Why is billionaire Tom Steyer running for president — as an enemy of big corporations?

Hedge fund billionaire tells Salon his campaign is driven by two issues: corporate money and the climate crisis

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published September 15, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Tome Steyer, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (Getty Images/ Salon)
Tome Steyer, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (Getty Images/ Salon)

Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund manager who has become a late arrival in the field of Democratic presidential candidates, provides anti-Trump voters with an interesting challenge. His critique of wealth sometimes sounds like Bernie Sanders, but he is by far the richest person in the race (even if you include Donald Trump).

When I interviewed  Steyer earlier this year, he said he had no interest in running for president and was instead focused on funding a campaign to impeach President Donald Trump. He has obviously changed his mind — and while still far behind the leading candidates in the polls, has now qualified for the October Democratic debates, even though he wasn't on stage for the debate held in Houston last week.

As a self-made billionaire and philanthropist, Steyer embodies both the American Dream and the flaws in American capitalism. Like Trump, he has no previous political or military experience; unlike Trump, Steyer has used his considerable wealth to fight for the less fortunate in all walks of life. That crusade began long before he got into politics and will no doubt continue once this campaign is over.

Steyer is running as a full-on progressive, much less in the Joe Biden "lane" than in the one currently occupied by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It appears he'll get his opportunity to make his case before the nation, and steal some of their thunder, next month. I spoke with Steyer last week.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

You're now officially running for president. The last time we talked that wasn't the case. What changed?

You're absolutely right. I went back and looked. Well, I felt as if what I was hoping would happen wasn't happening.

Which was?

Look, if you've listened to what I've been saying, I feel as if we have some very direct challenges. They're hard but pretty straightforward. I feel as if we need to call them out and confront them and then we are going to put ourselves at a very, very, very good position. But if we don't call them out and confront them, we're going to continue to have a broken government and it's going to be very expensive for us in so many ways.

So what issues are you prioritizing?

Look, what I've said is — and I think this fits in with what I said to you last time — I've said we have a broken government. It's been purchased by corporate money and we have to re-establish the democracy government of, by and for the people. And if we do that, then we're going to get health care as a right. We're going to get a living wage. We're going to get free public education for pre-K through college with continuing skills through your life. We're going to get clean air and clean water. But if we don't call out the corporate takeover of our government and get on it, we're not going to be able to fix it. And it's so overwhelming right now in our country.

And the other thing I've said is, I'm going to declare an emergency on climate on Day One, use the emergency power of the presidency to protect the safety and health of the American people.

Democrats right now are in a populist state of mind. You're a billionaire. Bernie Sanders often denounces billionaires. Elizabeth Warren says she's going to impose a wealth tax on large fortunes. How do you present being a billionaire as an asset rather than a liability, given this political climate?

Well, I think if you look at the last 10 years you'll see that as an outsider, I have been successfully taking on corporations and building coalitions of ordinary American citizens to re-establish democracy and take back the power.

If you go back and look, I've taken on an oil company at the ballot box and beaten them. I've taken on the tobacco companies at the ballot box and beaten them. We've taken on the utilities at the ballot box and beaten them. We've taken on drug companies. I've started an organization that's one of the largest grassroots organizations in the United States to organize young people in 2018. The largest youth voter mobilization in American history, NextGen America. We've knocked on literally tens of millions of doors in the swing states with our partners in organized labor. So I think if you look over the last 10 years, I have, as an outsider, successfully taken on these corporations and beat them and actually stood up for exactly what I'm saying and have the history of not only doing it, but of winning.

And if you think you're going to reform Washington, D.C., if you think we have a broken government — which is my thesis, we have a broken government, it doesn't work — if you think someone's going to change that, is it going to be someone who's been doing it for 10 years from the outside, or is it going to be somebody from inside the Beltway? I'm arguing it's somebody who has a track record of doing it for 10 years.

You just missed being qualifying for the last debate. Do you feel confident you'll be able to make it into the next one?

You know, Matt, if you look, there are a bunch of public polls out over the last five weeks that have me an average of 6 to 7 percent in the four early primary states. No one's run a poll for five weeks that the DNC will accept in those states. I was supposed to have been at 2 percent [to qualify]. If someone ever runs a poll in New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina or Iowa, then it sounds like I'm going to qualify easily. I would have, if they'd ever run a poll the DNC would accept.

[Steyer did indeed qualify for the October debates.]

Are you implying that the DNC is biased against you?

No, it's just is what it is. Honestly, I'm just saying, you asked me a question and I gave you an answer that's true. If no one ever runs a poll, then I'm not going to qualify.

That is a fair point. So, I'm curious about your impeachment message. Nancy Pelosi has strongly signaled that she's against impeachment, arguing that it's a liability in the 2020 election. Do you feel that she's wrong about that?

You know, Matt, Nancy Pelosi was opposed to impeachment because she thought it was a liability in the 2018 election. We had 6 million people who had signed our petition at that point. They voted over 80 percent, they turned out. We used that list for the last three or four months before the election to turn out the vote.

Do I think that she's right? I completely disagree. Our opinion is the way that we win as Democrats is by registering, engaging and turning out voters who otherwise wouldn't show up at the polls because they think the system is broken. That's actually what happened in 2018.

