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Amanda Roy-Bangoy, right, trains campaign volunteers Mike Heyka, left, and Philip Lawrence, center, as part of the Michael Bloomberg campaign's canvassing efforts Jan. 25, 2020 at the South Broadway field office in Denver. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign is launching a door-to-door effort to introduce him to Colorado voters — but the Democratic candidate is no stranger to the state.

Ahead of his White House bid, the former New York mayor and billionaire businessman contributed at least $6 million to Colorado political campaigns in the past decade, funded major outside advocacy efforts and gifted millions more through philanthropy, according to an analysis by The Colorado Sun. 

A handful of donations boosted local school board candidates. Other big checks helped elect the current Democratic legislative majority. Two cities — Fort Collins and Denver — received millions respectively to improve energy efficiency and address climate change.

The bulk of Bloomberg’s money in Colorado went toward advocacy for tougher gun regulations and like-minded candidates — and then, protecting those politicians from recall threats. The defense of Democrats on the issue of guns is what the campaign wanted to emphasize to voters in its first canvassing effort Saturday.

“Bloomberg has been there at just about every turn,” said Curtis Hubbard, who works for the campaign as a consultant. “He’s not just a New York billionaire. He’s somebody who has put his money to work for the right causes, and right here in Colorado.”

The challenge for the campaign is reminding voters about his investments in Democratic causes in Colorado. The money isn’t buying him universal loyalty and his record in the state also sowed deep ill will.

What Colorado means in the Democratic presidential race

Bloomberg’s wealth is allowing the campaign to build the most robust operation ahead of the state’s Super Tuesday presidential primary on March 3. In Colorado, the Bloomberg campaign is airing a TV advertising blitz, hiring more than 30 paid staffers and opening four campaign offices with plans to expand to eight or more on the Front Range.

The Bloomberg campaign has spent more than $4 million on TV ads in Colorado since Thanksgiving, with roughly half of that amount coming in January alone, as he blankets Denver and Colorado Springs stations. The total spending includes about $90,000 in commercials on Spanish-language stations Telemundo and Univision, according to Federal Communications Commission records reviewed by The Sun. His most recent ads focus on impeachment.

The spending in Colorado is part of the campaign’s concerted strategy to bypass the early primary states in favor of a big-dollar push on delegate-rich Super Tuesday, which includes states with 1,357 delegates, or 34% of the total. Colorado will award 67 delegates.

The presidential primary is the state’s first in two decades and it will allow the Democratic Party’s members and unaffiliated voters to cast ballots rather than gather in small community meetings to voice their preference. (Republicans will hold their own primary in which President Donald Trump will face off against five little-known challengers.)

The state’s first mail-ballot primary vote may benefit independent-leaning Bloomberg and other moderates by expanding the universe of voters who can participate, compared to a caucus system that favors the most die-hard partisans. But energized Democrats supporting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders remain strong after his Colorado caucus win in 2016 against Hillary Clinton.

So far, public polling in Colorado is scant, but the well-funded Bloomberg campaign holds an organizing advantage here compared to other candidates — including Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden — who are making more modest campaign efforts. 

MORE: Michael Bloomberg unveils his presidential gun reform platform in Aurora, says he’s unsure about his chances in the state

The candidate planted seeds with financial investments

Bloomberg’s deep history of pushing for more stringent gun regulations is one the campaign hopes will prove particularly salient in Colorado, home to headline-grabbing mass shootings and school violence. The candidate used his first visit to Colorado, in December, to unveil a gun control platform at an event in Aurora, not far from the movie theater where 12 people died and dozens more were wounded in 2012 by a gunman.

State Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Democrat whose son, Alex, died at the theater shooting, endorsed Bloomberg at the event. Sullivan faced the prospect of a recall election in 2019 after he helped pass a red flag law to allow the confiscation of guns from those deemed a threat to others.

Tom Sullivan listens as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democratic candidate for president in 2020, unveils his campaign’s gun control platform in Aurora on Dec. 5, 2019. He delivered remarks within about 200 yards of the Aurora theater where a gunman killed 12 and injured dozens more in 2012. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The Bloomberg-backed Everytown for Gun Safety organization helped build support for the law, and Bloomberg gave $100,000 to a campaign created to defend Democratic lawmakers against the recall attempts.

In an interview, Sullivan noted the former mayor’s involvement in the topic dating back to 2006, when Bloomberg created Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which merged with Moms Demand Action to form Everytown in 2013.

“He knows the issue. He’s made considerable impact on the issue,” Sullivan said. “I know how important it is to get things passed on the state level, but we need support nationally to really impact the changes that we need to keep our communities safe.”

The hurdle, Sullivan said, is making sure Colorado voters know about Bloomberg’s history in the state. “Mike hasn’t been here personally. His influence has been here,” he said.

The influence is widespread. On the political front, Bloomberg gave $2 million to Frontier Fairness, a super PAC that supported Democrat Mike Johnston’s unsuccessful bid in the 2018 governor’s race. He pumped $1.2 million into state legislative races starting in 2014 to help elect Democrats. In 2013, he donated another $1 million to the failed Amendment 66 effort to increase taxes $950 million for schools. And hundreds of thousands more went toward reform-minded school board candidates. 

