Q&A: Tom Steyer on crushing billionaires like himself and the lie of civility in Washington
Investor turned climate activist turned Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer sat down recently with the Los Angeles Times editorial board to discuss his candidacy, particularly his views on the economy, the political moment and climate change. Here is a transcript, lightly edited for clarity.
Nick Goldberg, editor of the editorial pages: OK, so let’s get started. Welcome. This is an endorsement meeting, part of our decision-making process for figuring out who to endorse in advance of the California primary. We’re on the record. If you’d like to start by giving a very short statement, that’s up to you. Or we can jump right into questions.
Tom Steyer: I’ll give you an overview. It’ll take about a minute.
Goldberg: Good. And then then we’ll go at you.
Steyer: I’m running [because] I believe the primary thesis of the 2020 campaign is the corporate takeover of the government of the United States — that they purchased it. I’ve spent 10 years, we’ve been here talking about it for 10 years, about taking on unchecked corporate power. I also started one of the largest grassroots organizations in the United States, NextGen America. I am the only person, I believe, on either side of the aisle who will say that climate is my No. 1 priority. I believe we should do it from the standpoint of environmental justice. I believe we can use it to create millions of good paying union jobs across the country. And I believe that unless we declare a state of emergency, which I would on the first day, our ability to lead the world and convince people to go along with us doesn’t exist. Global problem, requires American leadership, requires American commitment on Day One.
I’m also someone who started a business in California from scratch. Inherited no money from my parents. Built a business. Walked away from it. Took the giving pledge. Divested from fossil fuels. But I also know a lot about what creates prosperity. And I believe whoever the Democrat is [who wins the nomination] is going to have to get on the stage and take Mr. Trump down on economics, growth and prosperity, not just economic justice.
I think that he has proved that he is very effective against conventional politicians. And I believe that in order to beat him, he’s going to run on the economy — you’re gonna have to beat him on the economy — and I believe I can do it. That’s a minute.
Goldberg: Thank you. That was just about a minute.
At the top of your website it says: “Tom Steyer, outsider taking on Trump.”
I understand that the idea of an outsider plays well with voters. But what’s so great about being an outsider? Shouldn’t a president have experience in government, in legislating, in running a state? Is this really a field where someone can walk in without government experience and do the job on Day One?
Steyer: Well, if you think that the problem is that the government has failed, that it’s been purchased by corporations, and in order to get any of the progressive policies that people talk about on the debate stage to happen, that we’re actually going to have to break corporate control of the government, actually, being an outsider means you’re not wedded to the status quo. That you’re willing to make changes, that you are not reluctant.
I think if you look at the way people are thinking about this, that’s true. The things that I’ve proposed, other people won’t talk about. And one of the things I talk about is term limits for congresspeople and senators, which no one else will even respond to. I think I talk about the idea of having national referenda, just the way we do in California. We can have a conversation — and I know you guys have dealt with this for your entire careers — the idea that when the legislature fails, people have an ability to pass things. I believe in the people. And I think if you look at my experience in terms of grassroots in California and outside California, I have over-a-10-year commitment to building power at the local level, pushing power down to the people — that’s really what Need to Impeach was about. But also the idea that the actual wisdom in the United States resides with the American people, not with the elected officials.
So when you think about change, that’s a very different attitude towards change.
Mariel Garza, editorial writer: Just following up on that, to Nick’s point about not having experience, how do we know that you can affect any sort of change? That you can make these ideas real? We have nothing to compare it to. We have no record to look at to say, “Oh, well, Tom Steyer, he gets things done.”
And that was the problem with Donald Trump. We didn’t know what kind of leader he was. Now we know. Why should people take a gamble on you?
Steyer: Well, I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think what you just said is true. Because I have a 10-year track record of actually getting things done, of passing things.
Garza: Within government?
Steyer: Of passing propositions. If you actually look and see what we’ve done in Sacramento, we have a Sacramento office that’s pushed hard for a lot of things and gotten a lot of things done. Go check.
The water bill. We led on that water bill for two years that passed this year. The idea that people in the [Central] Valley had to have drinking water that didn’t make them sick, that didn’t poison them. We worked on that for years. Cash bail. We worked on that for years. Overtime for farm workers. We worked on that for years.
We worked on stuff in Sacramento under a guy named Arnie Sowell, [who is vice president of California policy at NextGen America]. Go up and see how effective that office is. We’ve been doing this literally for years and I think have been very effective. So the fact of the matter is, I do have a track record in terms of propositions. I do have a track record in terms of the Legislature.
I’ve also, as an activist, prevented things from happening. So if you look and see why we didn’t build a plant that had been pretty much approved by everybody — a natural gas plant in Oxnard, Calif., the so-called Puente Plant — it was a bunch of activists and me pushing really hard against the government of California, the Democratic government of California, to prevent a ridiculous fossil fuel plant from being built in a very poor Latino community on the coast.
Mike McGough, senior editorial writer: Just to ask a follow-up on the national referenda and term limits: Would these involve amending the Constitution, which is the one thing the president actually has no formal responsibility for?
Steyer: Yes, it would, Mike. But let me say this: I think that presidential elections, and particularly this presidential election, are really about framing what’s important in the United States of America. So when you think about any number of elections, it’s really about explaining and describing to the American people the current status quo and what we need to do. And in this case, the point that I’m trying to make is what we need to do is take back the government.
If you think about what 2008 was about, it was about healthcare. Barack Obama spent, you know, two years, basically, talking about the need for something like the Affordable Care Act. I mean, it wasn’t that defined. There was a lot of discussion, and we really didn’t know until the very end what the exact terms were going to be. But that was a question about what are we going to do about healthcare in the United States.
If you think about what Ronald Reagan did, he really recast the idea of American government for the next 40 years. My opinion about 2020: We need to reframe the idea of American government, because the Reagan revolution, in my mind, is intellectually and morally bankrupt.
