A key group of volunteers who Michael Bloomberg is likely counting on to support his newly announced presidential run, and who represent a cause that’s central to his attempt to appeal to Democratic voters, told BuzzFeed News they are uncertain if they’ll support the billionaire in 2020.
The grassroots army of Moms Demand Action is the volunteer wing of Everytown for Gun Safety, the country’s biggest gun violence prevention organization. Everytown has 6 million supporters on its email and phone lists, though the group won’t say how many of those come from Moms Demand. Bloomberg not only founded Everytown, but he also personally donates millions that account for around one-third of its funding each year.
Moms Demand Action has thousands of volunteers dressed in red T-shirts that appear at nearly every political event, protest, and campaign stop across the country. They could help build Bloomberg's credibility with the party's younger and more left-leaning side, since the former New York City mayor — who had been a lifelong Democrat before joining the Republican Party ahead of his first run for mayor, and then later won reelection as an independent and registered as a Democrat last year — is expected to run a more moderate campaign.
BuzzFeed News spoke with 11 Moms Demand and Students Demand Action grassroots volunteers, several of whom lost family members to gun violence, on what they’re planning to do in the 2020 campaign, who they’re backing — and whether they’d support a Bloomberg run.
None of them said they’d definitely vote for Bloomberg or that he was their top candidate. Moms Demand is a nonpartisan organization and the volunteers all clarified that they were giving their own personal political opinion and not speaking on behalf of the organization.
“I’m not super psyched about it, but I respect him enormously,” said Jessica Craven, 51, the legislative lead for her Moms Demand Action group in Northeast Los Angeles. “I don’t think we need more candidates — more white male candidates.”
In 2018, Craven canvassed for Democrats Mike Levin, Katie Porter, and Katie Hill, who all won seats in Congress in largely Republican areas thanks to strong grassroots campaigning.
“We don’t need another business person in office,” said Rhonda Hart, 38, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action in Texas and an Everytown Survivor Fellow, which means she went through a sort of leadership training program. Hart’s daughter, Kimberly Vaughan, died in the Santa Fe High School shooting in May 2018, after a student opened fire in her art class and killed 10 people.
“While he’s our largest donor, it doesn’t mean he is the organization himself,” said Alanna Miller, 19, the Students Demand Action volunteer leader at Duke University and a member of the organization’s national advisory board. “He’s just like any other candidate.”
Many volunteers who spoke with BuzzFeed News pointed out that Moms Demand Action encourages its volunteers to support all “gun sense” candidates. Currently, all 17 of the declared Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls applied for and received the Mom’s Demand “gun sense candidate accreditation.”
Bloomberg did not respond to a request for comment.
Barry Graubart, the New York state deputy chapter lead for Moms Demand, said he’s currently got three personal favorites for the Democratic nomination: Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker. When it comes to Bloomberg, he says he’s grateful for his gun violence prevention work.
“He’s been an ally to us in the movement, a hero to many in the movement,” said Graubart, 54. “We’re a single-issue organization, but we’re not a single-candidate organization.”
But it’s a powerful organization at a time when the country struggles to handle an increase in mass shootings and the Republican-controlled Senate refuses to vote on any gun legislation, such as red flag laws.
Bloomberg set up Everytown, first known as Mayors Against Illegal Guns, in 2006 when he was still mayor of New York City. Everytown collects and distributes gun violence research, advocates for policies, and funds candidates fighting against gun violence. Moms Demand Action, created by Shannon Watts after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, merged into Everytown and forms its grassroots activism arm.
“Mayor Bloomberg is a hero to the gun safety movement, and he has committed his political career to fighting the NRA, passing laws and saving lives,” Taylor Maxwell, a spokesperson for Everytown and Moms Demand Action, said recently, before Bloomberg's official presidential announcement on Sunday. “If he runs, he’ll join a field of candidates who are all united in support of gun safety, which is a credit to the work Mike, Everytown, Moms Demand Action, and Students Demand Action volunteers have done.”
But with 6 million supporters across the country, Moms Demand offers a built-in possible support network for a candidate, like Bloomberg, who might focus on political advertising rather than building a grassroots campaign.
There are now 750 Moms Demand groups across the country, and over 350 Students Demand groups meeting in high schools and colleges — and they’ve had success in elections across the country.
Virginia flipped totally blue at the 2019 elections after gun safety and gun violence became the biggest issue in the state. Everytown spent $2.5 million in political advertising and had hundreds of Moms Demand and Students Demand volunteers across the state doorknocking and attending events.
