Billionaire Tom Steyer at a crossroad: Run for California governor or go after Trump?

Tom Steyer has some big decisions to make, and judging from his moves over the last few months, he's keeping his options open.

In California, the billionaire Democratic donor became known for fighting climate change and tapping his bank account to attack politicians who denied it.

More recently, he helped fund a successful state ballot measure to raise cigarette taxes, warned at the California Democratic Party convention of the corrupting influence of corporate America, and released a policy paper on the state’s growing income inequality.

All about the money in the 2018 California governor's race »

Now the former hedge fund manager who has spent tens of millions funding Democratic candidates and liberal causes across the country is mounting a challenge to President Trump on his own, going so far as to call for impeachment and use his nonprofit, NextGen Climate, to encourage citizens to lobby their congressional representatives for it.

As the 2018 race for governor heats up, Steyer must consider whether his time and money would be better spent fighting Trump and the Republican-led Congress, or bloodying fellow Democrats over the next year.

Steyer toyed with running for office when California’s former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer announced her retirement in 2015, but he decided he could do more as a private citizen to promote justice in education, the economy and the environment. He said it was a “hard decision.”

Two years later, Steyer finds himself at a similar crossroads.

Weeks after Trump, a Republican, won the White House, a despondent Steyer, who had been pondering a run for governor, said he might forgo a run for office to focus on combating the threats posed by the Trump administration and Republican-led Congress, especially their attempts to dismantle environmental protections and deport millions of immigrants.

“I think the threat to democracy that we’re seeing coming out of Washington, D.C., is as profound that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” the 59-year-old San Francisco resident said at a Public Policy Institute of California event in Sacramento in May.

But later the same month at the Democratic convention, he told reporters, “We are considering our options.”

“He’s a bit different cat than your typical conventional politician,” said Chris Lehane, a former Steyer political advisor who now serves as head of global policy for Airbnb. “He asks, ‘Where do I get the biggest leverage?’ In economics and finance, leverage is how you get the biggest return … He has transferred that same mode of thought [to] where he could have the biggest impact.”

To that end, Steyer has used tens of millions of his fortune to back Democratic candidates and elevate climate change issues, and has also poured millions into a series of recent California ballot measures, a proven way for candidates to increase their statewide political profile.

Steyer spent more than $11 million on the successful effort in November to raise tobacco taxes to help fund healthcare and starred in the campaign’s TV ads, saying the issue was personal for him because his mother was a three-pack-a-day smoker and died of lung cancer.

A governor’s race poll released in March by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies put Steyer’s support in the single digits. The institute’s most recent poll, which didn’t include Steyer or other undeclared candidates, showed 22% of likely California voters favored Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, also a Democrat, was a close second with 17%, followed by Republican John Cox at 9%, former GOP Assemblyman David Hadley at 7% and Democratic state Treasurer John Chiang at 5%.

That isn’t too much of a concern for Democratic consultant Rose Kapolczynski, who has worked for Steyer and his various political endeavors over the last two years.

“Everywhere we go, people urge him to run for office,” said Kapolczynski, who wouldn’t discuss whether Steyer has conducted his own polling. “Those suggestions happen in every part of the state and at every kind of event.”

Steyer declined a request for an interview, but Kapolczynski said he will decide on whether to run for office this year. The gubernatorial primary election is less than a year away.

Jumping into the governor’s race late could make the path to victory that much more difficult, because other candidates are already busy campaigning up and down the state, raising money and trying to lock up endorsements. Steyer may have a little leeway if he funds his own campaign, but that could open him up to attacks from opponents who may try to paint him as out of touch with real Californians.

phil.willon@latimes.com

Twitter: @philwillon

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