From its very founding, California has been a land of reinvention. The creed is practically written in the state Constitution: If you don’t like who you are, or your place in life, start over.
Gold was the first lure. Since then, countless have sought fame. Others, acceptance.
Tom Steyer has no end of wealth, a measure of fame and a seeming appetite for political office.
That requires his own bit of reinvention.
The state has a long history of rejecting wealthy political climbers, from shipping magnate William Matson Roth in the 1970s to tech mogul Meg Whitman in 2010.
Over the last several years, Steyer has underwritten his own transformation, from hedge fund billionaire to environmental crusader, Democratic Party bankroller, philanthropist and political champion of Latinos and young people. It’s hard to fit all that on a ballot designation, but any combination is definitely better than rich guy.
It is entirely possible that Steyer is pure of heart and wants nothing more than to save the world from baking to death, while simultaneously sowing opportunity and equality from sea to shining sea. He laughed, long and hard, at the notion his actions may be anything less than altruistic.
“Throughout American history people have chosen to do the right thing ’cause they felt like it was important,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be about ... my resume.”
But his conspicuous eyeing of elected office, be it California governor, the U.S. Senate or, some murmur, a White House bid, has long infused Steyer’s exertions with a strong whiff of personal ambition.
So it is with his latest campaign, a petition drive to impeach President Trump.
The effort — including a $20-million ad blitz that prominently features himself — certainly has its supporters, not least the 5 million, and counting, who have signed the petition.
“I think it’s important to millions of hard-core Democratic activists to see someone hitting Trump,” said Bob Mulholland, a longtime strategist for the state party, who enthusiastically praised the signature-gathering campaign. “Those people who every day think, ‘My God, Trump is terrible,’ they feel someone powerful is listening to them, and that’s good.”
But the fact the petition drive has precisely zero chance of success — a Republican-led House will impeach Trump the day it elects Hillary Clinton queen of England — has led others to question Steyer’s crusade.
And it’s not just Trump defenders.
“A vanity project,” said David Axelrod, President Obama’s chief political impresario.
“Not someplace that I think we should go,” said Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi, Steyer’s fellow San Franciscan.
“[Expletive] stupid,” Tommy Vietor, another Obama White House alum, said of the IMPEACH! billboard Steyer raised in New York’s Times Square.
Of course, it’s his money to spend as he pleases. If Steyer wants to shred millions of dollar bills and toss them confetti-style from Coit Tower, he could certainly do so — provided, one assumes, he paid for the cleanup.
It’s just, as Vietor and other Democrats see it, there are so many better ways to invest $20 million.
“Getting people to sign a petition doesn’t actually do anything,” said Vietor, Obama’s former national security spokesman and co-founder of the liberal soapbox Crooked Media. “If he really wants to impeach Donald Trump, he should spend every dollar ensuring Democrats win back the House and maybe even the Senate in 2018.”
The danger, some Democrats fear, is that inciteful talk of impeachment drowns out the more substantive, and to their mind effective, message the party needs to appeal beyond its core supporters.
“Every second that we spend talking about impeachment is a second we’re not talking about jobs or how we lift people’s wages or reduce healthcare costs,” said Lis Smith, who helped run Martin O’Malley’s 2016 Democratic presidential campaign. “We have a much better chance of winning that argument than playing to some liberal Trump derangement syndrome fantasy about impeachment.”
Steyer calls that a false choice, noting that in addition to his impeachment efforts he also spent millions on ads opposing the GOP tax bill and helping Democrats this month win the governorship and gain a significant number of legislative seats in Virginia. “It’s not an either/or,” he said.
“Americans can hold two ideas in their head at the same time,” he added.
It’s possible, too, that Steyer wants both to save the world and position himself for elected office.