Goldberg: Are you saying that what you’re proposing may not be achievable, but you’re making a point?
Steyer: No, no, no. Au contraire. I’m saying that what we really need to do is to define the problem and get the American people to decide that is the problem and we need to solve it. Because under those circumstances, the things that seem — I mean, I think Mike’s inherent point is constitutional amendments can’t happen, because they haven’t been happening. And I think the idea is, no, we need to get back to the idea that, actually, we can take back our government and make things happen. Including that.
Scott Martelle, editorial writer: Wouldn’t term limits just shift more institutional control and power into the hands of the lobbyists and the folks who are —
Steyer: Obviously there’s a tension there between change — new people in charge — and the idea of having people with insufficient experience to actually be effective. I understand that point. I think if you look at California — and I’m sure you have, so I’m not saying anything you don’t already know — California put in term limits and then amended them to make them longer. For this very reason. So I think there’s a tension between too short and no term limits. And I’ve tried to, in my proposal, take that into account, because I understand that that’s true. But I also feel as if there’s a sense here that change is dangerous and can be negative. And I know that’s true. But I think we also have to accept the fact that we’re coming from a place where the government is broken.
Martelle: Yeah, but when it comes to term limits, the problem is less the term limits than it is the structure of, say, congressional districts and the power of incumbency.
Jon Healey, deputy editorial page editor: And the failure of people to vote.
Martelle: Yeah, 45% of people don’t even vote in presidential elections. We have a kind of failed democracy from a ground-up standpoint.
Steyer: And you’re saying that to someone who runs one of, started one of the largest grassroots organizations in United States to try and address that problem, and who believes that solving that problem is the way we’ll get everything to work better. Just so you know.
I mean, if you look at what NextGen has done in the state of California, we registered almost 800,000 people in 2016, which I think was the largest voter registration in California.
Martelle: How many of them voted?
Steyer: Seventy percent. I understand the point that registering people who don’t vote is a Pyrrhic victory. Yeah, we checked. Because we were terrified about the idea that we would have spent all this time and effort and money and it wouldn’t have worked. Over 70%.
But let me say this. It’s not just that. In 2018, NextGen did the largest youth voter mobilization in American history. If you want to look at who doesn’t vote in the United States of America, it’s young people. You know, young people vote at half the rate of other citizens. It’s the largest generation in American history. It’s the most diverse generation in American history. Overwhelmingly progressive. And they were voting, nationwide in 2014, they voted at 21%. In the 38 districts that we chose to go into, they were voting at 18%. In 2018, those districts went from 18% to 41%. Huge change.
But your point is taken. Look, I believe in having a much more robust, people-driven path to democracy. I believe it’s necessary to get the progressive changes — any of them — that we want. And I believe it’s critical because I think we’re in a situation where this democracy isn’t serving the people, the United States, period.
And I’ve had people on an editorial board on the East Coast say to me, “Do you really believe that the oil companies will let you do something on climate change?” I was like, “Yes, I do, because I think it’s our survival at stake.” And they’re like, “You’re kidding yourself. There’s no way they will ever let you do something on climate.” It’s like, OK, you’re telling me we all have to die so that they can make money. Game on.
Healey: Can we talk a little bit more about the economy? As you noted, the president is going to run on the economy. To what degree does a president affect the economy? And second, how would you, as president, do things in a way that would affect the economy and end up with a better result than we have now?
Steyer: So I think the president does a lot to affect the economy. I think it’s a question of — and I don’t mean to be a snoot about this again — how you define the economy. So let’s talk about this, because I think I define this very differently from the way Mr. Trump defines it.
So if I were to define how Mr. Trump thinks about the economy, I’d say he probably looks at GDP growth, unemployment rates and the S&P 500. Those are not the things I care about, just to be clear. It’s not that I don’t care about them. It’s just that doesn’t tell the whole story. And if you focus on those three things, then you get the last 40 years, which is 90% of Americans not getting a raise, all the money going to the richest people, and really kind of a desperately unfair and unequal America.
So let’s talk about GDP. It’s an average. I mean, it’s a gross number with an assumption that it matters because of an assumption that prosperity is shared somehow, somewhat evenly, right? Because why else would we care? If one person got all the GDP gains, would we care if 320 million people didn’t? Wouldn’t be a successful country. And I know that that’s the absurd description, but it’s not that absurd. So when you think about GDP, if you’re not thinking about how it gets dispersed and shared, you’re not accurate.
Let’s talk about unemployment, OK? We have a really low unemployment rate. We do. And you guys live in Los Angeles, Calif. You know people can’t live on the jobs they have. That’s why people have two jobs. That’s why people can’t afford their rent. There is a question here about whether unemployment is a fair number by itself, given how little people get paid relatively to how much things cost.
And the stock market. I’m sure you guys saw this. There was a Washington Post story probably two weeks ago, I’m going to guess, about the tax rate paid by the 400 largest American corporations. Eleven percent. It’s like, yeah, we have a booming S&P. If you run the country for corporations and cut their taxes in half, it turns out that their stocks go up. OK. Now that’s something that overwhelmingly helps rich people, or upper-income people. Doesn’t help half of America at all, but it’s way disproportionate.
So when I look at America, I look at also how the money gets dispersed. What kind of wages people are paid. What kind of mobility exists in the United States. What kind of productivity we’re creating. What kind of capability we’re creating in American citizens going forward. My idea of prosperity is Americans becoming more productive, more capable for the future, so that all the time we’re building the ability of broad-based prosperity led by American people. A completely different way of thinking about prosperity.
Healey: So what would you do?
Steyer: Well, OK. So let’s talk about it. I think it’s completely unfair not to mention the fact that we will have almost a trillion-dollar deficit this year with 3½% unemployment. So when you think about Mr. Trump being a steward of the American economy, it’s like, really?
I mean, I do analogize it to his Atlantic City casinos: Overpromise, over-leverage, blow up. We’re right in the middle of that.
