Less than a year ago, Tom Steyer had no intention of running for president. The billionaire political gadfly, best known for running cable TV ads calling for the impeachment of President Trump, has never held public office. And besides, he figured that someone in the diverse array of Democratic presidential candidates would be the right person to oust Trump from the White House in 2020.
It only took a couple of presidential debates to change Steyer’s mind.
“I was listening to those debates and I didn’t think those people were answering the questions I was worried about,” Steyer said Monday during a meeting with The Boston Globe editorial board.
Now he’s all in. Since announcing his candidacy in July, Steyer has spent $50 million of his own money to make an impression with voters, and plans to spend plenty more.
So far, the cash hasn’t helped much in the polls. Steyer is ranked at 1.5 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, though his numbers are better in the early voting states of Iowa (2.5 percent) and New Hampshire (2.7 percent).
Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, another billionaire who entered the Democratic race even later than Steyer, is polling at 5 percent nationally.
Steyer takes a progressive stand on a range of issues, but his priority is climate change.
“I would declare a state of emergency from day one,” he said. He vowed to issue a flurry of executive orders mandating faster deployment of electric vehicles, tough energy efficiency standards for new buildings, and rigorous new rules to restrict the US government’s use of fossil fuels.
Climate reforms that require direct expenditures of federal funds will require approval from a Congress whose Republican members have shown little appetite for such spending. But Steyer said he’ll do all that the law allows, despite GOP resistance.
“We have to do this no matter what,” he said. And he won’t let the Senate’s filibuster power stand in his way, calling for abolition of the filibuster once and for all.
Like his decision to run for the White House, Steyer’s fervent concern for climate is a striking change of heart. He earned his fortune, estimated at $1.6 billion by Forbes magazine, at the hedge fund Farallon Capital Management, which made significant investments in fossil fuel companies. But then came a change of heart.
“Somewhere around 12 or 13 years ago, I wasn’t thinking about it and I began to examine it,” said Steyer. What he learned convinced him that the world totters on the brink of a climatic disaster.
“I wish I was smarter and had done it sooner,” Steyer said. But by 2013, he’d founded NextGen Climate, an advocacy group that spent over $125 million backing candidates and organizations fighting climate change. Now renamed NextGen America, the organization focuses on increasing election turnout among younger voters and has been credited with helping Democrats retake the House in 2018.
Steyer is only a little less adamant about his number-two priority: getting big money out of politics. In an ironic echo of Trump, he argued that his own wealth and business success will give him an edge in challenging entrenched corporate power brokers.
“I’m saying something that most people in America know is true, which is that corporations have bought the democracy,” said Steyer.
Steyer is an unabashsed supporter of income redistribution.
“For the last 40 years,” he said, “there’s been a successful war against working Americans and people are upset about it. There are some hard feelings and there should be some hard feelings.”
As payback, Steyer proposes doing away with the tax cuts for high-income Americans, and establishing a tax on accumulated wealth, similar to that proposed by Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren. He argued that it’ll be hard for Trump to counter the proposal by calling his fellow billionaire a socialist.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.