Why you should care
There’s no question that Steyer has made an impact on the political scene. Will the next candidate he supports be himself?
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To political insiders, hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer is a kingmaker. He helped U.S. Sen. Ed Markey win a special election last year, and he is a big supporter of Terry McAuliffe, who may be elected Virginia’s next governor tomorrow. But is the kingmaker interested in becoming a king, perhaps as California’s next governor? Sure. And recent electoral changes in the Golden State may help him.
In the nation’s largest blue state, the tried-and-true strategy for serious Democratic candidates is simple: Run hard left to capture the party’s base in the primary. Then simply waltz to an easy general election victory. This strategy works because Democrats overwhelmingly outnumber Republicans in California today, at 44 percent versus the GOP’s 29 percent. Plus the California Republican Party, like its national counterpart, is on political life support.
Today, all statewide office holders are Democrats. The likely Republican nominee to challenge iconic Governor Jerry Brown next year is Abel Maldonado, an Arnold Schwarzenegger–appointed lieutenant governor who lost both his 2010 bid for re-election and, two years later, a bid for congressional election. To say he’s a sacrificial lamb would be disrespectful to lambs.
But thanks to the “jungle primary” that voters approved in 2010, in which candidates appear on the primary ballot without party affiliation, Californians can now vote for a candidate from any party, with the top two candidates, regardless of party, advancing to a general election runoff. The real contest will be in November, not June. Playing to the base won’t guarantee a victory, particularly if your opponent is another Democrat who appeals to Republican and decline-to-state voters who, combined, make up 50 percent of the electorate.
The California jungle primary’s first trophy is already on the mantel. In 2012, 31-year-old Democrat Eric Swalwell defeated 80-something Democratic incumbent congressman Pete Stark because of this new system. Swalwell finished second in the primary, then toppled Stark in the runoff, despite Stark’s near-unanimous Democratic establishment support.
Steyer is well aware of the changing political dynamics. He assumes, like most, that a jungle primary will help moderate candidates of both parties. But he qualifies the potential for change by cautioning that not much will be different if voters are given two extreme choices. “It really matters who shows up,” said Steyer. He may show up.
Who can best take advantage of the new rules to succeed Jerry Brown in 2018 and U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (2016) and Dianne Feinstein (2018), who are expected to retire? It’s not Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, nor is it the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa.
If there’s one Californian who has both the resources and policy ambitions to run for governor and the savvy to prevail in a jungle, it’s Steyer. Like many of his fellow Californians, the unassuming 55-year-old drives a 10-year-old Honda hybrid, eats organic and is concerned with the fate of the planet. But this Yale and Stanford business school grad, a New Yorker by birth, recently retired from the hedge fund world with a net worth of $1.4 billion, not to mention a new profession. Which is?
“I actually tell them ‘professional pain in the ass,’” Steyer has said . “Before, I was only an amateur.”
And in Steyer’s mind, his new profession has one big, planetary-size goal — to end global warming — and he’s already tasted victory on the ballot, having successfully led two recent California environmental propositions.
“If you look at the 2012 campaign, climate change was like incest,” Steyer argues, “something you couldn’t talk about in polite company.”
The unassuming 55-year-old drives a 10-year-old Honda hybrid, eats organic and is concerned with the fate of the planet.
He reads a recent quote from New Jersey governor Chris Christie, dismissing the issue of climate change as a potential cause of Superstorm Sandy as an “esoteric question.” Steyer said that Christie thinks “an analysis of science is above his pay grade,” adding that Christie’s lack of interest in preventative measures to deal with climate change is “totally nuts.”
That’s something Steyer wishes to change. An outspoken opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, Steyer recently demanded that a Massachusetts congressman oppose the pipeline “by high noon” or Steyer would spend money in a U.S.. Senate primary to defeat him. That’s in-your-face politics worthy of Donald Trump.
It did not go unnoticed. Steyer was criticized by theBoston Globe for his tactics — “Billionaire backer shoud back off” — and Markey, whom he was supporting in the race, had to distance himself from Steyer’s efforts.
He spent $30 million on a ballot initiative to fund energy efficiency and clean-energy jobs, drawing criticism.
He’s currently funding a major independent expenditure to help Democrat Terry McAuliffe against GOP attorney general Ken Cuccinelli in a Virginia gubernatorial race that will be decided tomorrow. Recent polls show that McAuliffe, who has also received stump support from both Hillary and Bill Clinton, has a solid lead. Steyer calls the race “a clear choice, a stark choice” on environmental leadership.
Steyer, a former Walter Mondale campaign staffer, also has Democratic street cred, having given $500,000 to Democratic candidates and hosted a 2008 fund-raiser for presidential hopeful Barack Obama that brought in a whopping $8 million in one night.
Last year, he spent $30 million on a California ballot initiative to fund energy efficiency and clean-energy jobs, drawing criticism for being yet another wealthy individual using a populist tool.
Is Steyer ready to channel his money and passion for the environment into a gubernatorial run? As he told Bloomberg Businessweek : “The way politics works is by people winning and losing jobs — their own jobs.” And becoming governor of California, the 12th largest economy in the world, would give Steyer a vehicle to test drive his environmental policy goals and turn a clunker of a state bureaucracy into a more fuel-efficient, planet-friendly model of governance.
Like Bloomberg, Steyer has an immigrant’s fire and ambitious drive for his adopted state. He describes himself as “a really proud Californian” and talks excitedly about the recent reports of a “California comeback” from dysfunctional politics which now seems to have been exported to Washington, D.C. “In Sacramento, it’s easier to get things done,” he said.
Recently, Steyer hosted six governors at his home to discuss climate change with leading environmentalists, business leaders and philanthropists. He thinks it’s “super exciting” for states to work collaboratively on climate issues like the agreement signed last week to align California, Oregon and Washington’s energy policies with the Canadian province of British Columbia. He has high praise for California’s governor Brown. “Leadership can come from governors,” Steyer said. With the partisanship on Capitol Hill, “it’s hard to see a major energy bill coming out of the U.S. Congress,” he concluded.
2018 could be Steyer’s big chance to put his money behind a candidate he knows can trust to provide environmental policy leadership. Himself. Would he consider running?
“Sure I would,” he says, “if that’s what’s needed to get something done.”