So what do I think about prosperity in the United States? Long-term investment in productivity of the American people. That means you think completely differently about education. You think completely differently about people’s capability and supporting people in that capability, because that’s actually how you have a prosperous country long term. That it’s something that you build over time by investing in the American people. It’s not a cost. It’s an investment that pays off in spades.
And I think completely differently about how America will be prosperous. I think completely differently about wages. I think the way that we’re thinking about prosperity is incredibly superficial, inaccurate and unsuccessful. And I think that’s the story of the last 40 years. And if you look at the numbers, they support it. But if you go around the United States of America, you can see it in spades.
You know, I’ve traveled around full time for seven years. Not just on this campaign, but doing grassroots work full time for seven years. And I can tell you, it doesn’t look like prosperity.
Goldberg: So I think there are a lot of voters who are turned off by the idea of a billionaire candidate. One concern is that billionaires are out of touch with the problems of ordinary day-to-day working Americans. And I think there’s also a sense that they’re spending their own money to, in effect, buy the election. How do you respond to those two criticisms?
Steyer: Well, the first one is about being out of touch. Look, I spent seven years traveling around full time talking to people across the country. You know, whatever people think, whatever you guys think that I do, which is presumably play a lot of golf? I don’t play golf. Spend a lot of time on vacation? I don’t take vacation. Hang out and do expensive things? Other than running for president, I don’t do a lot of expensive things. [Laughter]
Goldberg: That makes up for the others.
Steyer: [Laughs] That does on the money side, I can tell you. More than.
But my point is this; I’m not out of touch. If I hadn’t spent the last seven years doing this full time, then maybe you could have made an argument that I wasn’t hanging out with normal people. But actually, I’ve traveled this country. I’m a grassroots person. It’s not like I write a check and sit in San Francisco. That means I go to the campuses. I go door to door. I sit and listen to people who are activists. I try and make sure I know what’s going on, and I’ve done it for a long time. So the idea that I don’t know — actually, I think I’ve had a unique opportunity to do that, to be honest.
I’d been in Fresno on water issues. We started a community bank in Oakland. I don’t know if you guys know this. We got our license, I think, 12, 14 years ago from the federal government. It’s dedicated to environmental justice, economic justice, supporting businesses owned by women and people of color. Started in Oakland, Calif. We have, I think, something like 17 branches now. It’s over $1 billion. We have a branch in Fresno. We’ve gone to Fresno to look to see, what is the economic situation in Fresno? How does capital availability help people? What is growth look like? What are the schools look like?
You know, I’ve been up and down the [Central] Valley in terms of water. To go to East Porterville and see what that looks like and talk to people. To talk to the activists on the water boards to ask how it’s going. I’ve been to the Imperial Valley to see how their water situation works, to talk to their water board. To see the people who actually get all the water from the Colorado River in the state of California, what that looks like and how it gets used and what the charges are.
And it’s not just in California. I mean, NexGen is all over this country. And I did impeachment town halls all over this country. So I’ve gotten a chance to go literally all over this country and sit down and listen to people and hear their issues. For years.
Goldberg: And to the other half of the question? Buying the election?
Steyer: Look, I think this: No one can buy an election. The question here is, do you have something differential to say to the American people? Do you have a message that is different, that resonates, and can you be trusted. I can tell you, if you don’t have a message that’s differential, that means anything, no one cares. And if you can’t be trusted, no one cares. So from my standpoint, the question here is not money.
Look, starting with No on [Proposition] 23, [a 2010 ballot measure to halt the state’s efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions], when I thought there was something really wrong, I’ve gone in and worked on it full time and put my money behind it. And I’ve done that on impeachment when people — can’t remember what the L.A. Times said, to be fair — but there were an awful lot of people in this country who said, you’re a total idiot. It’ll never happen.
Goldberg: We didn’t put it that way.
Steyer: [Laughs] I honestly don’t remember. But I’m just saying, when there’s been something that I thought was really wrong, I’ve gone into it because I thought someone had to do it and no one else was gonna do it.
Garza: So the estimates are that you and [former New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg have spent about $200 million of your own money. And I don’t know how much of that is yours, but it doesn’t seem to actually have gotten you very far in buying this election, as far as the polls are concerned. And I’m wondering, at this point, if you think this has been a worthwhile investment? If perhaps the money that you spent on your own campaign might have been better spent supporting a candidate who has a higher profile than yourself?
Steyer: Well, let me say this. I am continuing to do all the grassroots stuff I was doing before. So when people worry that, you know, oh, you’re going to take away from what you would otherwise have done, that’s not true. I can continue to do all that stuff.
I view this differently from national polls. I know a lot of people think that the polls that matter are national. I don’t. I think the polls that matter are the first four primary states. I think people think this is a national primary. It’s actually a series of state primaries, I think. We’ll see if I’m right. But I think that what this is, is a series of state primaries. So I basically concentrated on the first four primary states — primary or caucus states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. And if you look at those four states, I’m at an average of over 10%. I’m somewhere between fifth and second.
I take your point. Look, I thought there was something wrong. I wasn’t planning on running. I thought there was something wrong. I thought someone has to stand up and do the right thing. That’s what I’m trying to do.
We’d said at the beginning [of 2018] that if we don’t flip the House, we lost. It’s a lost year. And someone said after the election, if you hadn’t flipped the House, would you have felt like it was a mistake to try, and spend the money and spend the time and put in this effort. I was like, OK, let me ask you a question. If you think democracy is at risk, do you think it’s a waste to try?
So if I think there’s something really wrong and I try as hard as possible to do the right thing, I am never going to sit back and say, oh, that was a mistake. I may not win. I think I can win. But in either case, what I’m doing is what I think is right. And I’m never going to take a back seat and say, oh, I should just let something really bad happen and do nothing about it.
Carla Hall, editorial writer: What would you do about trying to address the homelessness crisis in this state and in the country?
