LAS VEGAS – Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg took a beating from his rivals on Wednesday from the very start of his first appearance on a Democratic debate stage.
Nearly all of the five Democrats standing beside him jumped on their first opportunity to go after the billionaire, who has been dropping hundreds of millions of dollars on advertisements fueling his presidential bid in recent months.
The jabs, which had been telegraphed for days, zeroed in on Bloomberg’s record on race as mayor of New York, as well as alleged instances of sexual harassment against employees of his flagship business Bloomberg LP.
The harshest attacks came from Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who said that Bloomberg was a “billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.”
“And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg,” Warren said, prompting gasps from the audience.
Warren, who has been declining in recent national and state polls, said that Democrats will not win “if we have a nominee who has a history of hiding his tax returns, of harassing women, and of supporting racist policies like redlining and stop-and-frisk.”
“Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another,” Warren said. Warren noted that she will support whoever is the nominee.
Later in the debate, Warren called on Bloomberg to release female employees from non-disclosure agreements.
Bloomberg responded that “we have a very few nondisclosure agreements.”
“How many is that?” Warren interjected.
“Let me finish. None of them accused me of doing anything other than – maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” Bloomberg said, causing the audience to groan.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the front-runner, also went after Bloomberg, saying the stop-and-frisk policing policy that Bloomberg oversaw as mayor “went after African American and Latino people in an outrageous way. That is not a way you are going to grow voter turnout.”
Bloomberg responded that Sanders’ proposed “Medicare for All” health-care overhaul was no way to build a broad coalition.
“You don’t start out by saying I’ve got 160 million people, I’m going to start taking away the insurance policy they love,” he said.
“If he goes and is the candidate, we will have Donald Trump for another four years, and we can’t stand that.”
Bloomberg, who has apologized for his stop-and-frisk policy, addressed the topic later in the debate.
“If I go back and look at my time in office, the one thing I am really worried about, embarrassed about, is how it turned out with stop-and-frisk,” he said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden rejected Bloomberg’s apology, saying it was not enough.
“It’s not whether he apologized or not, it’s the policy. And the policy was abhorrent,” Biden said.
Warren said that Bloomberg needed a “different apology,” focused on the intent of stop-and-frisk, not just how it turned out.
“If you want to issue a real apology, then the apology has to start with the intent of the plan as it was put together, and the willful ignorance, day by day by day,” Warren said.
Warren has been looking for a comeback after poor showings in the first two states to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire, where she finished third and fourth, respectively. On Tuesday, she foreshadowed in a post on Twitter that the debate would contain “a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire.”
The Massachusetts senator’s performance appeared to have an initial payoff. Caitlin Mitchell, the campaign’s chief mobilization officer, said in a post on Twitter that the first hour of the debate was the campaign’s best fundraising hour to date.
Bloomberg is in third place in national surveys, but has not yet appeared on any state’s ballot. Bloomberg is forgoing the first four so-called early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina in order to focus on the larger delegate hauls that come starting in March.
Bloomberg qualified for the Nevada debate after the Democratic National Committee dropped its requirement that candidates earn a minimum number of campaign contributors. The DNC still requires candidates to meet a polling threshold.