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HUNTINGTON — Huntington Mayor Steve Williams has defended his endorsement of Michael Bloomberg for president amid accusations from Bloomberg’s rivals that the billionaire former mayor of New York City is trying to buy influence in the race for the White House.

In his desire to become the Democratic nominee for president, Bloomberg has shied away from the traditional campaign model and is instead relying partly on a network of local city leaders to act as surrogates on his behalf.

Many of those leaders have received grants, training and other support totaling millions from Bloomberg’s foundation, creating a network of potential allies long before Bloomberg announced his candidacy in November 2019.

Williams’ endorsement comes after the Bloomberg Foundation donated $1 million in October 2018 to launch a wellness program for the city’s first responders dealing with the opioid epidemic. The foundation also has given more than $25,000 in grants to help fund improvement projects in the city’s West End neighborhood. In addition to financial support, the foundation has accepted Williams into a mayoral training program that Bloomberg sponsors at Harvard University.

Williams said he believes Bloomberg would be the best choice for the people of Huntington because he has already shown an interest in helping the city, which could blossom into even greater opportunities should the billionaire become inaugurated.

“When I see an organization that was founded by a man who is running for president and how they have found the wherewithal and the willingness to come in and spend the amount of time that they have spent — time, resources and technical assistance — here in Huntington, West Virginia, I can only imagine if that person is president of the United States what kind of attention we would be able to receive as well,” Williams said.

Earlier this month, Williams was one of about 100 mayors from around the country to join onto the “Mayors for Mike” coalition. Since then, Williams has lauded Bloomberg in several national news stories and has offered vocal support of Bloomberg campaign platforms to combat the opioid epidemic and strengthen the agricultural economy.

Williams, a Democrat, said he had mulled over endorsing at least three other Democratic presidential hopefuls before being approached by Bloomberg’s campaign earlier this year.

He considered endorsing Joe Biden, who Williams said he’s admired ever since the former vice president gave a commencement speech at Marshall University in 1979. That speech carried the message of “dare to dream” and was so influential on Williams that it inspired him to run for public office, he said.

Williams got to know Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, after they struck up a conversation while the two attended a Bloomberg-sponsored conference in Detroit in 2018. Williams said he also followed and admired the political career of Amy Klobuchar, a U.S. senator from Minnesota.

However, Williams said he jumped at the chance to endorse Bloomberg because of his existing working relationship with him.

“I had not committed to anybody and I had communications with the Biden folks and I have friends who are working actively in the Buttigieg organization who called me and said, ‘Will you?’” he said. “But when I got a call from the people who I am working with at Bloomberg, it became really apparent to me that there wasn’t anything to think about — just how soon I say yes.”

Williams said he largely agrees with Bloomberg’s political philosophy, which is based on strong partnerships between the public and private sector. He supports Bloomberg’s plan to repair crumbling infrastructure, increase rural broadband access and increase access to clean water, which are all issues important to West Virginians, he said.

Bloomberg has also shown an interest in how Huntington has rebounded from the opioid epidemic, and Bloomberg hopes to replicate the city’s successes for other communities around the country, Williams said.

In their conversations together, Williams said he’s discussed some of the aspects of Bloomberg’s politics that he disagrees with, such as Bloomberg’s goal to close all coal-fired power plants in the United States. Williams said he recommended Bloomberg create programs to ensure West Virginians are not left behind by the coal economy, which is being replaced by cheaper natural gas.

“I cannot say that I am elbow-rubbing buddies with him, but I have had several opportunities to sit and talk to him about what we are doing in Huntington and how we are moving forward,” he said.

Bloomberg, one of America’s wealthiest individuals, has faced criticism from fellow Democrats for his extravagant election spending, including the millions he’s spent on those who have endorsed him. Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, accused the billionaire of trying to buy his way into the White House.

Bloomberg launched his candidacy in November 2019 and then skipped the first four primary contests while he established a campaign network across the country. Despite joining late, he was able to quickly propel himself into the top-tier of presidential candidates after pouring more than $500 million of his own money into broadcast advertisements and paid campaign staffers.

This makes the former mayor of New York’s campaign the most expensive in American history, according to Bloomberg News.

Bloomberg also has faced criticisms for his support of a “stop-and-frisk” police policy while he was mayor of New York City. He apologized last year for supporting the policy, which disproportionately targeted minorities and was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge.

He’s also faced scrutiny for his handling of non-disclosure agreements that prevented former employees from speaking out about accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination against him. Bloomberg said he now realizes non-disclosure agreements could lead to an unsafe work culture for women and has offered to release three former female employees from their previously signed agreements.

Williams said he accepts that Bloomberg has recognized the inherit racism of the stop-and-frisk policy. He also accepts that Bloomberg has sworn under oath against some of those claims of harassment, including a report that he told a pregnant employee to “kill it.”

“I take him at his word and I understand there were others that have been sworn under oath, as he was, that he didn’t say such a thing,” he said. “So there is no reason for me to doubt his word.”

Super Tuesday will mark Bloomberg’s first entry onto the ballots, when Democrats in 14 states vote for an eventual challenger to Republican President Donald Trump. As of Monday, Bloomberg was polling less than 1% nationally, according to a forecast by FiveThirtyEight. That places him third behind Sanders, who had 20%, and Biden with 15%.

Buttigieg ended his campaign Sunday and Klobuchar ended her campaign Monday.

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.

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