Billionaire green activist Tom Steyer scoffs at the notion that he is a liberal version of the Koch brothers, even though he plays a similar big-money role in politics.
Steyer is right in one key way, though, when he insists he is different from moneymen like Charles and David Koch, Michael Bloomberg, and Sheldon Adelson.
Unlike those older and more entrenched businessmen, the 56-year-old California financier is virtually assured of becoming a Washington power player if Democrats hold onto the White House in 2016.
Given the presidential penchant for rewarding big donors and fundraisers with choice appointments in Washington, it seems certain Steyer would be on the short list for a high-level job if another Democrat is elected president.
Steyer, who announced last month that he would funnel at least $100 million into this year’s campaigns to support climate-friendly candidates and oppose climate-change deniers, was mentioned prominently last year as a potential replacement for former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, but ultimately President Obama selected physicist Ernest Moniz for the job.
Asked by the San Francisco Business Times in January 2013 if he would say yes to the Energy secretary job, Steyer replied: “I would do anything that would push California and our country to do the right thing on energy. I would walk barefoot over broken glass to do that.”
Steyer, who made his fortune on Wall Street at two big investment firms and later through a hedge fund he left in 2012, also has been mentioned as a possible Treasury secretary, at least in some media speculation.
He is also well connected to the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton, having worked closely with top Democratic strategists John Podesta and Chris Lehane.
Podesta, a White House chief of staff under President Clinton who is now an adviser to Obama, convinced Steyer on a hiking trip to start the NextGen Climate Action Committee, now the primary vehicle he is using to fund political campaigns. Lehane, who was also a key operative in the Clinton White House, is now a close adviser to Steyer.
For now, Steyer is winning lavish praise from environmentalists for countering the flood of conservative money in politics from the likes of the Kochs and Adelson.
“In this country, we’ve all grown very used to watching rich people manipulate the political system for their private interest,” said Bill McKibben, a preeminent environmental activist and the author of a dozen books, in a phone interview this week. “It’s a refreshing and odd pleasure to watch someone use their private wealth to influence the political system for the public interest.”
“That seems sort of strange to most of us, but that’s clearly what he’s doing,” McKibben added. “His only agenda is to try to ward off the biggest problem the planet has ever faced, and one which our political system has not been successfully responsive to.”
Steyer, who quit San Francisco-based Farallon Capital Management in 2012 to focus on political advocacy, has rejected the idea that he is the Left’s equivalent of the Koch brothers, owners of one of the nation’s biggest energy conglomerates.
“We really strongly believe that we are answering a challenge for our generation of Americans and for all Americans,” Steyer said on NPR’s Morning Edition. “I want to draw some very, very big distinctions between me and the Koch brothers. The Koch brothers are pushing ideas that directly benefit them. They’re pushing things where it is going to result in their pocketbooks being a lot fatter.”
Steyer, who declined a request for an interview, has been the subject of countless profiles since his eye-popping pledge in mid-February to pour vast sums into coming campaigns, mostly from his own finances. In 2010, he joined dozens of other billionaires in signing the Giving Pledge, a promise to dedicate most of his wealth to philanthropy, but few liberal donors have made such a major commitment to the political process.
Steyer has contributed money to scores of climate-conscious politicians in the past, making a significant impact on last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race and a 2013 special election to replace former Sen. John Kerry. The beneficiaries of his largesse are mostly Democrats, although Steyer has donated modest sums to the reelection efforts of Sen. John McCain.
Environmentalists who have worked with Steyer describe him as a quasi-messianic figure with the wherewithal to reinvigorate the debate over climate change.
“He has been a guiding light on making sure that California’s leadership on climate change remains intact,” said Derek Walker, associate vice president for U.S. climate and energy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Americans, by and large, are appalled by how dirty-energy interests are pouring money into politics. This is an urgent effort, and Tom is showing true and bold leadership.”
At the same time, some conservationists warn that political advocacy has its limits.
“Work in the sphere of federal elections is definitely an important part of the puzzle, but it’s just one piece,” said Greenpeace’s Gabe Wisniewski. “Climate change isn’t a simple issue with a simple solution. I don’t think the Congress is going to “¦ save the climate on its own. A lot of the solutions are coming from communities that are facing the impacts of climate change and fossil fuels. They’re coming from private industry, from companies like Apple and Google.”