Tom Steyer is going to appear on Tuesday’s debate stage after all.
The billionaire hedge fund manager and liberal activist is running a long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he’s not afraid to spend his own money in the process. To date, Steyer has dropped $106 million — most of it his own money — on advertising. To at least a small extent, those efforts appear to be paying off: Recent polls show him gaining steam in Nevada and South Carolina. And, most importantly, he’s continued to meet the polling threshold to stay on the debate stage even as more experienced political hands drop out of the contest, one after the next.
That Steyer has been able to stay in the race has frustrated some members of his party, who argue that his money would be better spent elsewhere. The Center for Responsive Politics, for one, has calculated he could have funded five Senate races with it. Steyer rejects his critics as clueless and argues that his campaign is focused on saving humanity by attacking corporations that are causing global temperatures to spike.
In late December, I sat down with the 62-year-old Steyer in Washington, D.C., at Kelly’s Irish Times, a dusty Capitol Hill bar with sticky floors and the odor of 40 years’ worth of spilled drinks. We talked about the attacks over his money, criminal justice reform, and what he thinks of comparisons between him and Trump.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
GEN: You just participated in a forum in Philly for previously incarcerated people at Eastern State Penitentiary. How did you become an advocate for criminal justice reform?
Tom Steyer: My mom taught in the Brooklyn House of Detention, and my wife has been involved with rehabilitation in San Quentin. She asked me 15 years ago, “Do you want to go into a maximum-security prison?” So I did it a couple times. It was an incredibly moving experience.
We were doing sessions with 12 inmates. Almost all of them, I think, were murderers. They were all very young. It turned out they were just grateful for any attention at all, to my surprise. They felt that they’d been cast aside. To some extent, [they’ve] definitely done some terrible things, and they’ve been in situations where there’s been a lot of pressure on them in various ways to do what they did. And I think they were trying to come to terms with what they’ve done and trying to make sure they never did it again.
It’s funny—a reporter asked me today, “What can you say nice about Mr. Trump?” I said, “He signed the First Step Act.” [This act eases punitive prison sentences at the federal level.]
A first step, but an important step.
But he did sign it. Give the devil his due.
Your financial firm also invested in private prisons. How do you square that fact with your campaign’s commitment to criminal justice reform?
We invested in private prisons, and I sold them 15 years ago after a couple months because I realized it was wrong. When we originally did that, no one had decided whether they were right or wrong. There was a big argument then about would it be more efficient? Could they deliver better services? I concluded there’s no place for private prisons.
That sort of encapsulates your pitch to voters: “I did it in the private sector. I can do it in D.C.”
Actually, my pitch is, “For 10 years I’ve taken on these corporations and beat them in the public sector.” I’ve fought oil companies, utilities, tobacco companies, drug companies — and beat them.
Do you worry that, with Trump coming from the private sector, voters will be wary of voting for another wealthy candidate who’s promising to rid Washington of corporate influence?
I don’t think of myself as at all comparable [to Trump]. I’ve built one of the largest grassroots organizations in the United States to spread democracy. Trump is a fake businessman — a failed businessman. He’s a fake as a president and a failure — obviously a very dishonest and corrupt man.
You’ve received praise as an activist. Why not stay in that role?
NextGen America [Steyer’s environmental advocacy nonprofit and political action committee] did the largest youth voter mobilization in American history. The organization I started with seven national labor unions knocked on 15 million doors in 2016 and 10 million doors [in 2018]. The reason I’m running is that I listened to those debates and didn’t think anybody was leveling with the American people.
I wish lawmakers had to walk around the Capitol with all their donors on their coats, just like NASCAR.
Transparency. That’s the first step, not the last step.
Now to the elephant in the room: President Trump. Have you read ‘The Art of the Deal’?
No. Neither has he. He didn’t write the book. Trump is a talent: He’s a total crook.
So you’ll give him that?
Totally. He had 45 million people watching The Apprentice. Underestimate him at your peril. Hitler was a talent. These guys — they’re talented. That doesn’t make them competent.
Do you worry your own past business dealings will doom you in the race? You used to invest in coal companies.
If I were smarter, I would have figured out [climate change] sooner. We’re coming from a fossil fuel economy. I would wager that most of the people in this bar have driven a car in the past day. We’re in a fossil fuel economy — getting away from it is what we have to do.
Do you regret your investment?
That was about 10 years ago. If you’re asking me do I wish I had more foresight than the other people in this race, take a look at the facts. Look at the history of who’s actually done stuff. Do I wish I were smarter? Of course I wish I were smarter.
How did climate change get on your radar?
Basically sitting around the dining table with my family. We used to play this game: What is the thing we’re going to look back at and say, “Were we brain-dead?”
And we were like, “Wow, this is it.” I thought we had found this opportunity to fix it — lead the world, build a new industry, do the right thing. And once people understand that this is what we have to do, it won’t be a partisan issue. It will be a patriotic issue. [Climate] is my number one priority: state of emergency, day one.
What sort of government and election reforms do we need to enact?
Term limits, a national referendum, go after voter suppression. We have to change the idea that corporations are people. They’re not; that’s ridiculous. You were talking about justice. Go read some Supreme Court decisions over the past 200 years and tell me about justice. They’ve said stuff that’s unconscionable.
Trump has already stacked SCOTUS. What do you think about proposals to expand the Supreme Court to offset what Mitch McConnell’s done to stack it?
It’s legal. It’s in the Constitution. The Republicans have conspired to prevent Americans from voting. They have welcomed foreign hacking of elections. They have gerrymandered, and they have bent every rule they could bend. They’ve broken a bunch, and the ones they couldn’t break, they’ve bent. Merrick Garland. So, you’re asking me, do I feel like we should play hard? Yes.
A lot of people are skeptical of your campaign because you’re a billionaire.
It’s funny: The people in Washington, D.C., think Americans think that’s a bad thing. I didn’t inherit my money. I started with nothing.
This is not a socialist country. This is a free country. Americans don’t think it’s bad to succeed. I think it’s bad to succeed and be greedy and nasty. I took the Giving Pledge more than a decade ago. The day it’s bad to succeed in America, it’s not America.
After taking the Giving Pledge, you’re spending some of that money that could do a lot of good on a long-shot presidential bid.
To deal with the biggest threat to the people of the United States because no one else will — how about that one?
I find this amusing. You’re assuming I’m not doing this to do the right thing, and I keep telling you: That’s bullshit.
But now you, as someone who’s proven yourself great with money over the years, are spending tens of millions on this presidential race. Is that a wise use of money?
It’s not an investment. We’re trying to do the right thing that no one else wants to do. People think about money the wrong way here.
In what way?
I’m trying really hard to get something done that’s super important. This is the way that I can conceive of getting it done. I don’t know any other way to get it done.
How much money are you willing to drop?
People in the press always think it’s about money. Money changes based on what happens. You can’t tell what will happen in a campaign.