Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, who has already committed to spending $100 million on political races across the nation to affect climate change policy, said Tuesday he planned to get involved in legislative contests in California to help Democrats strengthen their hold on the state Capitol and to fight the influence of money from oil interests.
"We are looking at districts. We think it's really important that California continue to have a working majority in the Senate and the [Assembly]," Steyer said in an interview. "We're looking to see exactly what that means. Also we've said consistently that we think a progressive environmental message is one that resonates with voters around this state and around the country."
On Tuesday, Steyer was speaking at a downtown Los Angeles luncheon for the LA Cleantech Incubator. He said the discussion was held to get feedback on his energy policy proposals and to insure that California remains a clean-energy leader, a subject heightened by President Obama's announcement Monday of plans to cut carbon pollution 30% by 2030.
The remarks also come as voters cast ballots in the California primary. Democrats here are fighting to retain a two-thirds supermajority in the Assembly and regain one lost recently in the state Senate.
Although the party dominates Sacramento, it shows some fractures on energy policy, as demonstrated by last week's Senate rejection of a bill that would have temporarily banned fracking.
Steyer is considering targeting three to four races in each house of the Legislature, an effort that would cost millions of dollars
"Lots of folks in office have been concerned about the amount of money coming in from the fossil fuel industry," said Chris Lehane, Steyer's chief political strategist. "But money can't buy you love and policy protection if you're going to lose at the ballot box…. What elected officials care about is whether they win or lose, and this issue can make a difference in if they win or lose."
Mobilizing Democratic voters – notably millennials and Latinos – would be a critical part of the effort, Lehane said.
"The goal here is, consistent with the national plan, to demonstrate that climate can be an incredibly effective wedge issue, particularly when defined as right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, moral vs. immoral," he said. "Once an issue is deployed that way, people win elections and lose elections … that is what creates changes in the body politic. That is how you begin to change policy."
Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party, said he was not surprised by the move.
"Everybody has a right to participate," he said, adding that the state GOP remained committed to focusing its limited funds on competitive congressional and legislative races, and rebuilding the party. "We fully expect the defenders of the status quo to resist.
"We expect to be outspent with or without Mr. Steyer's money, which is why I've said we have to be more efficient with the use of our resources."
Steyer has already committed to spending $50 million of his own wealth and $50 million from his super PAC on gubernatorial and U.S. Senate contests across the nation.
His group, NextGen Climate, was a major presence at the California Democratic Party's spring convention, where Steyer addressed the delegates and called for a ban on fracking in California unless two-thirds of the voters approve it in the county where it is proposed. Lehane said this matter could be the subject of a 2016 ballot proposal.