MCLEAN, Virginia—It had all the build-up to a public relations disaster.
Just days after Elizabeth Warren had, very publicly and in front of millions of viewers, urged Michael Bloomberg to release multiple women from the non-disclosure agreements they signed over gender-related disputes at his businesses, he introduced himself to women who started lining up before 8 a.m. in an affluent Virginia suburb to hear him speak.
But before that happened, something else entirely filled the room that was somehow booming with energy on a chilly Saturday morning. A rapid succession of women started rattling off, one by one, the exact amount of time they have known the former New York City mayor.
“I’ve worked with Mike for 18 years!” one woman said enthusiastically before the billionaire Democrat took the stage.
“Woo!” the audience cheered.
“I have known Mike for 30 years!” another woman announced.
“Woo!” the crowd cheered again.
“I have worked for Mike for 18 years! And I get to sit next to him every day!”
A similarly raucous response followed.
Then, Fatima Shama, Bloomberg’s director of constituency outreach who introduced him on stage nearly an hour after he was scheduled to appear, asked rhetorically: “Do you want a country where being female is fabulous?”
“YEAH!” women and men, about equal numbers in attendance, shouted out. “There are lots of fabulous men in this room,” Shama added, careful not to exclude them. “Today, I ask you to be part of our Women for Mike movement! Are we ready to be part of the Women for Mike movement!?
Bloomberg suddenly appeared.
“Thank you women for Mike,” he said buoyantly. “I am Mike for women!”
The whole thing could have been a cringeworthy bust. But the fact that it wasn’t broadly perceived that way, and was instead, according to interviews with nearly a dozen female voters who showed up to the McLean event, by all accounts a resounding success, illustrates the complexity of Bloomberg’s last-ditch effort for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
The billionaire who rival candidates have attacked for being out of touch, really rich, and, most recently, somewhat problematic with women, did not appear as such to female voters who supported him here. In fact, attendees said the very notion that Bloomberg could have some oversized issue with women—similar behavioral shades to say, President Donald Trump—was simply ludicrous when presented with that comparison.
“No!” Suchada Langley, a Vienna resident, answered sharply when asked if the NDA issue was a concern. “Look at those women” she said, motioning to women on stage. (An organizer had asked audience members before the event started for “able-bodied women” to stand in front of a large banner that read WOMEN for mike2020).
“He apologized—and not just apologized—he told us what he’s going to do. I mean, what do you need from the man?” Langley, who is officially supporting Bloomberg after watching clips of his appearances on YouTube, said.
Then, she did something that several other women in attendance did when asked about Bloomberg’s NDAs. She evoked Warren’s name: “Tell me, does anyone have a perfect record? None of the candidates—even Elizabeth Warren—she doesn't have a perfect record. She was a Republican before she became a Democrat!”
Warren was indeed a hot topic of conversation among women here. The Massachusetts Democrat has unabashedly served, during Bloomberg’s rocky two debate performances and since the launch of his campaign in late November, as his chief antagonist. Having resurfaced fresh reporting about the billionaire’s businesses that alleged women were treated unfairly and discriminated against on stage to millions of viewers, she drew praise from some Democrats who argued her direct approach struck the right chord.
After Warren repeatedly called for Bloomberg to take action to release the bound women from their agreements, the former mayor subsequently said he would permit three women who have agreed to sign NDAs to ask his company to release them.
“If any of them want to be released from their NDAs, they should contact the company and they'll be given a release,” Bloomberg tweeted on Friday.
When asked about the exchange, and broadly what they make of a candidate who has come under scrutiny recently for gender-specific disputes, several female voters gathered in a large conference room at the Tysons Corner Hilton generally brushed off the question as a non-factor. More specifically, when asked if allegations, or sustained questions from other candidates, could present an issue in a general election matchup with the president, who has faced multiple credible sexual assault allegations, most women interviewed said the NDA issue was minor in contrast.
“Considering Trump’s record? No,” Pamela Lamoreaux, a Washington, D.C., resident who lives in Georgetown, said. “We’ve seen with Trump, those are not the issues that play with people.”
“I think it’s an old issue. I think he’s addressed it,” she added.
