Billionaire Democrat Tom Steyer on Impeaching Trump, Getting Out the Vote, and Winning in 2020

07-Jan-2019

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Just before Thanksgiving last year, the San Francisco financier turned political activist Tom Steyer received an orange T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Wacky and totally unhinged.”

It was a gift from his wife, Kathryn Taylor (known to all as Kat), and their four grown children, who had all been rather tickled when Donald Trump, a few weeks earlier, branded Steyer with this choice descriptor in an early-morning tweet. Trump had presumably just seen the first in a series of minute-long television commercials that Steyer funded, starred in, and aired everywhere from the World Series to Fox & Friends, calling for the president’s impeachment. As the camera zoomed in to his intense blue eyes, a concerned Steyer intoned a gentle warning: “This president is a clear and present danger,” he said, “mentally unstable and armed with nuclear weapons.” Though Steyer has spent more than a decade directing his considerable fortune (usually estimated at $1.6 billion) toward progressive political causes, in the last year he has become more widely known as the impeachment guy. Commanding broad swaths of our commercial breaks, standing casually in front of the White House or in the middle of Times Square, Steyer is not unhinged, but even to many in his own party, he is just a little bit outrageous.

“People invite me to dinner sometimes, but they never invite me back,” he says, to the laughter of his wife and his eldest son, Sam (Steyer calls him Samwise, a reference to their beloved Lord of the Rings), who works for a clean-energy start-up and has dropped in at the family’s house with his girlfriend, Tessa, for Sunday lunch. Pelicans swoop and sailboats tack in the bay below, but the brilliant blue of the San Francisco afternoon is something of a guilty pleasure considering that on the other edge of America, Hurricane Florence is exacting its final ravages. Steyer launched his super-PAC, NextGen America, in 2013 as an environmental-advocacy group, and climate is still very much on his mind. “When the United Nations tells us we have twelve years to prevent a disaster, that’s got to knock your socks off,” he says. “We can’t afford to countenance the continued lying from the Republican Party and the president.” Steyer’s voice is strident, almost pleading. “Climate is a justice issue when it comes down to it. So is health care, tax cuts, immigration, Colin Kaepernick. This government is allowing corporations to make sure that hazardous waste ends up in the poorest communities who have the least political power to prevent it. This isn’t some theoretical fancy-pants, elitist issue. It’s straight-up justice. It’s like, Do you live in a place where they pollute the hell out of you?”

He tells the story of a high school friend who grew up at the base of the Mississippi and died in his 20s from a brain tumor, and then points across the water to Marin County, where a cancer cluster sits not far from a Chevron refinery. A hush settles awkwardly over the table. Kat, tattooed, eyes darkly penciled, grayish-gold curls tucked into a backward baseball cap—one half-expects her to travel by Harley instead of by Subaru—gets up and starts to clear. “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” she asks, breaking the tension. These days the emotional timbre of the Steyer house oscillates between the dire and the gleeful: The world is a wreck, but we are so pumped up about saving it!

Though Steyer is himself a golden child of corporate America, there are few issues that rankle him more than corporate influence in the corridors of Washington. Whether you think that makes him a hypocrite or a man uniquely positioned to heal the nation’s wounds, this much is true: Since 2012, when he walked away from Farallon Capital Management, the hedge fund that made him a legend of American investing, Steyer, 61, has emerged as the single biggest spender in electoral politics. The year he retired, he spent more than $30 million on a successful referendum in California to bring in more money for clean-energy initiatives. In 2014, he allocated $75 million to support Democratic candidates; in 2016 that number swelled to nearly $100 million, more than any other Democratic donor—and more (at least in disclosed dollars) than the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, or Robert Mercer—has given. This year NextGen America will have spent at least $70 million on a youth-voting program, climate-related ballot initiatives, a partnership with organized labor, and advocacy in Sacramento. Steyer’s move to unseat the president, called Need to Impeach, will cost him at least $40 million.

He may bristle at the analogy, but impeachment is to Tom Steyer what “build a wall” is to Donald Trump: an incendiary issue with potential both to stoke the base and to inflame its opposition. Establishment Democrats and the elected class have recoiled from it. David Axelrod, once the senior adviser to Barack Obama, dismissed Steyer’s ads as a vanity project. Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, said that an impeachment push is premature as the Mueller investigation chugs along. And Nancy Pelosi, currently on track to be the new House speaker, waved it away as a distraction. While 75 percent of registered Democrats favor impeaching President Trump, polls have also suggested that Steyer’s crusade runs the risk of moving swing voters away from Democratic candidates (though Democratic gains in the midterms seem to have set those concerns to rest). When he started the Need to Impeach campaign last fall, Steyer’s goal was to gather a petition with a million signatures. He reached that number in two weeks, and the petition has since grown to six million. It’s been called the most powerful list in politics—longer than the NRA’s, fresher than Bernie Sanders’s.

