Michael Bloomberg’s presence — and money — will not be leaving Cook County any time soon.
The billionaire former mayor of New York City has already spent $5 million on ads supporting the Cook County sweetened beverage tax — and he’s prepared to spend “whatever it takes” to support those who voted for it, according to Howard Wolfson, a Democratic political strategist and top Bloomberg adviser.
Though the primary election for seats on the Cook County Board of Commissioners is not until March, Bloomberg and his money are here for the duration, Wolfson said.
“He is in this fight to ensure not a single person who voted for this tax is defeated. Period,” Wolfson told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Between 2010 and 2013, Wolfson served as New York Deputy Mayor for Government Affairs and Communications. He was the communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. In addition to Bloomberg, Wolfson has advised New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The penny-per-ounce tax covers carbonated soft drinks — whether sweetened with sugar or a sugar substitute — along with sports drinks and energy drinks. Fruit drinks also are taxed, but 100-percent fruit juice is exempt.
As Bloomberg has already bankrolled ads lauding the new tax as a way to encourage positive childhood health habits, the beverage industry — a staunch and vocal opponent of the measure — has aired its own ads decrying it as a money-grab.
A newly founded political action committee — Citizens for a More Affordable Cook County — was formed last month and has said it could fund challengers to the eight County Board commissioners who voted for the tax.
While Bloomberg is currently funding ads in broad support of the tax without singling out specific commissioners, Wolfson said that would likely change as the election draws closer.
“We will do whatever we need to do to defend them if they’re targeted,” Wolfson said of commissioners who voted in favor of the tax.
“Mike is absolutely prepared to engage in the next election cycle to defend anyone who has incurred the wrath of the industry and stood up against them and for kids.”
Wolfson called the $5 million already spent “a floor of what we would spend in the next election cycle.” When asked if there was a spending “ceiling” for the former New York mayor, Wolfson relayed:
“He says ‘I will spend what it takes in order to get the job done.’”
Bloomberg has for years championed restriction and taxes on sugary drinks. While mayor of New York he tried, though ultimately failed, to ban the sale of soft drinks larger than 16 ounces.
Last year, Bloomberg shelled out $20 million to see soda taxes enacted in San Francisco and Oakland.
“[The spending is] an indication of his commitment to public health,” Wolfson said.
Two weeks after the tax went into effect, one poll found 68 percent of Cook County voters disapproved of Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s job performance. An overwhelming 84 percent of the 902 respondents said Preckwinkle’s “deciding vote that created the Cook County beverage tax” made them less likely to vote for her.
Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, — another opponent of the tax — said he was not surprised by Bloomberg’s involvement.
“I think it’s interesting to see the county board president has turned to an outside billionaire to try to get a message home that the voters are not buying,” Karr said.
Last month, Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st), a frequent critic of the tax, told the Sun-Times he was considering a run at Preckwinkle’s job.
The first-term commissioner, whose district covers much of the West Side and western suburbs, said Preckwinkle’s handling of the sweetened beverage tax and the ensuing backlash prompted him to consider running.
“When it comes to the pop tax, we should all be less concerned about the politics and more concerned about the skyrocketing cost of living that is driving residents and businesses out of Cook County,” Boykin said in a statement to the Sun-Times on Monday. “The residents of Cook County care less about what a billionaire plans to spend on television commercials- and more about what they can afford to spend on their groceries.”
A group of Illinois retailers made a last-ditch effort to halt the rollout of the tax, calling it confusing and “unconstitutionally vague.” The Illinois Retail Merchants Association was granted a temporary injunction that delayed the tax, but a judge eventually let it take effect in early August.
“I think President Preckwinkle has been a profile in courage on this issue,” Wolfson said. “If somebody wants to run against kids’ health and fiscal health, they’re welcome to do that.”
Estimates of how much revenue the tax could bring in have ranged from $88 million to $200 million per year.
Commissioners who voted against the tax have introduced a measure to repeal it, though Preckwinkle has said she expects the tax to stand.
This is not Bloomberg’s first foray into Illinois politics. In 2013, his super PAC spent more than $2 million to see U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (2nd) elected because of her stance on stiffer gun laws. The next year, the super PAC spent nearly as much in support of former U.S. Rep. Bob Dold (10th).