If you look at the 38 Republican-held congressional districts that we targeted, the turnout from the previous midterm election in those districts of people under 30 went from 18 percent turnout to 41 percent turnout. That's the largest age cohort in America. It's the most diverse age cohort in American history. It's the most progressive age cohort in America. And where we were in organizing 33 of those seats, the turnout went up by over 100 percent. That's actually how I believe you win elections. It's not by going to the middle, but by getting the 40 to 60 percent of Americans who don't vote to vote, because they're all Democrats.

What do you bring to the table to the conversation that none of the other candidates can offer? Aside from the message about making the government work again, what issues would you focus on? What perspective would you emphasize?

Look, I'm an outsider. The second thing that I said to you was that I would declare a state of emergency on Day One on climate. I think if you look at what's going on in climate and you look at people's proposals, there are three ways that I'm different from other people.

One is urgency. We can't wait for Congress. Congress has had 28 years to do something about climate. The clock has been ticking. We actually have to start doing stuff. You can see that.

Two, I have a successful history on climate of doing it through environmental justice. Other people talk about it. We've done it. We've done it for 10 years. That's the way that climate works, and you get the right policy by starting with people in the community that have been most disadvantaged by concentrated pollution. That tends to be black and brown communities, so that's the second thing.

And, the third thing is, this is a global problem. Everybody talks about that this is the leading global problem. If you add that, just as an example, I don't know if you observed in the G7 [summit], they had a response to the 76,000 fires in Brazil, which was to offer $20 million, $3 million per country to solve 76,000 fires. The Brazilians put it in terms of global leadership — and we've obviously abandoned leadership in the world. On climate, we're opposed to a global coalition. We're the only people outside the global coalition.

When you think about solving climate, this actually can't work without a global coalition, can't work without a global coalition led by Americans. To me, we can't make that work unless we're committed to putting our own house in order. So this has to be the point of the spear in terms of our international relations as well.

And, the fourth thing I'd say is economics. Look, I spent 30 years as an international investor. I think, this race is going to turn out to be about economics because it always at some level is, and I think I'm the person who has by far the most experience in terms of understanding what drives the economy. I think I am the person who can take on Trump on the economy at a level that nobody else can.

Where would you say you stand on issues compared to the candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren? For instance, Sanders has advocated sectoral bargaining, so instead of unions needing to be organized at each individual workplace, negotiations could occur between all laborers and employers in specific industries. Warren has advocated for fully portable benefits for everyone and making sure that all work — full-time, part-time gigs — carry basic benefits. Are those the kinds of proposals things that you would support?

Yes. I think — look, obviously God is in the details of these things. But one of the things I absolutely believe is that we need a revived, rejuvenated, organized labor sector. And sectoral bargaining is something that's done in Europe. It makes a lot of sense. God is in the details. But there's no question when you see — look, working people have gotten Trumped on. You can look at the outcomes, then you can look at the input.

You can see tons of rule of law [changes] over the last 40 years to the disadvantage of working people. You can see the number of people who work in private sector were in unions and you can see what has happened to wages and benefits over those 40 years ... That's an amazing fact, but it's true. You could see a whole bunch of things happen to cut the arms and legs out of the organized labor movement.

A shockingly low percentage of private sector workers are organized. Boom, no raise for 40 years. Yes, we have to do whatever we can to reinvigorate organized labor and get some form of strong negotiating force on behalf of working people because they are getting the heck kicked out of them. And if you look at the gig economy, it's an excuse for hurting people. It's a fancy word, a so-called hip word to cover up the fact that Uber drivers make about five and a half bucks an hour. That's an amazing fact.

You're seeing people evading the law consistently at all levels, huge, incredibly profitable corporations who do not pay their workers a living wage. Whose workers are often forced to get food stamps, or half the people who are there work due to a contract employment, so they feel they have no responsibility. All the protections for workers have been made a mockery of over the last 40 years. And so, yes, there's a whole bunch of things we need to do to protect working people because they're at such a disadvantage negotiating with these incredibly powerful corporations.

There have only been two major party presidential nominees of Jewish heritage, Barry Goldwater in 1964 and John Kerry in 2004. You are of Jewish descent and as I'm sure you would, Donald Trump has been playing on anti-Semitism at times How would you approach that, should you be the Democratic nominee?

Look, my opinion about this, Matt, is actually I think of myself as being an American mutt with a Jewish father. I'm incredibly proud of my father and I'm incredibly proud of that heritage. I'm incredibly proud of my dad. I'm incredibly proud of my mom. They're from different faith traditions. I embraced them both. And I am of the opinion if someone wants to be prejudiced about it, why would I ever choose their prejudice over my parents? Never going to happen in a million years.

What will your strategy be going forward? Not just in terms of the debates, but in terms of bringing your message to ordinary people?

I love talking to people. I have a message which I think people actually want to hear. I think that's what those numbers in those states say. So it's like, I'm going to keep doing exactly the same thing, which is going as directly as possible to voters with a very simple message about what I think is wrong and the very simple message about what I think happens if we solve those two problems, which is that I think we're in the best position of any country in the history of the world. If we get rid of this corporate stranglehold and we stabilize the climate.

I think we can provide a guaranteed level of security and life, which is unparalleled. I really do. And I think Americans should realize the prize is incredible. What we can do, what we can accomplish together in the world and for us is incredible. That's the message as far as I'm concerned.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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