(Updates with NRA ad against Manchin in 10th paragraph and gun safety bus tour starting in Newtown in 25th paragraph.)
By Julie Bykowicz and Kathleen Hunter
June 13 (Bloomberg) -- New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is asking others to help in the gun debate by rewarding lawmakers who favor stricter controls and punishing those who don’t.
In a letter sent yesterday to more than 1,000 major New York donors, Bloomberg urges them to withhold contributions to the four U.S. Senate Democrats who voted April 17 against a proposal to expand background checks on gun sales.
The direct appeal comes as Bloomberg, a political independent, has increasingly dipped into his personal fortune to engage in national political causes. In the past year, the billionaire 71-year-old founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP has spent at least $28 million pressing issues in sync with his positions. Beyond gun safety, they include the right of same-sex couples to marry, climate change and allowing the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants to become citizens.
“For a mayor, these are not abstract issues,” John Feinblatt, Bloomberg’s chief policy aide, said in a telephone interview. “These are issues you have to deal with every day, safety on the streets, the effects of a super storm like Sandy, embracing immigration as a way of fueling the economy.”
Bloomberg’s appeal to withhold contributions from Democratic candidates has raised concerns among party leaders that it could affect the balance of power in the Senate after the 2014 midterm elections. Democrats hold 52 seats, along with two independent senators who caucus with the majority party.
In addition, some on both sides of the debate question whether Bloomberg’s tactics will harm his gun cause.
“For too long, the field has been ceded to the NRA, so it is very good that the mayor is waging this campaign,” said New York Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, referring to the Fairfax, Virginia-based National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun-rights lobbying group. “But we should be mindful that pro-gun safety laws have a much better chance of passing under a Democratic Senate majority than a Republican one.”
Jay Printz, a retired sheriff in Hamilton, Montana, and one of 76 members of the NRA board of directors, predicted that any Bloomberg involvement in next year’s race for the Senate seat being vacated by Max Baucus, one of Bloomberg’s four Democratic targets, would fall flat.
“Mayor Bloomberg wants to be your king, your mommy and your daddy, to tell you when to drink your Big Gulp and when to put salt on your tater chips,” Printz said in a phone interview. “We out here in the West live a little differently. We believe in personal responsibility and in exercising the God-given rights that are supposed to be protected by the Constitution.”
A new NRA television advertisement criticizes West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democratic gun enthusiast, for “working with” Bloomberg and President Barack Obama to pass gun laws. Manchin helped write the background check measure.
“Tell Senator Manchin to honor his commitment to the Second Amendment and reject the Obama-Bloomberg gun control agenda,” a narrator of the 30-second ad says.
Nonprofit organizations that Bloomberg helped start years ago, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the immigration group Partnership for a New American Economy, have been particularly active this year, with the gun group in the first three months of this year surpassing its entire 2012 lobbying budget.
Last month, the partnership led an “iMarch” that promoted the Senate’s immigration bill using social-media websites. It attracted tens of thousands of participants, including the White House’s official Twitter account.
A super-political action committee Bloomberg formed just weeks before the Nov. 6, 2012, election helped make him the fifth-biggest outside spender of the entire campaign season, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending.
His checkbook remained open this year as he spent more than $2 million in support of the pro-gun-control Democratic primary candidate in an Illinois congressional race -- more than twice as much as the candidates spent. His preferred candidate, Robin Kelly, won that race and the general election.
Bloomberg’s outlays and use of nonprofit organizations rank him with such politically active Republican billionaires as David and Charles Koch, the industrialists who founded the anti-tax Americans for Prosperity and other groups.
Though not required by law to do so, Bloomberg has disclosed the money he gives to Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Donors to the Kochs’ AFP, which spent $36 million on ads to defeat the president last year, are secret.
“With his term winding down, the mayor seems to feel more free to spend, and he certainly has the money to do so,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. She added, “he’s right, sadly, that big money seems to be the system we have.”
Bloomberg’s latest move was a personal appeal.
Using plain stationery and signed without his City Hall title, Bloomberg’s letter went to major donors of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and to supporters of Senators Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Baucus of Montana. The New York Times first reported on the letter.
“I am writing to ask you: the next time these four Senators want you to support them with donations to their campaigns, tell them you cannot,” Bloomberg’s letter states in part. “Until they show that they will stand up for the American people and not the gun lobby, tell them you cannot support their candidacy.”
Pryor and Begich are up for re-election next year. Heitkamp won’t run until 2018, and Baucus announced on April 23 that he will retire -- just six days after voting against a plan to expand background checks for purchasers of firearms at gun shows and over the Internet. The measure failed to advance.
Feinblatt said the letter is just one of “many tactics” the mayor and his groups will use to keep the gun debate alive.
“When most elected officials take a vote that goes against the overwhelming majority of the public, they hope they never have to deal with it again,” he said. “We are going to help Americans raise their voice and remind elected officials they’ve made the wrong choice.”
Mayors Against Illegal Guns is sponsoring a national bus tour to build support for expanded background checks and other gun proposals. The drive begins tomorrow in Newtown, Connecticut, on the six-month anniversary of the shooting that left 20 children dead and touched off the current gun debate.
The way “to pass a background check bill is to maintain a Democratic majority in the Senate, and any efforts that make that less likely are counterproductive,” said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
“Ninety percent of Democrats agree with the 90 percent of Americans who support background checks, and a Republican majority would guarantee that no background check bill passes in the foreseeable future,” he said.
Bloomberg, in an interview yesterday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, dismissed the notion that targeting Democrats could harm the cause of gun control. He said he is patterning his single-issue approach after that of the NRA, which grades candidates on their gun votes.
“The NRA has defined how you go about getting something done,” he said on the show. “We’re judging you, we’re not judging your opponent. We’ll deal with your opponent at a different time. We want you to vote this way. This is what’s right for the country.”
Through Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Bloomberg has spent at least $12 million on TV ads urging passage of stricter gun laws and chastising senators -- Democrats and Republicans -- who oppose such measures.
Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican and the only Northeastern senator to vote against the gun bill, has been the subject of critical ads purchased by Bloomberg’s mayors group. The NRA and the American Future Fund, a Republican-leaning nonprofit, have defended Ayotte in ads.
Some senators targeted by the mayors’ group have responded with their own ads. “No one from New York or Washington tells me what to do,” Pryor says in a TV spot. “I listen to Arkansas.”