Steyer: So let me say, I’ve been to [Los Angeles’] skid row multiple times. I worked on Measure H with [Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas]. Which, I understand, has not solved the problem, to say the least. I understand.
Look, I think it’s partly a matter of [how much money is available], both in terms of housing, but also in terms of wraparound services. And in my plan, I more than double what the federal government spends on it. But I think it’s also a broader reflection of inadequate housing across California and across the United States. Affordable housing. I think we have at least 7 million too few affordable housing units in the United States of America. And over 2 million or more in California. And I think the federal government has walked away from its obligation to support affordable housing in the country. And the result is obvious. It’s a supply/demand question.
The most painful symptom of our housing crisis is homelessness. And it’s incredibly painful. But as we all know, living in California, this exists across the country. But it is incredibly painful across the board in terms of rents and house costs and everything else. This is not that complicated. There are too few housing units and too many people. And you can see in places that you would be surprised, that people are having to move out of and can’t afford.
Hall: So what would you do about creating affordable housing?
Steyer: I think we’d spend hundreds of billions of dollars to build affordable housing units. And we’d do it in a climate smart way. And it would be part of rebuilding America, which we have to do. So, you know, if you look at the climate plan, a big part of it has to do with housing. But independent of that as well. Look, I live in San Francisco. We obviously have a huge problem, but it’s across California. California is the epicenter of this and it is the epicenter of homelessness. But, you know, you see this honestly across the United States of America.
I think the fastest gentrifying city in the United States of America is Charleston, S.C.
Steyer: Yes! Now, that’s partially a reflection of the normal, or I wouldn’t say normal, but I would say the status quo pressures on housing. And it’s partially because of the way that they’re addressing it, which is develop, develop, develop the most expensive things and just have people move. There’s no sense of trying to protect neighborhoods or create affordable housing or have percentages of — if you’re going to build those 40 units, you have to build these 15 units that are affordable in the middle. And there’s none of that. So it’s partly a reflection of policy, partly a reflection of the same pressures that are driving people to take hour-and-a-half commutes in the state of California routinely.
Healey: While we’re on that topic, could you quickly address your vision of federalism and local control? Because one of the geneses of the housing problem is the local policies.
Steyer: Look, I think what the federal government can do to a large extent is use money to try and incent things. And I think that that’s what’s going to end up happening a lot. I think that also the federal government can set up rules. And I’m thinking here more about climate than anything else. Some of these things the federal government cannot control and it can just incent, but some of the things, the federal government is going to have to control. And so, you know, I think it’s gonna be a case-by-case basis. But in climate, we’re going to have to make rules. And that’s just a fact.
Martelle: That segues right into the question I wanted to ask. You mentioned declaring a climate national emergency. How do you see that taking shape, and what do you think as a president you can do under a national emergency?
Steyer: I’ve looked at it. The kinds of things I think you can do is, I think you can basically set up the equivalent of renewable portfolio standards. I think you can set up the equivalent of building codes. I think you can set up the kind of standards for what kind of cars get produced on a national basis. And I think that it’s got to happen. It’s got to happen in an expedited fashion.
Martelle: Isn’t it too late? I mean, you mentioned on your website the car standards. One hundred percent electric vehicles by 2030. So a car in 2029 that’s sold will be on the road for 12 to 15 years. That puts us well beyond what all the scientists are telling us is —
Steyer: Let me say this. If your point is, Tom, you’re the person who has this as his No. 1 priority, is the most aggressive on this in terms of timing and outcome. And you’re not being tough enough. I would say you’re probably right.
Martelle: Next question. [Laughter]
Steyer: But it’s not like we’re gonna say you produce what you produce now, and then in 2030, it goes to zero.
But let me say something else. As a Californian I follow the science, but I assume you guys have followed the science too. The science sucks. The facts on the science — I was literally in the car coming over here and reading about Australia. I don’t know if you’ve been following Australia. But, you know, there was this stuff, the stories from last week and the week before. But then there are the stories from today about what’s going on. And they’re much worse than the stories from a week or two weeks ago. And this is the beginning of their fire season. And the stories are horrific.
So in answer to your question, a state of emergency. It is a state of emergency. I mean, people keep saying, “State of emergency, that seems pretty dire.” OK, first off, it is a state of emergency. Second of all, this is a global problem. What is the chance that the United States can lead the world in solving this problem if we aren’t solving the problem at home in an urgent fashion? What is the chance that China, India, Brazil, Poland, Turkey are going to listen to us when we go and say, “We really need you to come along with us on this,” if we’re not doing it ourselves? Zero.
So state of emergency is partly to deal with it substantively. It’s also to deal with it globally. We have to change. You guys I’m sure were following what happened in Madrid: failure. OK, no American leadership, failure. In fact, the world is going backwards.
The other thing I’ll say is this, two things: One, I describe it as a justice-based climate plan, because I think we start with environmental justice — that’s actually why we won on No on 23. That’s how we’ve done every single climate thing we’ve done, is to start with clean air, clean water and specifically in the communities where you can’t breathe or drink the water safely.
Garza: So you have legislative victories in California. I’m not trying to disrespect them, but this is a very Democratic state. What’s your strategy for getting things done — big things done — if you have one or two houses that are controlled by Republicans who are not interested in working with a Democratic president?
Steyer: OK, I think that’s a fair question. I have two answers for it. One is there must be some reason that I said it’s a state of emergency and use the emergency powers of the presidency instead of saying I have a $20-trillion climate plan that I expect to pass through Congress on the first day. Congress has never passed climate legislation.
Garza: So you’re going to circumvent Congress altogether?
Steyer: No, I’m not. You’re asking me a question and I’m giving you an actual answer. The second point is this. If, in fact, Democrats do the turnout strategy that I’m describing, I believe we’re gonna have a huge win in 2020 because of turnout.