Lamoreaux’s response was hardly unique. And if Bloomberg’s attempt to woo female voters, who make up approximately 60 percent of the Democratic electorate, was struggling after the debates, it didn’t appear to sway women already leaning towards Bloomberg away from him.
Several said just the opposite: that his apology went a long way.
“When you’ve got a record as vast as Bloomberg and you’ve been in business that long and you’ve got that many employees, you’re kind of ripe to find something to pick on,” Michele Coleman, a Chevy Chase resident, said. “But I think he has apologized for indiscretions or whatever happened.”
Coleman added: “My heart is with Warren but my head’s with Bloomberg.”
The heated exchanges with Warren seemed to linger over Bloomberg’s rally later that day in Wilmington, North Carolina. Several voters said they came to see him precisely because he was so shaky on the debate stage and wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt of an in-person appearance. Bloomberg seemed to get in an extremely delayed dig at his debate stage tormentor during his stump speech: “We need a commander in chief,” he said, “not a college debater in chief.”
But Nat Belle, a 38-year old Wilmington resident, was frustrated that Bloomberg only made the move to release women from their NDAs under pressure from Warren. “It would have behooved him to be more forthcoming—he should have beaten Warren to the punch,” she said.
Others seemed satisfied with the move. “I don’t think he’d be so public about it if he had so much to hide,” said Tori Whiteman, a 62-year-old university professor.
And of the dozen female voters who spoke to The Daily Beast in Wilmington, several said that the conduct laid out in the reporting about sexism at Bloomberg’s companies was troubling—in particular, his own alleged remark to a female employee about terminating her pregnancy—but none said it was a dealbreaker.
“It’s hard to ignore things like that,” said Ashley Cooksley, a 45-year-old social media manager from Wilmington. “But we have to hear what he stands for now.”
In Virginia, some female voters seemed to acknowledge the apparent damage-control aspect of the morning stop—“there are negative reports about things Bloomberg has said and done and that’s why he has this ‘Women for Mike’” event, Wendie White, a Shirlington resident, said—but it didn’t seem to weigh heavily in their decision-making process.
“Personality wise, he’s really level headed. He doesn’t get negatively invested in things, but he is passionate about the issues,” White said, drawing a contrast to Trump. “Bloomberg he sat, watched, waited, and I kept saying ‘get in there.’ And now that he’s in it, I will put all of my support behind him.”
In his remarks, Bloomberg made sure to tick off all the ways that he would prioritize half of the population (work with Congress to codify Roe V. Wade, “which is long overdue” he said, continue to support Planned Parenthood “as I have for years” he added. Reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, one of former Vice President Joe Biden’s proudest political accomplishments).
“As president I will fight with you to protect the health and rights of all women,” he said at his “Women for Mike” event, before shifting to his focus on beating Trump and a few lines about Virginia, which awards the fourth largest delegate haul of the 14 states voting in just three days.
On Saturday morning, his campaign announced that it will host 2,400 events across 30 states over the weekend to ensure a strong showing on Super Tuesday. Virginia is particularly important. Having built one of the biggest ground games here in three months, Bloomberg’s campaign has over 80 staff in eight offices, a campaign official noted.
The monetary commitment—not just to Virginia, but to beating Trump on the airways through some $400 million in spending and counting—came up frequently in talks with voters.
And voters who were checking out Bloomberg in North Carolina, another big Super Tuesday prize, said they believed the former mayor has what it takes to beat Trump in November—a major consideration in this state, which is poised to be one of the most contested battlegrounds in the general election.
Several women said that Bloomberg having the “resources,” the term the former mayor used himself in his opening remarks, to go head-to-head with a fellow New York billionaire is top priority.
“He does put his money where his mouth is,” White said. “He knows what needs to happen and how to treat people.”
Still, there was some lingering anxiety among Bloomberg supporters, or those leaning his way, that he simply lacks what Trump does: the Teflon quality that prevents almost anything negative from sticking to him.
Belle, the Wilmington voter, worried that Bloomberg, or any Democratic candidate, could do the same.
“Trump laughs at his blemishes,” she said, “and turns them into a comedy act.”