HOUSTON — The battle between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden has started pushing other candidates out of the discussion — and the race altogether — ahead of the Super Tuesday primaries. But here, in the country’s fourth-largest city, a high-profile surrogate for Michael Bloomberg is still making his case for the former mayor of New York City, saying his record on health care and poverty among other issues makes him the Democratic Party’s best hope of defeating President Donald Trump.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who first endorsed Bloomberg last month, told the PBS NewsHour that he believed of all the candidates in the race, Bloomberg is best equipped to improve public education and close the wealth gap, particularly between whites and people of color.
And though Bloomberg has received widespread criticism for the stop-and-frisk policy he supported as mayor, Turner said Bloomberg’s public apologies helped sway his decision in the Democratic primary race.
“If he did not acknowledge that it was insensitive, flawed and apologize for it, then that for me would have been a disqualifier,” Turner, a Democrat, said in an interview Monday. “The question now, after that was, where do we go from here, what’s the plan” to help underserved communities, Turner said.
Bloomberg defended the policy as mayor but apologized publicly for it in November as he was considering a White House bid and again in the last two Democratic primary debates, acknowledging that the law enforcement tactic led to racial profiling of minorities by police officers in New York.
Bloomberg has faced criticism for his business record and time as mayor since his late entry into the primary race. Much of the criticism from progressive voters and other 2020 Democrats has focused on his stop-and-frisk policy.
The former New York mayor and billionaire businessman is now facing his first big test with voters on Super Tuesday, when he will appear on the ballot for the first time.
Bloomberg skipped the first four early voting states to focus on Super Tuesday, when primaries are held in 14 states and one U.S. territory. More than 40 percent of the delegates in the nominating process will be awarded Tuesday from more diverse states like California and Texas.
Voters will have fewer candidates to choose from, since several dropped out in recent days. The environmentalist Tom Steyer dropped out after his third-place finish in South Carolina, and since then former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have also ended their campaigns.
Ahead of Super Tuesday, Bloomberg has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on television and digital ads, and now boasts one of the largest operations of any campaign, though that hasn’t translated to a lead in polling.
But Bloomberg, who flirted with running for president before, has never appeared on a ballot outside of New York. His appeal to voters in a national election is untested, which could be a disadvantage in a field that boasts candidates who have been campaigning across the country for more than a year.
In Texas, Turner’s endorsement of Bloomberg last month came as a surprise to many in political circles and was seen as a win for the Bloomberg campaign.
Houston and the surrounding county, Harris County, have long been a key Democratic stronghold in a state that remains conservative but has started shifting to the center in recent years due to a growing Latino population that leans Democratic.
Hillary Clinton beat Sanders easily in Harris County — and across the state — in the 2016 Democratic primaries. But Sanders has made inroads with Latino voters in Texas since then and was leading in statewide polls entering Tuesday.
In the NewsHour interview, Turner said many Democratic primary voters were turned off by Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan and other sweeping proposals that have little chance of passing in Congress.
“Quite frankly, I’m tired of asking people, especially people of color, to vote for any of these candidates and their neighborhoods remain the same,” Turner said.
Turner also said that though Biden had a convincing victory in South Carolina over the weekend, where he carried a majority of the African American vote, it did not prove Biden was the overwhelming choice of minority voters nationwide.
“We’re not monolithic. You just can’t assume that just because people do well in one state, that then that should speak for everybody,” said Turner, who is black.
“I love Joe Biden. I love the fact that he was the vice president of Barack Obama. But at the same time, there are other elements that I’m looking for,” Turner said. He added, “I can love you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean from an African American perspective that you are the best candidate at this point in time.”
Other Democrats in the state said Biden was poised to do well in Texas, and dismissed the idea of a potential Bloomberg surge.
“Biden is somebody we know. Biden is somebody we trust,” Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, who endorsed the former vice president, said in a phone interview with the NewsHour. The Latino community is “very family oriented, and we connected with Biden because he’s very family oriented and he’s Catholic like many of us,” said Garcia, who served as one of the House impeachment managers in the Senate trial of President Donald Trump.
Garcia also said a Sanders nomination posed great risk for the Democratic Party in the general election against Trump in November — a concern held by many moderate Democrats in Texas and across the country who fear they’ll lose down-ballot races.
“He puts our whole majority in the House at risk, and I think there’s a potential that some of the seats that we just flipped from red to blue [in the 2018 midterms], they go back to red because we have someone who describes himself and talks about himself as a socialist,” Garcia said.
The issue is front-of-mind for Democrats in Texas. The state senate is under Republican control and is not seen as up for grabs in November. But, Democrats only need to flip five seats in the state House in order to win back control of the chamber. If that were to happen, Democrats would have a greater say in redistricting after the 2020 census, when Texas is expected to gain new congressional districts.
Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said it was too early to tell if a moderate Democrat like Bloomberg or Biden would help down-ballot the party’s candidates more than Sanders.
“Say what you want about President Trump, he has some pretty committed voters who would vote for him in a snowstorm,” said Martinez Fischer, who helped lead recent redistricting fights in Texas that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. “If I was going up against him in November, I’d want the same thing, and Senator Sanders has some passionate supporters,” he added.
Sanders and Biden may be getting most of the attention in the primary race, but counting out Bloomberg — and his near-limitless resources — so soon may be a mistake, said Harvey Kronberg, who writes an influential Texas political newsletter.
“We’ve had more Democratic messaging on TV all over the state than we’ve probably had collectively in the last 10 years. That’s mostly Bloomberg,” he said.