“The weather’s nice,” she said, “but I saw a lot of storms.”
Climate change was on Collington’s mind on a damp Wednesday afternoon when she went to hear billionaire former hedge-fund manager and Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer speak at her congregation at Georgetown’s Bethel AME Church.
“If you talk about climate, [it] has a dramatically important racial subtext,” Steyer told a crowd of several dozen at the historically black church. “And if you're not dealing with it, you're not actually dealing with the problem.”
Steyer has staked his candidacy on climate change — and on South Carolina. His argument that global warming will be felt most bluntly by black and brown communities is meant to resonate in a state where residents are already feeling its effects and where about 60 percent of voters in Saturday’s Democratic primary are African American.
His big-spending campaign has been airing at least three climate-themed television ads in the Palmetto State. And Steyer spent Wednesday and Thursday visiting the state’s coastal Lowcountry region.
“I think environmental justice plays well here,” Steyer said in an interview in Charleston, which last year saw nearly 90 coastal flooding events. But he added: “I’m someone who’s been working on those things for a long time, too.”
Winning over African American voters like Collington, who remained undecided, will be key to a strong Steyer showing in the state that represents his best chance of staying afloat in the Democratic primary race nationally. After failing to notch a single delegate in the first three contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Steyer may be making his last stand here, where polls show him running third behind former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with 15 percent of the vote.
And the issue he has long championed as founder of NextGen America — an advocacy group pushing progressive solutions to issues like climate change — is moving to the forefront of voters’ minds. After years of being treated as an afterthought, candidates and voters are now taking Earth’s warming and the extreme weather it is making more common seriously. The Democratic electorates in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada each ranked climate change ahead of income inequality and foreign policy as their second-most-important issue, after health care.
Steyer’s strong showing in South Carolina is not just because of his message. He spent $52.9 million nationwide on his presidential campaign in January alone. Though the campaign is not saying how much it is spending in South Carolina, the businessman has been able to amplify his message by tapping into his deep bank account to flood the radio and TV airwaves with ads and stuff mailboxes with pamphlets in the state. His wife, Kat Taylor, even moved to South Carolina for the 2020 campaign.
Steyer’s “justice-centered” environmental plan promises to declare climate change a national emergency if he wins the White House, while assuring activists the efforts to stop climate change don’t end up pushing polluters into poorer neighbors, which has sometimes happened in the past.
In South Carolina, he wants to build more housing to avoid or withstand changing conditions. “This is a big part of my climate plan — millions of affordable housing units done in a climate-smart way,” Steyer told the church crowd.
He also wants to invest more money in fixing aging drinking water systems like that in Denmark, S.C. — a city that faced years of tap water problems and that he name-checks often on the campaign trail.
He also proposes creating a Civilian Climate Corps — what would be a new national service program akin to the Peace Corps — to help respond to disasters like hurricanes, which historically have rocked South Carolina and are becoming more intense as Earth warms.
Steyer’s overarching aim is to eliminate U.S. contributions to global warming by 2045, a goal in line with those of several other Democratic presidential candidates. And like much of the rest of the field, he supports remaining in the 2015 Paris climate accord and endorses the idea of a Green New Deal, which calls for a “fair and just transition” to net-zero emissions.
Steyer rose to prominence in Democratic circles as a megadonor, spending tens of millions of dollars through NextGen America to help juice voter turnout for Democrats and stymie the construction of oil and gas infrastructure, such as the Keystone XL pipeline.
Steyer began last year saying he would concentrate on yet another initiative — trying to impeach President Trump — instead of running for office. But he changed his mind in July, and made his first stop of his 2020 campaign in Charleston.
“I was late,” Steyer said, explaining his focus on South Carolina, “and everyone had spent all their time in the other states.”
The big spending by the two billionaires in the race, Steyer and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, has caused some consternation among Democrats about the outsize influence of money on the presidential race, with some accusing the business executives of trying to buy their way to Washington.
“People think I’m defined by money,” Steyer said in Georgetown. “That is not how I think about myself.”
“One can come to the conclusion that he’s using this money to influence how people vote,” said state Rep. JA Moore (D), who is backing Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind. He added of Steyer: “I appreciate the work he’s been doing with environmental justice.”
Elsie Graves, a retired real estate agent who lives in Myrtle Beach, appreciates how she is not pestered with requests for donations when she visits Steyer’s website. “So I kind of like rich people in the race,” she joked.
Her bigger concern was depriving Biden of a vote in his bid to beat Sanders. But Graves, whose home suffered more than $20,000 in damage during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, said she was reassured by Steyer’s commitment to act immediately on climate change. She said she will vote for him.
“On Day 1, he’s going to do something about climate change,” she said at a Steyer event at a packed Mexican restaurant Wednesday evening in Myrtle Beach.
Gladys Grayson, a member of the church in Georgetown, said her primary concern was getting Trump out of the White House. “I don’t think he should be in office at all,” she said.
After that, it’s climate change. “We’re having more floods,” she said. “It’s hotter. It rains more often.”
Melvin Wright, who runs an auto shop in Florence and is considering voting for Steyer, saw “a ton of jellyfish” — an animal that thrives in warmer waters — washed ashore when he lived in Myrtle Beach. “The world is very upside down,” he said.
Steyer at least made the stage for the televised debate in Charleston on Tuesday night, but he logged the least amount of speaking time.
“I think I obey the rules more,” Steyer said.
But more importantly, he said, the CBS News moderators didn’t ask a single question about global warming — his No. 1 issue.
“Listening to the foreign policy debate, without any mention of climate? Really?” he said.