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Michael Bloomberg for president? That’s a tough sell to Chicagoans

He came to town to tout his jobs plan, but wouldn’t talk about his support for a soda tax and stop-and-frisk policing.

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, speaks at a campaign rally at Olive-Harvey College on the Far South Side on Jan. 8, 2020.
Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, speaks at a campaign rally at Olive-Harvey College on the Far South Side on Jan. 8, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times

You’d think Michael Bloomberg would tread lightly in Chicago.

The former New York City mayor, billionaire businessman, philanthropist, and now Democratic presidential candidate hit town last Wednesday in a high-profile push of his late-starting campaign.

His speech at Olive-Harvey Community College on Chicago’s Far South Side showcased his long-shot, unprecedented strategy.

Bloomberg is skipping the early primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, instead targeting the Super Tuesday contests and beyond.

Chicago and Cook County hold a treasure trove of Democratic votes in the March 17 primary.

Chicago is also ground zero for the soda wars — the battle for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s infamous tax on sweetened beverages. A tax mightily backed by Bloomberg.

The penny-per-ounce sugared beverage tax, approved by the county board in November 2016, was designed to quell the unhealthy consumption of sugar-infused drinks and bring badly needed funds to the county’s hospitals and health programs.

Bloomberg was drubbed for cultivating a “Nanny State” in New York. He aggressively pushed policies and laws to curb the consumption of tobacco and soda that feed cancer, heart disease, obesity and other mortal perils.

The philanthropist spent $20 million to fund successful soda tax initiatives in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif.

He plowed several million dollars into ads supporting Cook County’s ill-fated tax, and supported Preckwinkle and the other like-minded officials.

I was with him all the way. The soda tax would have reduced sugar consumption, particularly among blacks and Latinos, who suffer particularly high obesity rates.

But it was poorly sold and deeply despised. The big soda lobby dived in with massive resources to stoke voter outrage. The tax was repealed in the fall of 2017.

Many, particularly African Americans, still sneer.

“How dare they try to steer us to healthy living!” they snort.

“How dare that billionaire, carpet-bagging cheerleader-of-good-health try to take our pop away!”

No wonder the campaign declined to make Bloomberg available to us pesky reporters. Instead, campaign manager Kevin Sheekey offered comments.

He was asked about the impact the soda tax controversy might have on the campaign.

“Mike Bloomberg cares deeply about issues of public health,” Sheekey declared. That includes “a number is issues that have affected a number of populations in the minority community. He’s never backed off from his view that we have to address public health in this country.”

Sheekey also noted Bloomberg’s long crusades against the tobacco and gun lobbies.

“And so, yeah, Mike Bloomberg is not someone who turns his back on big issues, and I don’t expect him to start now.”

Bloomberg made no mention of those crusades in his speech.

Instead, he touted his “All-In Economy” jobs plan, offering innovative strategies to reverse the economic devastation in communities like Chicago’s South and West sides.

The mostly white audience of 200 included a handful of local elected officials, but no high-powered pols.

No Toni Preckwinkle.

No Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), even though the event was in her 2nd District. Even though Kelly won her congressional seat in a highly competitive race, thanks to Bloomberg’s largesse.

Bloomberg boosted Kelly’s gun-control platform with $2.2 million from his antigun super PAC.

But Bloomberg’s nanny ways, and other stances, like his advocacy of stop-and-frisk policing policies in New York City, may not fly in Chicago.

He’d better get back here soon.

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Follow Laura S. Washington on Twitter @MediaDervish