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Billionaire Tom Steyer is spending millions on behalf of Democrats. What will he get out of it?

Billionaire Tom Steyer is spending millions on behalf of Democrats. What will he get out of it?
Billionaire Tom Steyer is considering a run for governor while spending millions to register voters. (AFP/Getty Images)

This seems an inauspicious time for someone to try to break one of the longest streaks in California politics: the unsuccessful run of extremely rich men and women trying to vault themselves into high office.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have ridden the bloody feud between elites and non-elites to multiple victories this year. Britain upended the entire world economy by voting Thursday to break away from the European Union, a move driven, at least in part, by that same populist divide.

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Still, don't be surprised if one of the candidates for governor in two years is a billionaire: Tom Steyer, who would seem an unlikely victor given the winds of anger circulating now. He seems both unconcerned and highly aware of California's long-standing record of repudiating wealthy candidates.

By 1998, when Democrat Al Checchi was trying to parlay his millions into the governor's office, something like 19 similar top-of-the-ticket candidacies had ended in loss. I mentioned this to Steyer the other day during an interview in Long Beach, where he was spending a sunny Saturday shaking hands with Democrats gathered for a party meeting at a beachside hotel.

By now, I added, it must be up to — what, 30?

"Thirty-one," Steyer said, with the kind of mathematical precision that probably drove his success as a hedge fund manager.

"You counted?" I asked.

"I think that's the number that someone told me," he said, smiling. "I didn't count. Someone told me that."

That someone could be one of the handful of political consultants now working for Steyer, or one of those working on 208 college campuses as part of his $25-million national effort to register millennial voters this year. Or one of the Steyer staff in seven swing states where the presidential contest and control of the Senate will be decided in part by the labor voters he's also trying to turn out.

Or it could be one of those working with him to push climate-change measures, for which he has become a national leader, or working with him on what he hopes will be a landmark study of ways to lessen income inequality in California.

Steyer poured $74 million into races on behalf of Democrats in 2014, which made him the biggest individual donor in the country — even if he was largely unsuccessful. He won't pin a figure on his spending this year, but he expects to spend a lot, in part because of the presence of Donald Trump, whom Steyer considers "the antithesis … of the values that we hold dear."

But much of his attention will be focused on California, despite its meaningless status in November. Steyer, who is 58 and based in San Francisco, spent about $700,000 to help register Democrats before the June primary. He also aired two ads encouraging Californians to register and vote.

One featured Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz casting climate change as a hoax.

"We need leaders who get it," Steyer said in the ad.

In the second, Trump is seen on video calling immigrants "rapists" and promising that a "deportation force" would be "rounding them up."

"That's not America," said Steyer, surrounded by young adults. "We're all Californians."

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His presence in the ads explains why the possibility of a 2018 run for governor is assumed to be high on his list of desires, even if he will not announce his plans until after the November election.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, is the only extremely wealthy candidate to win office as a governor or senator, and he's under an asterisk because he won in the recall election, thus avoiding the internal battles that foiled everyone else. Few rich Democrats have run, in part because Democratic voters can't seem to abide them.

In a 2012 Pew Research survey, Democrats were far less inclined than Republicans to think well of the wealthy, to the point that only 8% thought they were more honest than the average American, and 65% thought they were more greedy.

But Steyer has worked to craft an identity beyond hedge fund billionaire, with his work on climate change and income inequality. Will that be enough? Or will voters look at him and see just another rich guy?

"I have no idea," he said. "I would say this: One of the things I believe is who you spend your time with is unbelievably important. Because it's one thing to read a story; it's one thing to see a statistic. It's one thing to meet people and spend time with them and understand what life looks like from their point of view."

That he has accomplished, he suggested, with his political activities. And he also noted that his spending stands to benefit Democratic causes, regardless of whether he ends up running.

The renewable-energy measure signed last fall by Gov. Jerry Brown was limited in its reach when oil companies opposed part of it and some Democrats sided with them, he noted. The landmark climate-change legislation signed by Schwarzenegger in 2006 will need updating in 2020.

His spending here, Steyer said, is intended to ensure that environmental and economic measures win more support.

"From our point of view, the way we are going to get better decisions, we think, that much more reflect the issues of the people you are talking about — normal, working people of the state of California and working families — is broader democracy.

"We live in California. We think of California as an historic leader, but also a necessary leader."

As to whether he will try to lead it, check back in November.

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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