Democrat Tom Steyer, a businessman and political donor, spoke Aug. 11, 2019, at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair.
Des Moines Register
WASHINGTON — Tom Steyer said he smiled when heard House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
Steyer founded Need to Impeach in October 2017 — a group with the singular goal of impeaching Trump. Since then, he has pumped millions of dollars into the group.
In doing so, he put his stamp on Trump’s impeachment before many of the Democratic presidential candidates were even thinking about it – and he takes responsibility for helping to push the congressional investigations into Trump into a full-blown impeachment inquiry.
The impeachment inquiry, Steyer told USA TODAY, “was a sign the American political system was working.”
“The Need To Impeach movement has been around for almost two years, pushing and pushing and pushing,” he said, as part of a “drumbeat over two years of building momentum.”
Now, with House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry rapidly escalating, Steyer finds himself making his first appearance on the debate stage while one of his signature issues is finally dominating headlines.
While his political history is built around two organizations he has founded and funded — NextGen America, focused on climate change, and Need to Impeach — the debate will test his ability to stand out in the crowded Democratic field and move beyond being defined by those groups.
Steyer, 62, believes he has an opening in the field due to his relative lack of political experience compared with other candidates.
“I’m an outsider, they’re insiders,” he said. Other than entrepreneur Andrew Yang, every other candidate on the Democratic debate stage is a current or former elected official.
But as fellow Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., rails against the “millionaires and the billionaires” on the campaign trail, Steyer is testing whether the Democratic primary electorate has the appetite for a billionaire presidential candidate to take on the current billionaire occupant of the White House.
‘I met him in the streets’
Steyer made his fortune as the head of Farallon Capital, an investment firm that Steyer’s biography says he started with $9 million in investments and eventually grew into a firm with $36 billion under its management at its peak. Forbes estimatesSteyer’s personal worth at $1.6 billion.
He left Farallon in 2012 seeking to get involved in politics and the environmental movement, starting NextGen in 2013. The group organized voters around environmental issues and its PAC, NextGen Action, spent millions of dollars on political races in the next several election cycles.
Heather Hargreaves, Steyer’s campaign manager and the former Executive Director of NextGen America, called him “a really genuine person in the way that people don’t expect.”
After years of participating from the sidelines, and months after saying he wouldn’t join the race, Steyer threw his hat into the Democratic presidential contest in July.
Steyer’s campaign points to his ties to the environmental movement and grassroots activism as evidence of his experience beyond the boardroom.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., a friend of Steyer and the head of the Hip Hop Caucus, a national youth voter outreach organization, told USA TODAY he first met Steyer at a February 2013 rally against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, D.C.
“I met him in the streets,” Yearwood recalls. He first noticed that Steyer was wearing a tie. At a rally.
“That’s what stood out to me most,” Yearwood said with a laugh.
Despite the appearance, Steyer’s commitment to environmental activism on a deep level was clear, Yearwood said.
“You could tell he was definitely deeply thinking about” climate change, Yearwood said. “He really wants to know what the movement is doing, not just being out here.”
When asked about his wealth and ability to compete in the Democratic field, Steyer pointed to his “10-year record as an outsider” and cited his experience leading ballot initiatives in California that took on “corporate power.”
“As an outsider, I’ve been doing things that people in the inside have been unwilling or unable to do,” he says. “Look, take a look at Need to Impeach. That was clearly an outside effort, organizing people who were from outside Washington, D.C., to stand up and insist that the government do what’s right, and hold the most corrupt president in American history to account.”
Steyer believes Democratic primary voters care less about the identity of the candidate so much as they do the message.
“This is all about message,” Steyer said. “Do I have something that is different, important, and true, that resonates with Democratic voters? If I don’t have that, then I’m not a viable candidate, period. The end.”
‘We need a new vision of America’
In Steyer’s view, America needs a new vision to move beyond conservative economic policies from the 1980s — and hebelieves he alonecan present that vision to the American people.
“I think we’re living in a framework of life and government, put out by Ronald Reagan in 1980, which has been disastrous for America, that his ideas of how to think about the country have proven to be shockingly wrong, and nearsighted and destructive,” Steyer said. “And I think that we need a new vision of America from the one that he put forward, and that is still impacting our politics and our framework for government.”
Steyer’s campaign has since rolled out an economic plan that, among other provisions, would raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour, allow for two years of free college, and repeal the tax cuts passed by Republicans in 2017.
Despite his net worth, he supports redistributive economic policies like a 1% wealth tax on the richest 0.1% of Americans, though the tax is not as high as similar policies proposed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
‘The biggest impact’
Initially, Steyer said he would not be running for president in 2020 and would instead be working to support NextGen and Need to Impeach.
