Former hedge fund billionaire is running for president against ‘the corporate takeover of our democracy’

San Francisco billionaire and environmental advocate Tom Steyer speaks in Los Angeles in July 2014.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Tom Steyer has a surprising platform for a billionaire candidate who made his money gobbling up companies: denouncing “the corporate takeover of our democracy.”

The Democratic activist and former hedge fund manager from California is the only candidate who will be making his debut on the debate stage Tuesday night. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii — also among the dozen expected on the crowded stage — failed to qualify for the last debate but participated in two prior sessions.

Steyer, to the extent he is known publicly, built most of his profile through advertisements he purchased favoring environmental action and calling for the impeachment of President Trump. In a 20-minute phone interview this week, he said he plans to discuss both of those issues but is most eager to introduce himself to voters who may not know him, while highlighting what he sees as the corporate threat to democratic values.


His campaign, in a debate strategy memo, says he is not looking for a single moment, which is a good thing for Steyer, who seldom speaks in electrifying tones and has yet to capture the public through the type of viral exchanges that often propel modern candidates.

Trump is one of the few candidates in modern politics who has been able to convince a sizable number of voters that his vast wealth would help, rather than hinder, his ability to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption. But Democrats say that promise is fraudulent, compounding Steyer’s challenge with the voters he needs.

To many on the Democratic left, Steyer’s money represents the problem he is decrying. Steyer has been able to spend tens of millions to get the name recognition and small-dollar donations needed to qualify for the debate stage. But he has yet to galvanize a wider constituency, averaging less than a percentage point in national polls.

One front-runner, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, tweeted in July that “the Democratic primary should not be decided by billionaires, whether they’re funding Super PACs or funding themselves.”

Steyer does not raise his voice or show anger when asked about the seeming disconnect in his message.

“If you’re looking at someone who’s actually succeeded in getting things done on this, I think I have a record as an outsider and getting more done than anybody else,” he said, citing his efforts to defeat Proposition 23 in 2010, a ballot measure that would have rolled back environmental regulations in California.

So does it take money to beat money?

“I don’t think it really is about money, to be honest,” he said. “No, I think it’s a question of, are you willing to take them on and do the organizing work? And can you get your message to be heard?”


Some might see impeachment as Steyer’s best ticket to relevance, given that he began running advertisements for the process early in Trump’s term. But that also could be a danger for Democrats, given that Trump has been arguing that Democrats like Steyer have been out to get him from the day he took office and that the current allegations that he abused his office are merely a trumped-up hoax.

Asked about that risk, Steyer laughed for several seconds to show his disdain for Trump’s argument.

“You know, anyone can say anything,” he said. “When a career criminal says, ‘You were trying to get me before I robbed my last bank. That doesn’t seem fair.’”

“It’s not very convincing to me,” Steyer said.

What Trump did in requesting help from Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden “was absolutely of a piece of his criminality before the Ukraine, and his cover-up of Ukraine was absolutely of a piece of his cover-ups.”

Although polls indicated the Democratic race seeming to narrow to two or three people, Steyer insists he sees it as wide open and will not pin himself down to any benchmarks for keeping his candidacy alive.

“Maybe I’m just seeing specific Democrats, but they all seem to have a very open mind,” he said. “One of the things that made me laugh was I saw a story on my newsfeed, I think last Tuesday, that said, Hillary Clinton said she’s running. Is she kidding? Right? Who the hell knows what’s coming on this race?”