To some observers, this sudden coalition, which Steyer has sought to mobilize in more than 35 town-hall meetings this year, could mean only one thing—that he is laying the groundwork for a presidential run of his own. He’s grown skillful at parrying this question, but he won’t say no. “I am loath to believe that the person who’s going to provide the clearest, most optimistic, thoughtful, and forward-thinking outline for America has to be from Washington,” says Steyer, who wears a J.Crew sweater, jeans, and black loafers. On TV he is the Mr. Rogers of bad news, quietly exhorting us to save America. But in person Steyer is voluble. He yells a bit, laughs a lot—his eyebrows dance; his hands deliver outsize gestures fit for the lectern. A giddiness shoots through the gloom. “Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren—those are good people, and I respect those people, but I don’t think the savior is coming from the Senate,” he says. “We have hundreds of thousands of people who’ve told us the reason they don’t vote is because the system doesn’t respond to them. My point is, how about telling people the truth? That this is a corrupt, lawless president. I am not persuaded that we should ignore the safety of the United States because a pollster said it might help the Democrats with some swing voters. The biggest party on Election Day is the party that doesn’t vote. So how about remaking the electorate by telling people the truth? When the largest generation in American history decides to vote, then we have a democracy.”

The Steyers’ home sits on a bluff overlooking the narrows known as the Golden Gate, the traditional point of entry to San Francisco, a gilded city named for a saint who venerated poverty. The neighborhood of Sea Cliff is miles away from the tidy facades of Pacific Heights, where the city’s old guard of Gettys and Trainas mixes with tech czars (Jony Ive, Larry Ellison) and political luminaries (Dianne Feinstein, Pelosi). The house itself is almost arrestingly unfancy, frumpy even. Most of the art is by little-known California painters, but in the front hall, on top of an upright piano, sits a series of photographs of Mexican-born farmworkers. In one, a man carries two large pails of green tomatoes, his straining face shiny with sweat. “Trump is attacking these people,” Steyer says. “It’s like, Oh, really? Takers from society? I said, ‘Put these up in the front hall so everybody who walks in remembers, that is what the people he’s vilifying look like.’ ”

It’s tempting to accuse this tableau—perfected by the silver Chevy Volt parked outside—of protesting too much against outward majesty. But the most flashy thing about Steyer may be his insistence on being heard. “Tom has true convictions,” says Cristóbal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, which has partnered with NextGen on immigration issues. “But I always give him a hard time because I think he owns one tie.” Though they have homes in Stinson Beach and Lake Tahoe, as well as TomKat Ranch, a 1,800-acre farm in Pescadero that they have made into a laboratory for sustainable agricultural practices, the Steyers have no showpiece among their holdings. “You expect most people who get described with the B-word are going to be super-into things,” says Kat. “Not Tom. I’ll give you a small example. When Bill Gates and Warren Buffett launched the Giving Pledge”—in which they asked billionaires to dedicate at least half their fortunes to philanthropy—“they wanted Tom to be involved. But we had already decided a long time ago to leave everything on the game board. Our kids were all on notice that we weren’t going to amass a bunch of stuff and have them inherit it. The point is to do everything you can in this lifetime.”

Steyer the gadfly to the political establishment, the woke plutocrat, the self-imposed exile from his city’s billionaire’s row, has its paradoxical origins in an upbringing in Manhattan, on Seventy-fourth Street between Park and Lexington Avenues (“down those mean streets,” he says). His father was a partner at the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. His mother, who wrote for NBC news and later developed reading programs for public schools and prisons, was passionately committed to the politics of the time, a champion of civil rights and a critic of the Vietnam War. Steyer’s academic career was brilliant: He was both president of the student body and valedictorian at Phillips Exeter Academy. At Yale, he served as captain of the varsity soccer team and graduated summa cum laude. Although on the face of it he was the paragon of preppy conventionality, Steyer remembers college as a time when cosmopolitan boys looked different from him and behaved differently. “I was sitting in the dining hall my sophomore year, and I said to my friend, ‘Who are those kids who wear all black and smoke cigarettes?’ My friend goes, ‘Those are the New York kids.’ ” Although he was part of the second-ranked beer-pong team at Yale, Steyer wasn’t a frat boy, either, and he recalls with a shudder the adjacent world in which Brett Kavanaugh played a decade later. “DKE”—Kavanaugh’s fraternity—“was a place people joined specifically for that arrogant, entitled-male, angry, drunken culture,” he remembers. His childhood best friend became a heroin addict and died of hepatitis C. Steyer has never tried a drug in his life.