I believe that if we don’t have that, we really can’t break the corporate control. I really think that. I think that if democracy isn’t revived at the grassroots level, we can’t get the win we need. And that’s just the numbers.
I’m a grassroots person. The number of Democrats who voted in 2014 was 35 million people. The number of Democrats who voted in 2018 was 59 million people. Everyone who says the reason we won was because we nominated moderates — I don’t know where that comes from. The reason we won is because turnout went up by 75%.
More Republicans voted in 2018 than 2014. They killed us in 2014. We killed them in 2018. The only reason the wins weren’t bigger was because of gerrymandering. Really. And I expect 2020 to be — I mean it — the change election. Turn the page. We have to have that. And I think the American people know. I really do.
I can tell you young people know it. And that’s the group that doesn’t vote the most. And that’s the biggest group. And they’re set. If you look at the numbers, it’s a 44-point spread, [Democrats to Republicans]. 72-28. So your question was, how are you going to do it if Congress won’t go along? How are you going to persuade Republicans who haven’t been persuaded on one thing for 11 years? Win.
Goldberg: So when we say you have to go back to...
Steyer: Let me say this. People ask me, well, how are we actually going to get rid of the president, not just impeach him? How we gonna get rid of him? First of all, the reason he got impeached, 8½ million people called their congresspeople and said, “impeach him.” The way that we get rid of him is if we get the hearings on TV with all those people coming up and telling the truth under oath, from the White House. American people get to see the truth.
I mean, you know, they’ve been saying this New York Times story is explosive. Wait until those guys are on the stand. Explosive? Are you kidding? Under oath, where they know they’re going to jail forever if they lie.
The American people get it. I’m not teasing when I say I believe in democracy. I believe if the American people get to see the truth in impeachment, they will say to [Sen.] Joni Ernst [R-Iowa], get rid of him or we’ll get rid of you. And that’s how impeachment works. And that’s how we get rid of the president. If the American people insist that the right thing be done. If they don’t, it ain’t going to happen. And that’s actually my answer to you, too. How are we going to get Republicans to do the right thing? Not by objective logic, not by taking them to nice dinners. When their constituents say, “Do it or else.”
Goldberg: So when Democrats say, we have to move back to an era of civility and compromise and cooperation and bipartisanship, and we may move a little more slowly that way, but that’s the way it works in democracy when you have divided government, you think that’s kind of baloney?
Steyer: How has that worked?
Goldberg: It’s worked out sometimes in history, and less in other times.
Steyer: [Laughs] Fair. Now, it’s not working. It just isn’t. I mean, how many times did the Republicans negotiate in good faith with Barack Obama?
Healey: It depends on the issue. I mean, some issues that they really did care about, like the National Defense Authorization Act, every year —
Steyer: Yeah. But in terms of how many votes did he get in healthcare? Did they get gun legislation? Did they get immigration reform? All the things that he thought he was going to get. Did they even make a deal on the budget? Do you remember those negotiations? That was one of the most amazing things I ever saw in my life. I thought he bent over backwards.
Martelle: Immigration is as much a problem with Democrats as it is with Republicans. This isn’t a straight D/R thing.
Goldberg: Even assuming you’re right, say President Tom Steyer is elected and you haven’t won two houses of Congress and you don’t have an overwhelming mandate and Republicans aren’t running scared because their constituents are angry. Everything I see suggests the country is deeply divided. How do you get it done then?
Steyer: Look, I think the only way that we’re going to push people is at the grassroots. I’m sorry. You can think about impeachment, but I’ll give you another example that informs the way I think about this, which is climate.
I don’t know if you guys remember and there’s no reason you should, but I think I spent four years doing objective research on climate under the topic “The Risky Business Project.” And we did a series of extremely detailed, honest to goodness, very thorough, professionally done studies to show that clean energy would make us grow faster, be better paid, have lower energy costs. Basically be good for us in every economic way. And not doing it would have huge health costs, would be devastating for the economy over time. Objective studies. Had a ton of CEOs sign on to them. Republicans Hank Paulson, George Shultz. Do I think that it had an impact? And it was objective as could be. I mean, absolutely nonpartisan. I don’t think it moved a single vote — in the whole United States.
I mean, maybe Democrats cared and paid attention. It was on the front page of a bunch of newspapers. But do I think that it actually moved — objective studies, people still keep recycling these studies, and every time I see one I kind of laugh. And impeachment is the exact same story to me. You know, how many Republicans are looking at the facts of what this president did and asking, is that an impeachable offense?
Martelle: How many Americans are asking the same question?
Steyer: I actually, you know, our research at Need to Impeach — and this is kind of agreeing with you and kind of disagreeing — We did a ton of research, of course. And strong Trump supporters who saw the evidence said the following things: I didn’t know that; he’s a liar and a crook; if I did that, I’d be in jail.
They didn’t always say we should throw him out of office. Which is your point. I know that. But I’m saying everybody said the first three things. And a bunch of them said the last thing. So, in fact, can American voters hear the truth when it’s not curated by Fox News or MSNBC? Yeah. That’s why I wanted TV hearings, so they’d get it direct, so that we’d actually be able to share the same information. H.R. “Bob” Haldeman is a crook. Honestly, that’s why it was so [important to have] televised news. Testimony. Because we got a chance in Watergate to see what Chuck Colson looks like.
Martelle: I watched.
Steyer: Man, I was glued to the set and I was just a teenager. It was amazing, wasn’t it?
Goldberg: Mike, do you have a question?
McGough: One more, and this gets back to the government experience issue. I know there are lots of people running, but people do make comparisons — maybe just based on your wealth — between you and Mike Bloomberg. One difference between the two of you, obviously, is that he has a lot of governmental experience as the mayor of New York. Pretend for a minute that it’s just the two of you running. What would you say makes you a superior candidate to him?
Martelle: A better billionaire.
