Everywhere you turned in politics last week, you could have bumped into Tom Steyer or his obsessions.
On a South Carolina debate stage, Democratic presidential candidates touted the importance to them of climate change, the issue the 58-year-old San Francisco billionaire — the nation’s largest individual political donor in 2014 — has worked to wrench into prominence.
Midweek came the announcement that Steyer had given $200,000 to the California Democratic Party for its voter identification, registration and turnout efforts statewide this year.
Later, Steyer was in Sacramento to help kick off signature gathering for a proposed November ballot measure that would add a $2-per-pack cigarette tax. Later still he was in Oakland, meeting with members of a commission he created to study the economic quicksand in which many Californians find themselves stuck.
Those watching the presidential debates could have spotted Steyer in ads that his organization, NextGen Climate Action, has run touting the effort to boost the use of renewable energy nationally to 50% by 2030. And this week, he can be seen on documentary videos his organization will use to spread word about the changing climate.
One might think that spending more than $74 million on political campaigns in the 2014 cycle, to no big effect electorally, would prompt Steyer to reconsider giving up all that cash. Nope.
He is back at it this year, looking for races in which to invest in California and elsewhere. And as he goes, he is raising more and more a question that he will not answer, not yet: Will he run for governor in 2018?
Political donors tend to be demanding. They didn’t get rich by giving money away; lost causes are investments to avoid. Many of them drive candidates crazy by forwarding their views along with their checks, but most of the time they stay completely out of public view.
Not so Steyer. His public profile has led opponents to cast him as the Democratic equivalent of the Republican Koch brothers. Candidates running against his favorites have mocked his San Francisco profile, using pictures of his expansive home in their take-downs. Opponents chortled when most of his 2014 candidates lost.
Yet he claims the last few years not as a defeat but a success, for heightening what he sees as a “huge move” among voters about the impact and dangers of climate change. (He doesn’t take full credit, to be sure, citing contributions of Pope Francis, business leaders, President Obama, Gov. Jerry Brown and others.)
The whole concept of a rising tide lifting all boats has not been true for a couple of decades.
“If you go back to 2012,” he said, referring to the last presidential campaign, “you can see how much has changed.” He counts as another victory the fact that Republican presidential candidates this year have created what he called a “giant gaping void” between the parties.
They have “some of the most backward-looking and unresponsive policies that could be imagined,” he said. “They are now on the record in a way that is very, very clear.”
Climate change is a much-talked-about issue for all three Democratic candidates, he noted. But there is some tension: He raised money at his home for Hillary Clinton, but indicated he is not yet ready to endorse her or any other candidate.
“We tried to engage voters especially to make this a priority and encourage the candidates to address it and compete for voters by being good on this issue,” he said. “That’s what we planned on doing, that’s what we’ve done, that’s what we foresee doing for a while.”
Between the lines, that means he’s happy to push off an endorsement as long as possible if that means the candidates will work harder to please him. Pressed as to whether he is satisfied with the positions Democrats have taken, he laughed: “Would we ever be satisfied?”
His motivation is sometimes personal: He is backing the tobacco tax as a genuflection to his mother, a three-pack-a-day smoker who died of lung cancer. His Save Lives California group, which includes healthcare professionals as well as organized labor, intends to “protect kids from the dangers of smoking and reduce the No. 1 cause of preventable deaths in the state of California,” he said.
His other interests may seem somewhat distinct but in fact overlap significantly. The Californians most supportive of environmental activism are Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans, many of whom live in communities hit by toxic air and chemicals.
Those same groups are among those most affected by an economy that has yet to rebound fully and are the focus of his Fair Shake commission. Its report on how to boost Californians up the economic ladder is expected this spring.
“The whole concept of a rising tide lifting all boats has not been true for a couple of decades and that is something that goes to the very foundation of the American promise and the California promise,” he said.
Opponents could gather Steyer’s activities into a nefarious plot. His emphasis on economically troubled Californians salves the image of the former hedge fund manager; his commission and other activities put him shoulder-to-shoulder with labor and other groups important to a Democratic candidate. (On the upcoming video financed by Steyer, the principal figure says of him: “Instead of spending his time on yachts, he spends his time on philanthropy,” a tidy bit of image definition.)
But if it’s all meant to get him elected, then this would have been one of the longest and most expensive investments Steyer has made, with no sure return. So, is he running for governor?
“The question that I’ve been asking is, how I can best contribute,” he said, “and I can tell you that through 2016, our plate is totally full, and I am completely engaged and committed to the task at hand.”
In other words: Stay tuned.