After two years at Morgan Stanley, he enrolled at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he met Kat, who had herself been the captain of the Harvard track team and was just starting a joint J.D.-M.B.A. program. (Steyer saw her on Stanford’s track, running a series of precisely timed 5:45 miles. He stepped forward and ran one in 5:30.) He returned to New York and landed an investing job at Goldman Sachs. In 1986, after a public confrontation with a superior, Steyer launched his hedge fund in San Francisco and got married. (The couple went camping on their honeymoon.) Farallon Capital became one of the world’s largest funds, due mainly to Stey­er’s oracular way with undervalued stocks.

As Steyer’s critics like to point out, Farallon’s investments included oil and coal companies, private prisons, and subprime lending—business decisions for which he will undoubtedly be held accountable should he find himself running for office. Steyer says that this was among the reasons why in 2012, with Farallon managing $20 billion in assets, he quit. He has mentioned the George W. Bush presidency and the 2008 recession as turning points, though it may be more accurate to say that his awakening came gradually, underpinned by a sharp sense of justice inherited from his mother and by his growing religious faith. Steyer attends Sunday-evening service every week at Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal church on San Francisco’s Nob Hill. If you know him well, then you have surely seen the crosses he scrawls on the back of his left hand every Sunday morning—to remind himself, his friends say, of the universal fact of human suffering, from which his own enormous good fortune has insulated him.

“I know Mike Bloomberg,” Steyer says. “I know George Soros. They both have high ideals and are trying to do the right thing. But to be honest, the people I ask for advice are activists.” The environmentalist and author Bill McKibben met Steyer the year he left Farallon, and they have become close friends. “Rich people often believe that because they made a lot of money doing one thing, they know how to do everything,” McKibben tells me. “Though Tom knows an awful lot about the world, what he really knows is that it makes sense to listen to a lot of other people—not masters of the universe but people in labor unions, people in poor communities, people on the front lines of climate change.”

Another close friend is Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs. They have spoken frequently over the years about how to use their wealth to make meaningful changes in the world. “You have options,” she says. “You can try to be smarter than other people, bring more passion than other people, or you can just be braver. I feel that Tom is braver. He is willing to have the arrows in his back and continue to walk forward. When he speaks to you, when he’s in front of communities, when he’s sitting with me at the dinner table—he’s exactly the same. He and Kat both are deeply authentic people. The things he says he cares about are what he cares about.”

In 2007, Tom and Kat started a bank in Oakland, California, now called Beneficial, that is dedicated to serving low-income communities and supporting businesses that are committed to social justice and the environment. Kat serves as its CEO. But as this story went to press, Steyer called with some difficult news. He and Kat had decided that after 32 years of marriage, they were going to try living apart. They will, however, remain a family and work together on that dream of justice that consumes them both. “I hope the issues that we’re working on are things we can resolve,” Steyer told me. “We’re working incredibly hard. Kathryn loves me, and I love Kathryn.”

It’s impossible to say what this might mean for his political future. His son Sam insisted that he had no idea what his father was planning. “But I think if my dad ended up running for office or working in the government, it would be fantastic,” Sam said. “I think we need people who are ethically driven. Politics is a rough arena, but I’d be 100 percent behind it. I think it would be awesome.”

NEXTGEN AMERICA OCCUPIES the tenth floor of a stately building in downtown San Francisco. The office is a millennial hive: Air plants hang from the walls, and behind the ironic junk-food station, rows of young campaigners are organizing an aggressive ground game on college campuses, in breweries, and outside concerts as well as a virtual assault on YouTube and Facebook and Twitter. Steyer arrived at 7:00 a.m. and has spent the morning in speech prep with a graduate of The West Wing’s writers’ room. In two days Steyer will be in Iowa at an American Federation of Labor dinner, talking about what he has termed the Five Rights: a living wage, free education, clean air and water, a representative democracy, and a fair and just society. He would like to see these enshrined in the Constitution.

So far, Steyer hasn’t been as successful at picking elections as he was at picking stocks. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost four of the eight states in which Steyer’s group campaigned. By the time you read this article, it will be clear whether NextGen’s enormous efforts this year, in 35 congressional districts, eight gubernatorial contests, and seven Senate races, succeeded at the ballot box—and whether Steyer, feeling he’s on to something, will need to reconsider the shape of his own future.

“We can’t win this year,” he says. “But for me it’s going to be a full-time preoccupation, to the elimination of everything else, until we do win. Politics is brutal. I like to say to people, if you’re the second-best money manager in San Francisco, you’re very rich, people treat you really well, you have a very nice life. If you’re the second-best candidate for mayor, you’re unemployed. But—I can’t even tell you—this is so much more fun than running an investment firm.”

https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/billionaire-democrat-tom-steyer-impeaching-140000668.html

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