Steyer: [Laughs] Well, come on. We stand for completely different things. I’m a progressive, you know. Look, the first thing I said about Mike Bloomberg is if he doesn’t support a wealth tax, he shouldn’t represent the Democratic Party. Because, particularly for somebody who’s rich, if you don’t understand that income inequality and wealth inequality is absolutely, profoundly wrong and you aren’t leading the fight against it, then you don’t deserve to represent the Democratic Party. I think it’s dispositive.
And I said that I think the very second he said he was going to run. But I think if you look across the things that he believes in and his history, it’s very, very different from mine. ... And so do I think that Mike should have a hearing? In answer to your question, yes. I think the American people are fully competent to listen to what he has to say and make up their own minds.
McGough: What do you think of his credentials on climate change, because that is an issue you’ve emphasized?
Steyer: I think that Mike has worked on climate change, and sometimes I’ve worked with him on climate change and he’s done some good work on it. I don’t know that he’s ever said it is his No. 1 priority. I don’t think he’s said what I’ve been willing to say about state of emergency.
Look, the other thing that is true about this is — we ain’t getting this done unless it’s the priority of our foreign policy. If you think about it, we’re in multifaceted negotiations all the time with other countries and, specifically China. Multifaceted. If this isn’t at the head of the page — I don’t know if you guys are following what they’re doing on climate, but if they keep going the way they’re going, then that’s kind of the answer on where we’re going on climate.
The numbers I use are on coal plants. I’m almost embarrassed to say this: [There are] 237 coal plants in the United States. We’ll close them in the next five to 10 years. They’re uneconomic in America. Not even considering the health problems for the people who live within a mile of coal plants — which are severe — or the climate issue. Just on economics, they don’t work. We’ll close them.
There are 1,500 coal plants in the world. Plans to build 1,200 more. China is building 350 outside of China, just as part of their Belt and Road Initiative to expand economically in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. Turkey is planning to build 90. If we don’t negotiate on this hard, we lose. This is a global problem.
And so when I think about Mike Bloomberg, is he going to say that? No. He is, and I think he would say it, he used to be a Republican. He gave a speech for George W. Bush at the 2004 Republican Convention. He gave $250,000 to Lindsey Graham last time he ran. He’s a different person from me.
Healey: Can we talk about the wealth tax?
Healey: Mike Bloomberg would not be the only person in the Democratic Party who opposes one. And one of the problems that people have cited with the wealth tax is, how do you define wealth? How do you make it work? Can you talk about how you would make it work?
Goldberg: And can you explain how it’s different from what Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposed? If it is different.
Steyer: Basically what I have is, I think, 1% per year starting at $32 million [in assets], 1½% starting at $500 million and 2% at $1 billion.
Can we take a step back? There has been a redistribution of wealth in the United States over the last 40 years to the richest Americans from everyone else. So when you think about this as being [redistributive], there has been a redistribution.
The numbers I’m using, those are the actual numbers. They’re completely different from the numbers that Bernie Sanders is using or Elizabeth Warren, which I believe were 6% or 8% or 8% and 6%, actually. What I’m saying is we cannot have this accumulation of wealth go on, which it will if we don’t do something about it. But also, we need the money.
You know, we have a trillion-dollar deficit. And I told you that I think we need to spend a lot of money on housing and homelessness. We haven’t even talked about education. I told you, I think that education is probably the cornerstone of investment and prosperity. Yeah, we need to make a big investment in prosperity. And that’s actual prosperity.
We have a trillion-dollar deficit. I don’t do the giveaways in terms of income taxes to the richest Americans and big corporations. I’d have a wealth tax. I’ve also said that I would equate personal income from passive investments with income that people get for going to work for the L.A. Times every morning.
Healey: So treat capital gains as ordinary income?
Steyer: Yes. If we did that, we could give 95% of Americans a 10% tax cut and have money left over, just to be clear.
Healey: So how would you define wealth?
Steyer: I know that people are always talking about art and yachts. Yeah, I know. But most rich people, you know how they define wealth? Real estate — where there already is a real estate tax — and stock holdings.
So there would be issues, I acknowledge, about private stock holdings. Those issues are already adjudicated when people die and have to pay inheritance taxes. So is it a thorny issue where people, shall we say, look through rose-colored glasses on their own behalf? Yeah, but these are issues that we’re already dealing with.
I think when people talk about art and yachts, I know there’s issues with it and I don’t think that’s that big a problem. Honestly, I think that really what people have is investments and houses.
Goldberg: What do you mean you don’t think it’s that big a problem?
Steyer: I don’t think it’s a big part of the picture.
Goldberg: Are you saying you wouldn’t tax them?
Steyer: I would tax it. Oh yeah. I’m just saying that the variability in the cost of a yacht — you know what they paid for it. You can figure out some depreciation schedule and put a number on it. Is it going to be an exact number? No. But is that really the bulk of people’s wealth? No. The bulk of those people’s wealth is investments and real estate. And those you can ascertain, because we already do it.
Healey: And you’re not worried about capital flight or more hiding of assets?
Steyer: I’m sure people will cheat because people already cheat. No, I’m not. What I’m saying is you’re not going to get to grow your wealth as fast as you otherwise would. And you shouldn’t. And we need the money. And this isn’t appropriate. I’m not going to say whether anyone did anything right or wrong. But what happened was wrong. Honestly, I know there are issues with all this stuff. I just think that they’re overblown.
Goldberg: Have you done the calculations so you know what your tax proposals would do to your own tax hit?
Steyer: Crush me. What do you mean, they’d all hit me. Just so you know, Kat, my wife, we were in Fresno last night and she introduced me. She said, you should know that when we got married, we made two vows. One was our wedding vow and the other vow was we’re giving it all away before we die. So people think Tom took the giving pledge to give half away. Let me tell you, he’s dying broke. So relax.
Garza: How do your kids feel about that? You’re giving it to them?
Steyer: No, we told them from the beginning, you know what? It’s not good to depend on somebody else. You’ve got to have your own life.
