Tom Steyer’s long road to becoming the environment’s donor-in-chief

A handful of wealthy donors will be facing off in a behind-the-scenes game of electoral checkers in the 2014 and 2016 elections, spending even more money on ad buys and outreach than in the first two post-Citizens United election cycles. There's no certainty that these donors will be successful given the mixed record super PACs and 501(c)4s had in 2012, but there's no doubt we'll be seeing their influence a lot more. But who are these fundraisers, and where have their vast fortunes taken them in politics before now? This is the first in a series of profiles that will attempt to answer that question.

Tom Steyer announced this month that he plans to spend and raise as much as $100 million supporting candidates who care about climate change and opposing climate change deniers in the 2014 election. We've heard quite a bit about his efforts in the Massachusetts special election and Virginia gubernatorial race and his plans for 2014, but how did Steyer arrive at this point? The former hedge fund manager, who signed the Giving Pledge in 2010 with dozens of other billionaires, has a long history of making political investments. And beyond fundraising, his past political involvement goes back to the '70s and '80s, when he volunteered for Mario Cuomo's mayoral campaign and Walter Mondale's presidential bid.

Here's a look back at some of his most notable forays into American politics -- some of which are useful in explaining how his new climate-oriented organization, NextGen Climate, ended up with the ideas and team and goals that it did.


Billionaire Tom Steyer of San Francisco is the man who has Obama's ear when it comes to energy and climate change. Steyer is helping drive policy in Washington  (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

California kingpin

Up until he started NextGen Climate, Steyer was best known for his political efforts in California, where he played an outsize role in five ballot measure fights and funded many local candidates. He gave $25,000 in support of Proposition 2 in 2008. The measure, which passed with 64 percent of the vote, prohibited the inhumane confinement of farm animals. He also waged a successful campaign to keep  the California Presidential Electoral College Reform Initiative off the ballot in 2008, spending at least $177,oo0 on the effort. The initiative would have changed how the state apportions electoral college votes, getting rid of the current winner-take-all system. The Republicans supporting the measure were clearly trying to alter the state's fortunes as a perpetual safe haven for Democratic presidential candidates. Steyer and Chris Lehane -- former Clinton consultant and current senior advisor for NextGen Climate -- started Californians for Fair Election Reform to fight the proposed initiative.

In 2010, he waged his most high-profile ballot measure fights, opposing Proposition 23 and Proposition 26. He spent $5 million against Prop. 23, which sought to suspend the state's  "Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006" until unemployment dropped below 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. Steyer formed Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs, the chief group fighting the bill, with George Schulz, who served as secretary of state under Reagan. Steyer was also supporting Governor Jerry Brown's gubernatorial campaign, while Schulz was a co-chair of his opponent Meg Whitman's campaign. Sixty-one percent of voters rejected Prop. 23 that November.

Steyer was not so lucky with Prop. 26, which says that the General Assembly cannot pass any new taxes or fees without a supermajority. Steyer gave $1 million to an effort to defeat the ballot measure, which many environmental groups feared would mean the end of many fees used to limit carbon emissions.

In another fight, Steyer not only gave more than $32 million to the successful "Yes on Prop. 39" effort, he helped draft the initiative too. The measure closes a tax loophole on out-of state corporations, bringing an extra $1 billion to the state annually, half of which Steyer managed to appropriate to clean energy projects at schools and public buildings for the law's first five years. An article in the Mecury News on Steyer's victory said, "Ever heard of him? Don't worry, you will."

Some groups were dismayed by the amount of money spent on Prop. 39 and the 10 other initiatives on the ballot in California that year. Over the course of two years, Steyer alone had increased his monetary investment in the fate of ballot measures more than fivefold. The president of Consumer Watchdog told the New York Times, “Hiram Johnson would probably be turning over in his grave, since he gave us the initiative process to fight the railroad barons. There has been no ballot in modern history with this type of concentration of millionaire and billionaire wealth behind it. If this was a reality TV show, we’d call it the billionaire ballot.”

Steyer has also donated to many California candidates. In 1992, he gave $1,250 to Dianne Feinstein's special election campaign for a Senate seat. He gave $50,ooo to the unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial campaign of Dick Riordan, a former Los Angeles mayor and philanthropist who comes from the world of finance, and $10,000 to the California Democratic Party in 2010. He gave $1,000 to Matt Fong, a Republican who unsuccessfully challenged Barbara Boxer in 1998. He donated to Boxer in 2008, 2010 and 2012. He's also has given money to Nancy Pelosi, Howard Berman, a handful of candidates for state office, and has continued donating to Feinstein -- now in her fifth term.

Steyer explained his political involvement to the Mercury News in 2012: "I am an enormous lover of California, and to the extent that I see something wrong, I will be involved in trying to fix it. What form that takes, I don't have a fixed idea."

In 1995, his love for California manifested itself in an impromptu goldfish tasting at a fundraiser for the Discovery Museum.  (He told the San Francisco Chronicle it was "delicious.") In return, he got a $1,000 donation for the museum.

