‘If no one else is going to do it, I am going to do it’: Billionaire Tom Steyer on a possible presidential run

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Environmental activist and  billionaire Tom Steyer at his offices in San Francisco in June (Photo: Eric Risberg/AP)

The biggest billionaire donor of 2018 is now telling Democrats how to run for president in 2020 — and says that if they don’t listen, he will run himself.

Meet Tom Steyer — although you may have encountered him already, perhaps on one of the many ads he ran last election cycle, online and on television, calling for President Trump’s impeachment.

Steyer, a San Francisco hedge-fund manager turned environmental activist, first made his name in American politics by spending vast amounts of his estimated $1.6 billion fortune to influence climate-change policy.  But as 2016 came and went, and as he passed on possible bids for governor or senator, Steyer, 61, moved to diversify his political portfolio, launching NextGen Rising, a multimillion-dollar youth-vote initiative, and his $50 million Need to Impeach petition drive (current signature count: 6.4 million).

Overall, Federal Election Commission records show that Steyer spent about $60 million in 2018 — though he claims he spent “at least” twice as much, which would propel him past former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Republican casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to become the cycle’s top individual contributor. (Steyer’s calculation includes expenditures for ballot measures and issue ads, including those promoting impeachment of President Trump, which aren’t included in OpenSecrets.org’s current tally of individual contributions.) 

And while the midterms may be over, Steyer shows no signs of slowing down. Last week, he overhauled his website and launched a new campaign focused on “The Five Rights” that he says “should be the basis of the Democratic Party’s platform” — the rights to an equal vote, to clean air and water, to a living wage, to health, and to learn. At the same time, Steyer announced a series of related town hall meetings beginning in the key early primary state of South Carolina on Dec. 4.

Predictably, the push fanned speculation that Steyer is planning to capitalize on his massive email list and even more massive war chest to run for president in 2020 — and as Steyer confirmed Wednesday in an interview with Yahoo News, that is a distinct possibility.

“Someone is going to have to fight for this,” he said. “If no one else is going to do it, I am going to do it.”

Steyer also explained why impeachment should be House Democrats’ No. 1 priority — and predicted that Nancy Pelosi, the likely House Speaker, who has publicly dismissed calls for impeachment, will soon change her mind on the issue. Edited excerpts:

YAHOO NEWS: On Sunday, you told “Meet the Press” that you haven’t made your mind up about running for president. It’s been three days since then. Have you decided yet?

TOM STEYER: [15 seconds of laughter]

I’m still waiting for an answer.

I need more coffee right now. [Laughs]

I’m preparing you for every interview you do for the next year of your life.

That’s your job.

You just put out a platform. You’re asking for it.

I didn’t put out … I put out a “framework.”

Let’s talk about that framework. So you came right out of the gate after the election with a revamped website and a new message about what you call “The Five Rights.” When did you realize you wanted to launch this sort of campaign, and how did you settle on this particular message?

I’ve done all of these town halls around the country, and also met with tons of people outside the town halls. I spent that whole time trying to think, “Why do Americans feel so abandoned and disrespected by their government? What protections can we put in place so that Americans feel protected again?”

And so we put out what we think should be the new social contract for American citizens with their government. If we accept this as a country, we’re a different country. It’s a sharp, intentional move away from the ideas put forth in 1980 by Ronald Reagan. Those are failed ideas that have run their course and put us in a terrible position.

But how are your “Five Rights” different from what other top Democrats are talking about? House Democrats’ first priority is a voting-rights package. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others are putting climate front and center. Every 2020 Democrat is talking about health care and income inequality. Education is a perennial Democratic priority.

Because it’s not just policies. Sure, every single one of those things can be a policy. But what we’re saying is, “No, this is a level higher than that. This is a right that we have.” In 2016, Mrs. Clinton had 19 important policy positions — but did you understand what her point was?

So you’re saying the Five Rights is a messaging framework — a message you want Democrats to run on in 2020?

Look, I’ve been talking about climate change for 10 years. We’ve all been talking about health care 10 years. It’s not the question about whether we should be doing a cap-and-trade or a carbon tax. It’s a question of, “This is an absolute right for the American citizen.”