Robyn Sordelett, a social worker and mom of three in rural Prince George County, was one of the Moms Demand volunteers in Virginia who knocked on over 100,000 doors this election.
She said that the Moms Demand playbook of relentless activism — canvassing, phone banking, postcard writing, turning up at candidate events, and constantly pushing for gun sense policies — works, and their volunteer network is only growing.
“We’re having [Moms Demand] groups pop up in parts of Virginia that folks would have thought before ‘what is the point,’” Sordelett, 33, said.
Many of the volunteers BuzzFeed News spoke with noted how they’ve seen a tremendous increase in Moms Demand volunteers since the 2016 election.
Nicole Bedi, 41, the state elections lead for Moms Demand Michigan who plans to back Warren in the primary, told BuzzFeed News she’s watched “exponential growth” in her four years in the organization. At Michigan’s first legislation day — when Moms Demand volunteers turn up at the statehouse to push for one bill or legislation — in 2015, 40 people turned up. In April this year, they had 450 people.
“Who got Trump into the White House? Middle- and upper-class white women,” said Deborah Nelson, 67, an Everytown Survivor Fellow and Moms Demand Volunteer in the San Fernando Valley. “Look at Moms Demand Action, that’s who they’re made up of.”
Nelson’s daughter, Monique Roxanne Nelson, 30, was accidentally shot and killed in a parking lot as she strapped her toddler son into his car seat in December 2010.
Nelson, who is African American, said the network of Moms Demand reaches white women and “is letting them know they need to make a more informed decision than what they did in 2016.”
She recalled being at one Moms Demand meeting where a volunteer held her baby with her left hand and texted a lawmaker with her right.
“These women are some tough ladies,” said Nelson. “They know how to multitask, they are really soldiers on the ground.”
Candidates are trying to cultivate that army.
Joe Biden wore a Moms Demand Action pin when he appeared on The Late Show. In the first debate, Julián Castro namechecked Moms Demand volunteers when talking about fighting gun violence. Nearly every Democratic candidate turned up to a last-minute gun violence prevention forum in Des Moines, Iowa, cohosted by Everytown and organized after the El Paso shooting.
“Just look at the presidential candidates,” Bloomberg told hundreds of Moms Demand volunteers in August, in a speech at Gun Sense University, a training event run by Everytown and Moms Demand Action for its volunteers. “They've been trying to one-up each other with their proposals, and they take selfies with Moms Demand Action volunteers at their town halls.”
Everytown has a political action committee, separate from Moms Demand Action, that donates to a broad swath of candidates. Bloomberg has vowed to not take donations for his campaign and in his announcement video said the wealthy should pay more taxes.
Still, Craven said, “I don’t know that a billionaire candidate is what the country is looking for.”
“If we’re moving toward this idea of more and more campaigns being really grassroots-driven, and not funded by PACs, Moms Demand Action is kind of the embodiment of that,” Sordelett said. “We’re just volunteers. Volunteers with a lot of red shirts in our laundry basket and we still have to go grocery shopping after whatever event we’ve just attended.”
But some volunteers praised Bloomberg for at least ensuring that gun violence prevention remained a major topic for presidential candidates.
“If he announces, I would be happy for sure,” said Sari Kaufman, 17, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 17 people were shot and killed last year. Kaufman sits on the advisory board for Students Demand Action and said she’s met Bloomberg multiple times and thinks he’d be a leader in gun prevention — although she hadn’t decided definitively who she’ll support in 2020.
Khary Penebaker, 42, is an Everytown Survivor Fellow for Wisconsin. His mother killed herself using a gun when he was just 18 months old.
He believes that red flag laws — where guns are removed from people at risk to themselves or others — could have saved his mother’s life and applauds Bloomberg’s longtime support of gun violence prevention.
Penebaker is backing Cory Booker in this campaign — but says he understands why Bloomberg wants to run.
“Moms always says ‘change the law or change the people who make the law,’” said Penebaker. “If Bloomberg decides to get in, he’s living out that mantra.”
But Hart, who was a Beto O’Rourke supporter and now isn't sure who she is going to back, said she’d forgotten about Bloomberg’s role in founding and funding Everytown until BuzzFeed News reminded her. “Until just now, Michael Bloomberg was just a private citizen with a bunch of money,” she said.
“If he really wanted to support the Democratic race, throw that money at a candidate that is gun sense minded,” Hart said. “Why doesn’t he run for his congressional district?” Or, she said, “help flip the Senate?”
Alanna Miller was misquoted in an earlier version of this article.