Divesting from fossil fuels

One of Steyer's political interests not involving elections is a campaign to get colleges around the country to divest from fossil fuels. He sent a statement to the Board of Trustees at Middlebury College in January 2013, offering reasons for getting rid of their investments in oil companies grounded in financial strategy as well as the environmental reasons the college administration had already heard from students and faculty. In March, he offered a similar message to Brown University, which was also getting heat from students for the fossil fuel companies in its portfolio. Neither institution has divested as of yet.

Several conservative news outlets and politicians pointed to Steyer's own investments in fossil fuel as hypocrisy, and Steyer responded by promising to completely divest his portfolio of funds from the Kinder Morgan energy company by the end of 2013. It wasn't the first time Steyer faced criticism over his investments and with his growing profile it won't be the last time either. In 2004, a group of students at Steyer's alma mater, Yale University, questioned the institution's involvement with Farallon Capital Management, the investment firm that Steyer founded in 1986. The students involved with UnFarallon, which had chapters at ten other schools including Steyer's other alma mater, Stanford, said they were uncomfortable with some of the firm's investments, and wanted to see detailed accounting of their institutions' investments with the firm. According to the Mercury News,

One investment cited by the students is the Cordevalle golf course in San Martin. Farallon owns the luxury course that is a habitat for two threatened species, the California tiger salamander and the Western pond turtle. When leading environmental groups protested, Cordevalle agreed to construct several ponds to protect the species. However, in 2002, the Santa Clara CountyPlanning Commission discovered Cordevalle had failed to build the ponds and had reneged on a pledge to provide public access to the golf course.

Wehrly said his firm moved to address the environmental concerns as soon as it found out about the lapse, but said he wasn't familiar enough with the project to explain the delay.

Former UnFarallon members did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

A profile published in Institutional Investor in 2005 noted that "the protests hurt [Steyer] on a personal level. ... Steyer sees himself as aligned with student protesters, not capitalist oppressors." According to Lehane, questions about the investments made by Farallon, coupled with Steyer's desire to become a more visible activist for the environment, prompted him to step down from Farallon, which he did on January 1, 2013. "He thought that he couldn't be at a place that, by definition, is involved in every area of the global economy, including fossil fuels," Lehane said. If he's going to be involved with something, it has to be "consistent with his own views and conscience and idea of where the world is going." Lehane also says that UnFarallon was one of the big events that got him thinking about climate in the first place. "That's what these divestment campaigns are all about, letting people step back and think about what's going on in the world."

Building a diverse portfolio of climate-conscious candidates

Although the 2013-2014 election cycle has been Steyer's official start as chief arbiter of climate campaigning, he has been quietly giving a boost to environmentally inclined politicians across the country for over a decade. He's supported mare than 40 different candidates since 1992, whether by writing a $500 check or pledging to bundle hundreds of thousands for them.

In 2010, he donated $2,400 to Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak in a Senate race ThinkProgress called one of “six Senate Races That Pit Climate Heroes Against Global Warming Deniers.” Sestak, who lost by 2 percentage points, had a 96 percent rating with the League of Conservation Voters.

Styer gave money to Brad Carson in 2004, a Blue Dog who lost to Tom Coburn. Carson later served as director of the National Energy Policy Institute at Tulsa University.

He supported Martin O’Malley for governor in 2006. In 2013, O'Malley received the League of Conservation Voters’ first Climate Visionary Award.

He gave Elizabeth Etsy, a freshman representative in Connecticut, money in 2012. Her husband is former commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and has served various positions with the EPA, and is a former director of the Yale Center of Environmental Law and Policy.

Steyer has also been a reliable donor to the more obvious environmental politicians: Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon White House, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, former senator Tom Daschle and Washington Rep. Norm Dicks.

He even gave Arizona Sen. John McCain two $1,000 donations -- one in 1998,  and one in 2000. McCain has sponsored two cap-and-trade bills, and also pushed President George W. Bush on clean air issues (along with his partner-in-crime Joe Lieberman, who got $2,000 from Steyer in 2004).

McCain explained his growing role as a pro-environment Republican in 2003: "I get up in the morning in Phoenix and see a brown cloud over our valley. The National Academy of Sciences becomes more definitive every year, with every report on climate change. The roots of the Republican Party, in many respects, lie in Theodore Roosevelt, a great conservationist. And so I think these issues need to be addressed."

During his 2008 presidential run, McCain gave a big speech about the environment, saying, "We stand warned by serious and credible scientists across the world that time is short and the dangers are great." By 2010, the constricting confines of the Republican primary process left McCain subdued when it came to speaking out on climate policy.

McCain was the last Republican campaign Steyer gave money to, and Lehane thinks that given the current ideological landscape of American politics, NextGen Climate isn't likely to invest in another soon.

"Where are these guys? Tell us, where is there a Republican out there who doesn't have an anti-science standpoint," Lehane asked. "We'd support such a Republican if we could find them. You can't be anti-science and hope to be a national party."