Everyone’s asking, “What is it that Democrats need to do next?” And I tried to put this out there — “This is what we need to do. I want to be working for this.” I want to see if other people respond to it — if other people pick up the mantle.

What if no one does? Does that mean you’ll run in 2020?

This is about transformational politics. If we don’t get transformational politics, we are going to get incremental politics. And incremental politics aren’t going to work. Everyone watching in D.C. likes to think that the Democrats are doing better, the Republicans are doing worse, but we need to work together — blah, blah, blah. I don’t think any of that. I don’t think one word of that. I think that’s a bunch of baloney.

But just to be clear: If you don’t feel like any of the candidates are proposing “transformational politics,” as you define it, then you will step in and put your name on that ballot?

[Laughs] That won’t be the absolute only thing that I will think about in terms of how I spend my life.

But it’s something you’re thinking about.

Someone is going to have to fight for this. If no one else is going to do it, I am going to do it.

Let’s talk about 2018. You were one of the biggest donors of the cycle — if not the biggest. How much did you invest overall? 

What’s the number that’s out there? $120 million. 

Was that how much you pledged or how much you actually spent? 

I think it’s fair to say we spent at least that.

Are you pleased with the return on your investment?

Look at the youth turnout — highest youth turnout ever, in a midterm, since 18-year-olds were allowed to vote. The other thing that my colleague mentioned to me this morning is that the spread, D to R, for people 18 to 29 was 44 percent. You know what that means? That means the Rs are in the 20s.

That’s not usually the case.

Oh my God, that’s the largest gap in recent history. Do you know what’s going to happen between now and November 2020? Millions more people are going to turn 18.

And you don’t think they’re going to be voting Republican.

I guess about 28 percent of them will.

Your other big push was around impeachment. Do you think America is closer to impeaching President Trump now than when you started?

We think that the efforts of the Need to Impeach petition drive added 1.9 million additional people to the voting rolls who wouldn’t have otherwise voted. But ultimately, it’s events pushing the American people to understand how bad this president is — and it’s the people who will push Congress to act.

To that end, you’ve just released a new impeachment ad, and you have said that impeachment should be the “absolute first step” for the new Democratic House. Why?

We have a president who’s a criminal — an active criminal attempting to use his office to both profit and cover up his crimes. It’s amazing. And people in Washington, D.C., are sort of like, “It’s bad, but let’s not do anything about it.” All they do is swallow lie after lie and normalize crime after crime, with the assumption that there’s nothing we can do. How about telling the truth and doing everything you can to protect the American people and the Constitution? How about that?

Nancy Pelosi is one of the people who doesn’t want to pursue impeachment. Democratic leadership votes are taking place as we speak. Do you want to see her as the next House speaker, or would you rather see a pro-impeachment Democrat in that role?

I’m not in that vote. Nancy is my congressperson. I voted for her three weeks ago. I have voted for her for decades. I have a lot of respect for Nancy —  for the incredible work that she’s done. I deeply disagree with her about this. That’s OK. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect her as a person. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect her as a leader.

Right. But she’s going to control the House and she’s not going to do what you want. Wouldn’t you rather see someone else in charge?

Events are going to happen. Events are going to change everybody’s position. I’m not teasing. At some point, you just can’t close your eyes anymore. Everybody’s been saying we should wait for the Mueller report. The Mueller report’s going to come out and it’s going to be explosive, and the question [for Pelosi] will then be, “What are you going to do?” I think whoever the leader is, [he or she] is going to be forced to do the right thing here, because the American people are going to force them.

Pelosi and others argue that impeachment is a lost cause — the process will divide and consume the country, and even if the House does impeach Trump, two-thirds of the Republican Senate will never vote to convict. They’re choosing to focus on Democratic policies instead. Don’t they have a point? 

Which policy initiatives that are so critical and timely do Democrats feel they’re going to get through the Republican-dominated Senate and this administration? Which ones? Name one.

Their argument would be that even if nothing passes, policies are better than impeachment for messaging purposes.

Messaging purposes? Right now there is something that [Democrats] can do to hold the president to account. It is called impeachment. It’s not a whine, it’s not a complaint, it’s not an accusation. It’s an act.

People keep forgetting: This is a truly historic time. We have got to rise to the occasion. I want to be part of the people rising — period. And I’m going to do that, come hell or high water.

 

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