Don't do it, Tom! The case against Steyer for Senate

Why the billionaire environmentalist should sit out next year's California Senate contest

Published January 12, 2015 8:22PM (EST)

Tom Steyer          (Reuters/Gary Cameron)
Tom Steyer (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

In the four days since California's Barbara Boxer announced she wouldn't seek a fifth term in the U.S. Senate next year, ambitious Golden State Democrats have scrambled to assess the potential playing field and sound out support. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom gave the race a look before opting Monday to sit it out; Attorney General Kamala Harris may yet jump in, and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa all but announced over the weekend that he'll toss his hat into the ring. While Newsom's exit today focuses much of the attention on Harris, the contest may feature yet another bold-faced name: hedge fund billionaire, climate change activist, and Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer.

That Steyer is thinking about running for Boxer's seat shouldn't come as a surprise. During the midterm elections, in which Steyer spent $74 million supporting Democratic candidates and outside groups, he preserved the option of one day seeking public office himself. And while Boxer's retirement offers him the opportunity to do just that, Steyer should think twice before taking the plunge.

My skepticism of a Steyer bid doesn't stem from anything objectionable in his worldview. Although he's associated almost exclusively with climate change activism, Steyer has also cultivated ties to California labor groups and helped pass a state ballot initiative that cracked down on corporate tax loopholes, suggesting that despite his immense personal wealth, he's at least decent on economic issues. With an estimated $1.6 billion net worth, the patrician Steyer may seem a peculiar face for a Democratic Party whose base increasingly demands a populist approach to economic issues, but Steyer has lavished campaign funds on candidates whose policies don't serve his immediate economic interest; you can hardly write him off as just another billionaire in it for himself.

That said, it's unclear why Steyer needs a Senate seat -- or, for that matter, why the Senate needs Steyer. Other Democrats who may enter the race have longer track records on a broader range of issues than Steyer does; as attorney general, for instance, Harris has championed gun control, cracked down on predatory lenders, and agitated for consumer privacy. Perhaps Steyer is just as strong on such issues, but given that Harris and any other Democrat with a serious chance at winning the seat share his views on his signature issue, it's unclear what the climate change crusader brings to the table. Does he think he'll be more effective at advocating action on climate than someone like Harris? Billionaires tend to be highly self-regarding, but given that Steyer is almost essentially universally loathed by Republicans and is viewed with suspicion by many fellow Democrats, it's exceedingly difficult to envision how he'd be able to assemble the coalition necessary to get a climate bill passed. Far better for Steyer seek to change the terms of the debate from the outside; even if his 2014 political efforts met with disappointing results, last year was a bad one for Democrats all around, and future cycles are likely to prove far more fruitful.

Moreover, from a purely strategic, bench-building perspective, Sen. Steyer makes little sense. Steyer will be pushing 60 in 2016, while Harris will be just 52, Treasurer John Chiang will be 54, and Secretary of State Alex Padilla will be 43. Such younger candidates would have the opportunity to serve in the Senate for far longer than Steyer likely would. What's more, they would also vault into contention as potential national candidates in 2020 or 2024, whereas nobody takes the notion of a President Steyer seriously. Can't Steyer remain politically influential without shutting out candidates whose futures would probably be more promising than his?

Again, none of this is to say that Steyer would be a bad senator. He may run, win, and prove a damn good one. He may even, like Boxer, go on to serve four terms. Plus, if Harris and other up-and-comers decide not to run -- setting up a contest between, say, Steyer and the neoliberal Villaraigosa -- then Steyer could emerge as the obvious progressive choice. At this early stage, however, such a scenario looks unlikely, and absent such developments, he should allow others to vie for the seat.

By Luke Brinker

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