The spending identified by The Sun only includes publicly reported donations and likely underestimates his total giving in Colorado, particularly the millions that funded advocacy groups in the political sphere.

On the philanthropy end, Bloomberg made an even larger commitment. Bloomberg gave $5.5 million in 2016 to Colorado’s Careerwise program, an initiative from Gov. John Hickenlooper to give students skills needed to prepare for the workforce. The City of Fort Collins won $1 million through Bloomberg Philanthropies U.S. Mayors Challenge in 2018 to improve energy efficiency in rental homes. And in January 2019, through the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge, Denver received millions to further plans to reduce pollution emissions through an overhaul of the city’s transit and building sectors.

The Colorado investments are just a fraction of Bloomberg’s political and philanthropic efforts nationwide, all seeds he planted ahead of his presidential bid. 

The only other prominent Democratic candidate candidate who has a history of supporting political causes here in Colorado is Tom Steyer, the billionaire and climate activist. But his involvement often came through outside groups, and records show he has contributed less directly to candidates.

Hubbard, who has worked on Bloomberg-backed efforts for years in Colorado and now represents the campaign, said the candidate’s focus on the state reflects its place in the national conversation.

“Colorado is a purple state where some of the most important policy and political debates are playing out,” he said, “and where his investment of time and money can pay dividends, whether that’s on climate, whether that’s on education, whether that’s on guns.”

Bloomberg’s money is a double-edged sword in Colorado

Bloomberg’s first major investment in Colorado politics came in August 2013 when he donated $350,000 to Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy, a political committee formed to oppose the September recall elections of state Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo.

Both lawmakers supported universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, two bills Bloomberg backed through his Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Hickenlooper signed into law. And Morse and Giron were both recalled from office.

Hickenlooper, in an interview after the recall elections, suggested gun-control groups like Bloomberg’s were not welcome in the state. “Colorado is a state that people like to be themselves and solve their own problems,” the governor said at the time. “They don’t really like outside organizations meddling in their affairs, and maybe the NRA gets a pass on that.”

Bloomberg appeared to care little, however, and focused on the fact that the legislation passed. In an interview after the recall votes, Bloomberg said: “What do you mean we lost? I’m sorry for those two people. But we won in Colorado. On to the next state.”

And in an interview months later, Bloomberg ridiculed Colorado as a backwoods state. “The NRA went after two or three state senators in a part of Colorado where I don’t think there’s roads. It’s as far rural as you can get,” Bloomberg said. “And, yes, they lost recall elections. I’m sorry for that. We tried to help ’em. But the bottom line is, the law is on the books, and being enforced. You can get depressed about the progress, but on the other hand, you’re saving a lot of lives.”

The remark only drew mockery in return, and Republicans still use Bloomberg’s words to show he is out of touch with Colorado.

“It is unsurprising to see Bloomberg focus his campaign on Denver, because no amount of money will make voters in Pueblo, Colorado Springs, or rural Colorado forget his contempt for their communities,” said Lx Fangonilo, executive director of the Colorado Republican Party. “Being an out-of-touch coastal elite might be a bonus in the Colorado Democrat primary, but general election voters cannot be bought.”

Likewise, Bloomberg’s defense of Democrats threatened by recalls after the 2019 legislative session didn’t ensure him greater support.

Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Democrat from Pueblo who faced a potential recall election last summer, on Friday endorsed Biden. “Joe Biden is, in my mind, the candidate who can help bring our party together and make sure we have the strongest footing so we don’t have a Trump reelection in 2020,” he said in an interview.

As for Bloomberg, Garcia said, “he’s made contributions that have been important to the party, but I just feel billionaires should not have that leg up when they run for president.”

Johnny Papagiannis, the deputy organizing director in Colorado for Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign, talks to volunteers Jan. 25, 2020, at the field office on South Broadway in Denver. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The campaign hits the ground in Colorado

Inside a former vape shop on South Broadway in Denver on Saturday, tall stacks of pizza boxes and carafes of coffee greeted volunteers reporting for a canvassing training focused on Bloomberg’s record on guns.

Before the volunteers disperse to neighborhoods in Denver and Aurora, Johnny Papagiannis, the deputy organizing director in Colorado, outlined a strategy to knock on 200,000 doors before the primary.

“How many people in the room have seen a Mike Bloomberg TV ad?” Papagiannis asked. Most of the three dozen people in the room raised their hands.

“Next question: How many campaigns have been won with TV ads?” he asked, as he drew a big circle on a white board. 

“Zero. We win when we are on doors. We win when we are having one-on-one conversations with voters,” he said. “That’s what we are going to do every single day between now and Super Tuesday, which is 38 days away.”

Robin Horn, a former leader in Moms Demand Action who now works for the local campaign, said Bloomberg’s commitment to stiffer gun regulations issue is what made the difference and led to new laws in Colorado and elsewhere.

“He really puts his money where his mouth is and helped us get to where we are,” she said. “So let’s put him in the White House and let’s get it done.”

Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.