Many of Steyer's past donations, however, before he became a high-profile climate advocate, were also aimed at races that were crucial for Democratic control of Congress. He gave more than $12,000 to committees supporting Jon Tester's Montana Senate campaign in 2006, and over $4,000 to committees supporting John Hall, who picked up a congressional district in New York previously held by a Republican.

Before Steyer got very involved in congressional races and ballot measures, he was already a generous donor to the Center for American Progress — a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C. — giving millions to the organization since its founding in 2003. Steyer is currently on CAP's board, and co-wrote an op-ed with John Podesta, the think tank's chair and founder, and a White House special advisor since last December.

Steyer is also on the advisory council for the Hamilton Project, an economic policy project started by his former boss at Goldman Sachs, Robert Rubin, who was Treasury secretary during the Clinton administration.

The national media -- and national candidates -- get interested

In the 2013-2014 federal election cycle, Tom Steyer is only behind Michael Bloomberg and Bob Perry -- now deceased, but once Texas' chief super donor -- in total funds given.

In 2012, he was also the third biggest donor, right behind Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. In 2004, the first race in which Tom Steyer jumped to a bigger stage to play politics (his support for Bill Bradley's failed bid in 2000 doesn't quite count), he wasn't dropping sums quite so staggering, but he did catch the bug. Steyer pledged to raise over $100,000 for John Kerry's presidential run, and served as a California delegate for that year's Democratic National Convention. In 2008, Steyer initially supported Hillary Clinton — to the very end of her candidacy — and then began to bundle for Barack Obama.

After the 2008 election, Steyer was getting more vocal in California politics, attracting the attention of environmentalists and national political reporters interested in the amount of money he was dropping into political campaigns. And by 2012, when he reprised his role as an Obama bundler and host of Democratic fundraisers, he was being profiled in national and local media left and right. The focus of those profiles was wide-ranging --  his political spending, his pledge to give away part of his fortune, his effort to fight climate change on the economic front with Hank Paulson, Michael Bloomberg and his old pal Schultz, and his speaking engagements at anti-Keystone XL rallies.

He gave an address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, a rite of passage for all future stars of the party, and people were start to whisper about Steyer's own political ambitions. Podesta told the Washington Post in February 2013, in a profile that marked one of the first times Steyer laid out his big plans for future election cycles, “I think he would be a fabulous choice for Energy secretary, and I’ve let my friends in the administration know that.” Steyer had earlier responded to a Bloomberg reporter's question about his future in the Cabinet, "There are things we can do to that will make us all much better off and will make the world much better off. I'm incredibly excited to work on those problems, but I'd be awfully surprised if I were the next Energy secretary."

By the middle of 2013, when Steyer was running his own political and fundraising operation — NextGen Climate and CE Action, a super PAC aimed at electing members of Congress willing to fight climate change — his long political education and trial run seemed nearly complete.

Nearly. As you inch closer to the political spotlight, you're bound to attract more criticism. And as Steyer's methods for attracting attention to his causes has grown louder along with his profile, some have cried foul. In the Massachusetts senate special election last year, Steyer's Next Gen Cimate organization and CE Action committee spent considerable sums, and organized enough volunteers to knock on 300,000 doors in an effort to lift Rep. Ed Markey — known for his willingness to move environmental policy — above Rep. Steven Lynch in the Democratic primary. Besides running ads and conducting grassroots organizing, Steyer also sent a plane over Fenway Park a few times over the course of the election season, a banner reading “Steve Lynch for Oil Evil Empire" trailing behind it.

In last year's Virginia gubernatorial race, where Steyer spent nearly $8 million, NextGen Climate got some pushback when they hired someone to impersonate Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli at an aquarium at Virginia Beach, and dispatched another plane to fly over University of Virginia during a football game versus Brigham Young University. The banner that flew over the stadium said that Cuccinelli was a fan of the opposing team.

Last August, an anti-Keystone XL pipeline ad was schedule to run during President Obama's appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. It featured another impersonator, this time of Russ Girling, CEO of TransCanada, the company behind the controversial pipeline. The ad was pulled by the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C.

In the light of Steyer's many victories, these stumbles quickly receded, and Steyer has been busy juggling all the political personas he's acquired over the years as the 2014 midterms draw closer. He's still holds Democratic Party fundraisers at his house, sometimes with the president visiting, sometimes with former vice presidents visiting, always raising lots of money. He's still spending a lot of time talking to the press about NextGen Climate and his future plans. And he's definitely spending a lot of time strategizing about how NextGen Climate will take part in the 2014 election.

And, as his past actions show, climate isn't the only issue he cares deeply about. Lehane points to Steyer's support of Prop. 39 as a show of his support for income inequality issues, and also mentions the relationship with organized labor he's built in California. And as he's gone, over the course of two decade, from giving small donations here and there around the country to planning to spend $50 million and raise another $50 million on one election cycle , it seems unwise to challenge how far his ambitions could further grow.

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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