Landscape | Spring 2017 Issue

Tom Steyer: Gadfly or Governor?

Billionaire investor Tom Steyer eyes his future in California politics.

By Lisa Fung

SAN FRANCISCO — For Tom Steyer, everything changed with the election of Donald J. Trump
as president.

“I can’t think of a thing that he has done that I don’t find offensive. Really, not a thing,” said Steyer,
casually dressed in a blue sweater and corduroys on a rainy afternoon. “But it’s not enough to oppose
Trump. I’m for building a much better system so that people are healthier and have higher wages.
I’m for a different vision of the future.”

Steyer isn’t just talk. In 2012, the billionaire founder of Farallon Capital Management gave up his lucrative career at the investment firm to start NextGen Climate, a nonprofit organization with a straightforward mission: “to prevent climate disaster and promote prosperity for every American.” More recently, he’s added “protecting fundamental rights for every American” to the mission statement.

To that end, he’s willing to fight for his vision — one built around people coming together to engage on issues and bring about change — by devoting time, energy and money. A lot of money. According  to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics, Steyer spent about $75.4 million in the 2014 midterm elections and about $91 million in the 2016 elections, making him the largest single donor of any political party to candidates,  propositions and issues nationwide.

“Look, we made the assumption at the beginning of 2013 that the rights of Americans were inviolate — and they’re not,” Steyer said during an interview in a brightly lit conference room in NextGen Climate’s San Francisco office. “If they’re able to go after people’s civil liberties in general and take away the rights of Americans, then everything is going to go by the boards, too. We don’t think we can address any of these things separately. We’re trying to be an organized force pushing for the good of working people and American families.”

If his words sound straight out of a stump speech, others have noticed — some happily, some nervously. Steyer has long been considered a potential candidate for statewide office — California governor in 2018, for instance, or another political office as the state shifts from the Jerry Brown/Barbara Boxer/Dianne Feinstein generation to a younger cohort that will follow. But on this day, just weeks into the Trump presidency, he insists he hasn’t made a decision.

“I really thought that [Hillary Clinton] was going to win, so I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. People would ask me, and I’d say, ‘I’m not sure, let’s see what happens,’” he says. “When Trump got elected … people said, ‘Is it changing the way you’re thinking?’ Well, of course it’s changing the
way I’m thinking. The world just changed in a way no one, including me, expected.”

He leans back in his chair, poker-faced. “I haven’t said, honestly, what I’m going to do.”

The youthful, 59-year-old married father of four first dipped his toes into the world of politics when he began working on behalf of Sen. John Kerry in his bid to unseat President George W. Bush. “At the time I thought, this man is driving us off the cliff, and when my grandkids ask me what did you do, if my answer is I was too busy making money to do anything, I’m going to feel really bummed. So I’m going to take a bunch of time and effort and work to try to get this guy from being re-elected because he is a disastrous and bad president,” he said. “And you know, that really grew and that’s why I quit my job.”

He went on to co-chair the No on Proposition 23 campaign, fighting a ballot initiative that would have repealed a state law aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Proposition 23, which had the backing of large oil companies, was defeated by a nearly 23 percentage-point margin. In 2012, the same year he launched NextGen Climate, Steyer became the leading sponsor of Proposition 39, which was intended to close a tax-credit loophole for out-of-state corporations and direct half of the funds raised for alternative energy and energy-efficient public projects.

He contributed nearly $30 million to the successful effort, a stunning amount at the time. And in 2016, he successfully shepherded Proposition 56, the cigarette tax initiative that passed overwhelmingly. His efforts were hardly anonymous. Steyer appeared in a series of television ads — in English and in Spanish — encouraging action on climate change and clean-air laws and urging voter registration, all against a backdrop of clips of Trump’s more incendiary campaign comments. He continued his efforts this year with ads targeting Trump cabinet picks Rex Tillerson and Scott Pruitt.

And though the recent presidential election didn’t turn out as he had hoped, Steyer makes no apologies for his efforts or money spent on that front. “If you look at what we did in 2016, we overwhelmingly worked on what I would describe as “direct democracy,’” he said. “I think we’re going to find that engaging in the direct engagement of voters — the voter-to-voter contact — is really valuable and worthwhile, and we’re totally committed to it.”

For NextGen, that meant fanning out to 370 college campuses across the country to register millennial voters and spread the word about climate change and other issues. “We registered over 800,000 people of all ages, around the state,” he said. “With partners in the labor movement, we knocked on 11 million doors. We worked with over 100 community groups inside California
and outside.”

In February, he invited the public, via the group’s Facebook page and website, to offer suggestions on how next to fight Trump. Within days, he says, they received more than 10,000 responses. “We believe that what we’re doing is incredibly necessary and important,” he said. “If we keep our mouths shut, if we’re silent, then they get their hall pass. We can’t be silent for a second. There is no day that we don’t have to come in and oppose. There is no day we don’t have to come in and try and fight for a better future.”

Lisa Fung

Lisa Fung

Lisa Fung is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, who has held senior editorial positions at The Los Angeles Times and TheWrap.com.

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