I wasn't surprised because I actually didn't know how much field organizers make," said Jordy Portugal, a 22-year-old who recently graduated from Columbia University and lives in Queens.
Portugal said that he had weighed joining the Bloomberg campaign or accepting a job at a media company that would have paid him a salary amounting to roughly $4,700 a month - significantly less than what he now makes placing calls and canvassing voters for Bloomberg.
"Bloomberg's pay has helped me," he said. "But I don't have any prior experience to look at it and say, 'Wow, these are amazing benefits and experiences,'" he said, adding that the food the campaign provided reminded him of a stint working at a tech company. "This was more an opportunity for me to make an impact."
For other supporters, the depth of Bloomberg's coffers is central to his appeal.
"I can't tell you the pleasure of having someone call me and ask, 'Who are important people in the community?'" said Patricia Halfen Wexler, a venture capitalist who spoke in support of Bloomberg at one of his recent rallies, "and to not have to think, 'Who can give money?'"
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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