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Michael Bloomberg Headlines Unusually Contentious Democratic Gala

Mike Bloomberg speaking at Democratic gala
Former New York Major Michael Bloomberg speaks at the Democratic Party Blue Commonwealth Gala on Saturday. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

Virginia Democrats toasted to their newfound power at a biannual gala headlined by presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg and marked by several protests. 

Progressives protested Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policies outside Richmond Main Street Station and at least two dozen people walked out during a brief address by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who faced widespread calls to resign last year after two women accused him of sexual assault.

Nonetheless, the mood inside the venue remained mostly upbeat. 

Speaker after speaker boasted of the party’s sweeping accomplishments during their first five weeks in power in the General Assembly, advancing legislation on gun control, minimum wage, LGBTQ discrimination and other priorities.

“Governor Northam, I sure hope you have enough pens ready for all the historic legislation in the House and Senate will be sending your way,” said Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax).

Bloomberg used his speech to amplify the legislature’s actions and deride President Donald Trump, who he called “the world’s biggest schoolyard bully.” 

“Our party needs a candidate who can go toe-to-toe with him and take the fight to him,” Bloomberg said.

The former New York mayor also repeated an apology for his stop-and-frisk policies as mayor, which have come under renewed scrutiny during his presidential run.

“I didn't understand the unintended pain [it would] cause to young black and brown kids and to their families,” Bloomberg said. “I should have acted sooner and faster to stop it.”

During the speech, Jasmine Leeward, co-founder of the progressive group Richmond For All, briefly succeeded in affixing a sign to Bloomberg's podium saying "He protects racist systems. Do you?"  

Fairfax focused on changes underway in the General Assembly, including a push to make Election Day a state holiday in place of Lee-Jackson Day, which celebrates Confederate generals.

Downstairs and outside of the gala, there was simmering discontent.

A motley crew of dozens of progressive groups and gun rights activists mobilized against Bloomberg. One critic set up a stand offering free Ku Klux Klan robes to Democrats -- a reference to a racist photo that surfaced last year in Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook.

Activist Allan-Charles Chipman said Bloomberg was little better than Trump on issues of race.

“When we're talking about political violence against black humanity's ability to live, breathe and build wealth, Mike Bloomberg has just been as disruptive as Donald Trump and he used to be a Republican,” Chipman said.

Later, a group of mostly women walked out of Fairfax’s speech, saying the party hadn’t properly consulted with women and people of color on his appearance. Their demonstration followed Democrats’ top donors’ decision to withdraw his environmental group’s participation in the event after he learned of Fairfax’s speech.

Erika Neal, the senior class president at Virginia State University, said Fairfax’s address was an affront to sexual assault survivors like herself.

“When the party doesn't acknowledge sexual assault or doesn't hold the elected officials accountable for their actions, it sets a precedent, especially for college students who look on to this kind of stuff,” Neal said. 

Ben Paviour covers state politics for VPM News with a focus on accountability journalism.