But by July 9, he announced his bid for the presidency, becoming the 24th Democratic presidential candidate.
He argued that he would try to get money out of politics and bring climate change to the front of the agenda.
“Almost every major single intractable problem, at the back of it, you see a big-money interest for whom stopping progress, stopping justice is really important to their bottom line,” he said in his announcement video.
His candidacy was welcomed by some environmental groups, especially after climate-focused candidate Washington Gov. Jay Inslee bowed out toward the end of August.
Tiernan Sittenfeld, the Senior Vice President for Government Affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, said “we were really happy about his justice-centered climate plan.”
“Tom Steyer clearly understands the urgency of the climate crisis, and he’s made climate action one of his very top priorities for years,” she explained. “I think he brings an important voice for climate leadership and climate action to the presidential race.”
The League of Conservation Voters has not yet made a presidential endorsement for 2020.
Buying his way into the race?
Despite the attention he has gotten from environmental advocates, some fellow Democratic candidates have turned their ire on Steyer ahead of the debate — and used him as an opportunity to fundraise.
Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign sent out a fundraising email on Sept. 29 with the subject: “Tom Steyer,” appealing for donations with the worry that they were being outspent by “billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.”
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has accused Steyer of using his wealth to “bankroll” himself onto the debate stage.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke sent out a fundraising appeal on Oct. 7 also criticizing Steyer for “buying his way” onto the stage and asked his own supporters to donate.
“Tom Steyer is a billionaire hedge fund manager who already spent a staggering $17.6 million on TV ads trying to qualify for the debates. Now, he’s succeeded in buying his way up there. Beto needs to raise a lot of money to qualify for the debates too,” the email stated, before asking for “grassroots donations”
Steyer’s campaign shrugs off the attacks from other candidates.
Steyer campaign press secretary Alberto Lammers told USA TODAY, “Candidates need to do what they need to do.”
If anything, the attacks “elevate Tom’s name,” Lammers explained. “We see it as kind of beneficial to us.”
As for the campaign’s own fundraising, Steyer’s campaign says they have raised more than $2 million in the third quarter, with about 166,000 donors and an average of $12 a donor.
Steyer has been willing to commit his own considerable resources to the race, though signaling his staying power.
When Steyer announced his campaign, The New York Times reported he was prepared to spend up to $100 million in the race — a large proportion of which would come from Steyer himself.
Since then, Steyer’s campaign has poured money into ads. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Steyer spent more than $7 million on social media and TV ads within the first month of the start of his campaign, dwarfing the spending by other candidates.
And while he resigned his roles at NextGen and Need to Impeach, he has still continued to fund the groups.
On Oct. 3, Steyer’s campaign announced he would be giving $2.7 million of his own funds to Need to Impeach as the group geared up to spend millions on ads targeting Republican members of Congress in competitive races in 2020.
Asked whether the large amounts of money he spent on social media ads might make it difficult for him to challenge social media companies’ power as president, Steyer replied that companies like Facebook provided a service to him.
“That’s like telling Teddy Roosevelt, ‘how can you take on the railroads if you ride the railroad,’ ” he said.
The 2020 election is nearing and with that, comes the caucuses and primary elections. But what’s the difference?
Just the FAQs, USA TODAY
Steyer will be around through at least the November Democratic debate. His campaign qualified for it at the beginning of October by meeting the Democratic National Committee’s polling thresholds in early states as well as the donor threshold.
Although he trends towards the bottom of the field in national polls, Steyer polls well in early states.
In the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, Steyer sits at about 0.8%, among the lowest-polling of the field. But in a Morning Consult poll of the early primary states of Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, Steyer ranks fourth among the Democratic field, at 8%.
Whether the early state polling is a consequence of his genuine appeal to the Democratic electorate or the result of bombarding voters with ads has yet to be seen.
Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Steyer hadn’t registered much in the race so far, though his high spending might have helped him qualify for the debates.
“Unlike on the Republican side in 2016, where voters clearly were clamoring for outsider, non-politician candidates like Donald Trump, Democrats seem more comfortable with established politicians and seem satisfied with the top choices right now (Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren at the moment),” Kondik wrote in an email. “So Steyer is a significant longshot at this point, along with most of the other candidates. We’ll see if the debate does anything for him, but it’s going to be hard for anyone to stand out on a 12-person stage.”
Regardless, Hargreaves describes Steyer’s decision making as being driven by the desire to make the “biggest impact.”
And at least for now, to Steyer, that impact would be removing Trump from office by beating him in 2020.
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