'Arrogant billionaire': Warren attacks Bloomberg over NDAs, racist policing and taxes

Sam Levin in Las Vegas

Mere minutes into Wednesday’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas, Elizabeth Warren landed a devastating attack. The Massachusetts senator characterized Mike Bloomberg as a billionaire who harasses women, hides his tax returns and supports racist policies.

“Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another,” Warren said.

The former New York City mayor never recovered.

Soon after, a well-prepared Warren moved on to the non-disclosure agreements that several women who have brought lawsuits against Bloomberg and his company have signed, pressing the former mayor to let those women speak freely about allegations of discrimination: “You could release them from that immediately.”

The billionaire businessman, who has a documented history of making demeaning comments about women and has dismissed his remarks as jokes, said the women “wanted to keep it quiet, and that’s up to them”.

“If they wish now to speak out and tell their side of their story … that’s now OK with you?” Warren responded. “You’re releasing them on television, tonight?”

Warren’s sharp questions on the subject continued, and Bloomberg dug in further with each half-response. He wouldn’t disclose the number of NDAs at his corporation. He declined to release women from the NDAs. Eventually some in the crowd booed.

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The exchange was one in a long list of blistering attacks on the mayor, who entered the race late last year and has spent more on TV and online ads than any political candidate in US political history.

The tactic made Bloomberg omnipresent in voters’ living rooms and won him a top spot in national polls, all while allowing him to avoid the harsh spotlight some of his rivals have faced – until Wednesday night at the Paris Theater in Las Vegas.

In the ninth Democratic primary debate, his first appearance on the national debate stage, Bloomberg was confronted with attacks from all sides, appearing at times tired and irritated and wholly unprepared to fend off scrutiny that was inevitably coming.

Within minutes of the debate’s start, several candidates confronted him over racist policing practices while he was mayor of New York, including stop-and-frisk, the policy credited with devastating black and Latino neighborhoods through brutal harassment by law enforcement.

Bloomberg said he was “embarrassed” about “how it turned out”, adding: “I’ve apologized, I’ve asked for forgiveness.” He then tried to take credit for moving to reduce the practice, when in reality, a judge had ruled stop-and-frisk was an unconstitutional form of racial profiling and forced the city to reform.

Warren again earned applause when she told Bloomberg he ignored “the sounds of people telling you how your own policy was breaking their lives”, adding, “You need a different apology.”

Bloomberg also faced questions about his immense personal wealth. One of the most pointed lines was delivered by the moderator Chuck Todd, who asked: “Mayor Bloomberg, should you exist?”, a reference to the debate over the ethics of billionaires. “Should you have earned that much money?” Todd added.

Multibillionaire Bloomberg, of course, responded “yes”, saying that he was “giving [money] away” to make the country better. Contrasting himself with the progressive Sanders and Warren, who endorse much higher taxes on the ultra-rich, Bloomberg said the country did not need “communism”.

His answer prompted a swift retort from the congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has been on the forefront of calling for the abolition of the billionaire class.

The candidates moved on to Bloomberg’s tax returns – which he hasn’t yet released – drawing comparisons from the Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar to that other wealthy New York businessman who made it to the presidential stage.

Bloomberg argued it “takes us a long time, unfortunately”, and, under pressure, eventually said he would release the returns “in a few weeks”.

“Pay overtime, and get it done,” Warren interrupted.

Bloomberg’s comments that “lots and lots of women have big responsibilities” in his company drew immediate comparisons to the Republican senator Mitt Romney’s infamous gaffe on the presidential debate stage (Romney said he had “binders full of women”).

Sanders retorted that Bloomberg’s brandishing of social democrats as communists was “a cheap shot”.

Where Bloomberg stumbled, Warren shone. The senator, who posted disappointing results in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, needed a standout performance and came well prepared. Her voice hoarse with a cold, Warren spoke the longest of any candidate on stage, jumping on every chance to call out her opponents’ policies and contrast them with her own.

Ripping through the other candidates’ healthcare plans, Warren said what Buttigieg had was a “PowerPoint”.

“Amy’s plan is even less; it’s a Post-it note,” she said in one of the most memorable lines of the night.

In a statement, Bloomberg’s campaign manager said the candidates wanted him “to lose his cool. He didn’t do it. He was the grownup in the room,” adding: “He was just warming up tonight.”

But Warren’s energetic performance seems to have paid off. Her campaign said she raised a record amount of money during the debate.

The impact of the debate on Bloomberg’s standing in the race will become clear in the coming days and weeks. Bloomberg is not on the ballot in Nevada on Saturday, nor will he compete in the South Carolina primary on 29 February. His campaign counts on a strong performance in Super Tuesday states on 3 March to propel his candidacy forward so he can emerge as the main moderate contender against Bernie Sanders.

Bloomberg has steadily climbed in polls as he has poured his money into ads, and has he earned a string of endorsements from mayors and other elected officials across the country. He qualified for Wednesday’s debate after the Democratic National Committee decided to remove the requirement that candidates have a certain number of individual donors (Bloomberg’s campaign is self-funded).

As a cheery Warren did a live interview after the debate reflecting on the night, Bloomberg was nowhere to be found.