Hall: So you’re giving them nothing?
Steyer: I’m sure that we will give them something. But look, that’s what my parents told me. And it turned out to be true. They said, you know what, we’re giving you a great education. Which I got. And that’s what we told our kids. We said, you are getting a great education, which is an amazing luxury. And we’re not going to make you work in the dining hall, which a lot of kids have to do. We’re not going to make you take out $100,000 worth of debt, which a lot of kids have to do. So I don’t think we’re giving ‘em nothing. But our deal is work hard, be nice.
Hall: Because you said something about how you don’t do the usual billionaire things. It’s not like you have toys and yachts and things like that. So what do you spend some of your money on besides running for president?
Hall: Besides running for president. I mean, you must have something that amuses you or makes you happy that requires money.
Steyer: I live in a nice house. You know, I live on the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco, Calif. And I never kid myself that it’s not incredibly beautiful and luxurious. I mean, I look at the Marin Headlands, the Pacific Ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Hall: That’s nice.
Steyer: Incredible, not nice. And you know, we get to see dolphins and birds and whales and it’s beyond nice. So I never kid myself that I’m not lucky.
But I partially do that because if you want to fight on climate, you have to remember that there’s a world out there not made by human beings. And I moved out of the main part of the city so I could remind myself every single day: There are dolphins and whales and birds and greenery and the Pacific Ocean. Honestly. But it’s also incredibly beautiful. So I’m not kidding myself.
What I was saying when I talked about those things was this: I said, I don’t hang out with rich people. I said, what I’ve been doing is traveling the United States of America and talking to members of the [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers]. Talking to people who are the first Latina ever to be on a water board. To see what it’s like in the Central Valley, to be the first woman and the first Hispanic to be on a water board and see what that looks like and what people say. Because I’ve never forgotten what they said: “Brown water for brown people.” Yeah.
Martelle: I’ve got a quick question for you. Your website refers to five rights: health access, equal voting, clean air, water, education, living wage. Without going into the specifics, because you spelled those out on the web page, do you see those as rhetorical rights or do you look to see some way to get those established legislatively or constitutionally? Rights is a powerful word.
Steyer: And I mean it powerfully. When they wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they had a completely different concept of what Americans were due. And I actually think of those rights in the sense that they’re inalienable rights not being recognized right now.
Martelle: How would you recognize them?
Steyer: I want that in law. California, as I’m sure you know, has the right to clean water. Passed a law. And I think that’s important. I think one of the reasons we got the drinking water law passed this year, even though it wasn’t perfect, was because there is a right to clean water in the state of California. To clean drinking water. And if you think about the Constitution and what they were doing with the Bill of Rights, and you go back and read it just for the hell of it, it’s the 18th century, right? One of the rights is that the army will not billet soldiers in your house during peacetime. That’s in the Bill of Rights. It was a different time.
Martelle: And it works because they don’t do that.
Steyer: [Laughs] And the only reason is because of the Constitution, no?
Do I think that Americans have a right to affordable healthcare? I really do. A right. Do I think that we have a right to quality public education from pre-K through college? I really do. A fair vote — in there is [the right to] a fair vote. What I think is going on in terms of voter suppression and gerrymandering and cheating makes me sick. I think that is taking away the basic rights of American citizens.
A living wage. The minimum wage in California is different from the United States, but the minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 [an hour]. If you took the minimum wage from 1980 — inflation-adjusted it would be $11. If you included productivity gains — which has always been included in people’s pay raises in America until now — you’d be at $22, minimum wage. So when I talked about a living wage, there’s something really wrong.
So when I talk about those rights, I mean it. Something has gone really wrong here. And, you know, Trump is absolutely consistent in his policies with the red states. If you go to the states, which I’ve done, which have a Republican governor, a Republican state Senate and Republican state Legislature, they do everything he does. They basically cut taxes on rich people and corporations. Every one of them. Cut education spending K-12 and higher ed. Every one of them cut healthcare, go after unions, allow as much pollution as you want. It’s a game plan.
Martelle: But in places like Kansas, they continue to get reelected. So isn’t that democracy working?
Steyer: Well, first of all, didn’t a Democrat win statewide in Kansas in ’18? Yes.
Martelle: I mean, think about how many won.
Steyer: Well, [a Democrat won the race for] governor. But but let me say this. If you look at Kansas as an example — every state emphasizes a different part of that. And there’s also a social package that goes with the five economic things. But Kansas was obviously taxes and education, right? It’s a failed experiment. Kansas was, “We’re going to grow the economy by cutting taxes.” Didn’t happen. They had a rainy day fund. They exhausted it. The education went to hell. I have friends from Kansas who’ve had to move because they have kids. Who would move to Kansas who has a family? It’s insane. You’re basically telling your kids, I’m throwing you under the bus so I can pay a lower tax rate.
Martelle: Well, why hasn’t that resulted in Democrats sweeping the statewide posts and legislative posts?
Steyer: Well, we’ll find out. To me, this is about organization. Honest to goodness. Because [the Republicans] lost the governorship in Kansas. What they did happens in every single Republican state. And so when we talk about how are we actually going to change it? Honestly, grassroots organizing. That is my actual answer. For 2020 and for every year. This is a failed idea in every single state. But it’s also the other thing that you see when you go and travel around. It’s cruel. You know, if you think about those five things, four of them are actually cruel.
Goldberg: We’re running low on time. Questions? Last questions?
Garza: I have a final question. Democrats are terrified that Trump is going to win reelection.
Steyer: [Laughs] And rightfully so!
Garza: And they’re consumed with the question of electability above all else. Like, I don’t care if he has two heads, so long as he’s electable.
Steyer: Two heads sounds good.
Garza: But make your case: Why are you the guy who can beat Trump when all these other candidates can’t?
Steyer: OK. I think there are two things to be said. One is, we know he’s running on the economy. And we discussed this earlier. He’s basically said all along how he’s running. When you say — I think he said it to the American Israeli conference — “You don’t like me and I don’t like you. You’re all voting for me because the Democrats will destroy the economy in 15 minutes.”
Healey: He said they’ll raise your taxes.
Steyer: He said “destroy the economy.” But it’s the same thing.
So first of all, he’s a fake. He’s a fake businessperson. He’s a failure as a businessperson. He’s a terrible steward of what I think of as prosperity and growth in America for Americans. Whoever is going to be on the stage with him has got to go after him on the economy. It’s like, you can’t let him have his way on the economy or he wins. Believe it or not, he can win with that fake line. He’s a great demagogue. Whoever is going to win is going to have to take him down on the economy.
And I did spend 30 years building a business and figuring out what makes economies grow. Because if you’re going to invest, and you invest in the best company in Argentina, the best company, and Argentina falls apart, you lose 90% of your money. Literally. If you invest in a regular company, you lose 100%. So if you want to understand how to invest, you have to understand what creates prosperity over time. Because first and foremost, you’re investing in the country. So I spent 30 years thinking about what creates actual prosperity in countries. Why in 1960, Singapore and Chad had the same GDP per capita — really — I think Singapore’s probably 30 [times larger] at this point. Prosperity, it’s not a secret about what makes it happen, and we’re not doing it. Just to be clear.
Garza: We’re back to, “It’s the economy, stupid”?
Steyer: Partly. But let me say one other thing. Mr. Trump does very well against conventional politicians, if you’ve noticed. He had 16 of them in the Republican primary. And if you looked, and I looked, they had pretty good resumes. All the things that you’re saying I haven’t done, they had done. And he absolutely mopped the floor with them.
And then we had the most prepared — very, very smart, by the way — candidate in history in Hillary Clinton, someone who I respect a lot. And she couldn’t beat him.
And I know all the ways the numbers work are imperfect, and I understand that. But it’s still the same point. So my point is, we need an unconventional person to beat this guy because he’s an unconventional demagogue with real skills.
Martelle: To that point, can you beat him in Alabama? Can you beat him in the red states?
Steyer: The real question is, can I win in the electoral college? I don’t have to win 50 states. I need to win in the electoral college. Can I beat him in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan? Yes. And we’re in those states. These states are not new to me. NextGen is in every one of those states.
Martelle: Do you think the economy is the dominant issue in most states? Or you could make it the dominant issue in those states?
Steyer: I think it is, but I think it’s more than that too. A lot of this is about self-identification. Meaning in life, if you’ll excuse my saying this. Who you are. And we didn’t show up. And we in some ways, the Democratic Party, gave up on rural America and exurban America in those states. So we didn’t show up. We showed up in Philly and Pittsburgh, but not in Lancaster and Wilkes-Barre. We showed up in Milwaukee and Detroit, but we didn’t show up in the northern parts of those states. And we got crushed. So part of this is about organizing, and part of it is about actually responding to what people say.
If you go to rural America, which is about as different from L.A. as you can get, it’s in a gigantic depression. In every meaning of the word. And I am saying specifically emotionally. It’s a huge issue. I was in Iowa two years ago and I was talking to a guy who was running for the Democratic nomination for governor, who is a former Tom Vilsack aide. Really, really nice guy. Probably early 60s. Didn’t come close. But I thought he was super smart, and I said, what is the No. 1 issue in Iowa?
So think for a second, whatever you think it is. [It’s] mental health. I said, “Really, mental health, meaning opioids?” He goes, “No. That’s a symptom, but that’s not what I’m talking about.” OK. So is it PTSD for people returning, a lot of service people, returning from the Middle East? No. Depression.
So when you go to those places. I mean, there is a level of sadness in this country. It’s really shocking.
Martelle: And resentment.
Steyer: It is. People think this government’s been bought by corporations. I’m not the only human being who thinks this. Everyone thinks this. You ask kids why they don’t vote. We’ve asked hundreds of thousands of kids why they don’t vote. And the answer is, “No one tells the truth. No one cares about my problems. Both parties are completely full of baloney. Why would I invest in a failed system?” You know, I was in — this was part of this campaign — I was in North Conway, Wis., at 11 at night asking a 25-year-old to open up the gym so I could get a workout. He’s walking me over and he goes, “Why are you running?”
I go, “Corporations bought the government. Got to do something about it.”
He goes: “Well, I’m only 25, but even I know that.”
Goldberg: He’s not old enough to run. [Laughter.]
Steyer: I’m just telling you guys, everybody thinks this.
Trump ran on “Drain the swamp.” Republicans were saying, “They don’t care about me.” And when you say to Trump voters that he’s gonna blow up the system, they’re like, “Good.” No, no, he’s really going to blow up the system. “No, I meant it. Good.”
People really feel that the elites have walked away from them, that there are two laws. Nobody went to jail in 2008. There are two laws. The country has left them. The government doesn’t try and stand up for them. That’s what people in America think. And they’re right.
So when you say, why do I say outsider? Because everybody knows this is a corrupt system. Not corrupt the way we grew up with, you know, paper bags full of cash in a back alley. Corrupt though. And people are upset about it. They should be upset about it. Democracy has been bought.
Goldberg: That’s a good place to stop.
Martelle: Such an optimistic note.
Steyer: Can I say something, though? It is optimistic. And let me tell you why. I’ve said there are two challenges: Get back the government and stop the climate crisis. And we’re in the best position of any people in the history of the world. We can get all the things we want. We can afford them. We are in the best position to create the best standard of living and the freest country.
And you know what? In order to do it, we have to regain our national purpose, which means save the world from climate [change]. So when you guys say that’s not optimistic, actually, we have this gigantic challenge that we can accomplish that will give us a reason — everyone at this table and everyone in the country — to be walking around the planet on two legs.
Best thing ever. So I think that that will be a reason for all of us to be alive. So actually, I am optimistic.
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