LOS ANGELES -- Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer stood on the steps outside City Hall here recently, surrounded by hundreds of people protesting for a $15-per-hour minimum wage.
Wearing a gray T-shirt with the "Fight for $15" slogan -- pulled over his customary business shirt and red plaid tie -- Steyer held a megaphone and chanted with the crowd, "I believe we can win. I believe we can win."
A San Francisco-area resident, Steyer, 58, became known in the political world for spending part of his fortune to seek action on climate change. He's now branching out with his political involvement.
Steyer joined the downtown rally after meeting with a commission he's launched to look at income inequality. Sitting on a panel with experts on jobs and incomes, he predicted victory in the wage battle.
"Today is this huge day," Steyer said during the panel discussion. The $15 minimum wage rally is "absolutely emblematic of what we're trying to do, and what we stand for, and the importance of what we're thinking about, and talking about."
GOP presidential candidates want to cut taxes with plans that benefit higher incomes, Steyer said. Their proposals would remove as much as $15 trillion annually in federal revenue, he said, with Republicans arguing the action would spur growth.
"I am predicting that over the next 12 months we will completely obliterate these people intellectually and morally," Steyer said, to cheers from others in the room. "So today's the day where we get to see both sides of this coin, and I believe our side of the coin is the honest one."
Worth an estimated $1.6 billion, Steyer made his fortune as a hedge fund manager, earning money partly from investments in coal. Then in 2012, he retired from Farallon Capital Management, the firm he co-founded, and began lobbying for action on climate change. He campaigned against approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, making it his signature issue. His political action committee NextGen Climate spent $74 million in last year's election, supporting candidates who shared his environmental position. Many of those people lost their election bids.
Steyer this summer broadened his activities in the Golden State.
In August, Steyer rolled out the Fair Shake Commission, a group examining the causes of income inequality. It's convening meetings throughout the state, including one at the Service Employees International Union offices in L.A. the morning of the minimum wage rally.
Separately, he's co-chairing Save Lives California, a committee seeking to raise the state's cigarette tax by $2 a pack, which he said will save lives by dissuading teenagers from starting smoking. It also would generate $1 billion to $2 billion annually in state revenue. The increased tax could be done through a ballot measure.
Steyer two weeks ago gave $1 million to the cigarette tax effort.
Setting table to run for office?
The moves have renewed long-running speculation that he's interested in a political career, including the California governor's seat when it opens up in 2018.
Within the Democratic community, people are talking about Steyer as one of the three most likely candidates for the 2018 gubernatorial race, said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic strategist in California. Other likely contenders for that slot are Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D).
Steyer's name is "always mentioned in the same breath as Newsom and Villaraigosa now," Maviglio said.
Karen Hanretty, communications director at oil-industry-funded Californians for Energy Independence (CEI), said it appears Steyer is building allies in the labor and in health communities. Both are powerful forces in Democratic elections.
"We've all watched people run for governor in California, and he's checking all of the boxes," said Hanretty, a former GOP strategist. "These are the bread-and-butter issues that someone running for governor has to nail down before announcing."
Steyer needs to expand his activities if he's eyeing elected office down the road, said Darry Sragow, an attorney and longtime Democratic strategist in California familiar with the billionaire.
"If you're going to run for a major statewide office, you better express interest in a wide variety of issues," Sragow said. "Climate change and that set of related environmental and energy issuers isn't going to cut it. ... Voters don't think in those buckets. Voters think holistically."
Sragow added, "Clearly, Tom Steyer is starting to articulate a story about who he is and what he stands for that would make it easier for him to run."
Focused on 2016 first
Steyer in an interview talked about his recent activism and what he hopes to accomplish by diving into the wage issue. He also discussed factors influencing his long-term plans.
He said he wants to broaden the support groups working on climate and on wages because "the progressive coalition, the progressive voice is really one big issue about fairness in society, including climate."
"We'll either win the whole thing or we'll win nothing," he added. "If the whole coalition is in it, we win. If the whole coalition isn't in it, we lose, period."
Asked whether he's expanding his areas of interest because he has future personal political ambitions, Steyer responded that "I have political ambitions right now."
"We're trying to push ideas and rights and policies," Steyer said. "I quit my job to do this because I had an ambition to have an impact in a good way. That hasn't changed one bit.
"I'm extremely ambitious for our state," he added. "I am extremely ambitious for our country. I am determined that we do the right thing, and I'm extremely ambitious about that."
Pressed on whether he's considering running for California governor, Steyer said that "the truth of the matter is, I have no idea. I am completely focused on what I just said to you through 2016."
He said he can't make a decision on what comes next until he sees how the next general election turns out.
"I'm going to feel pretty darn differently depending on who's president," Steyer said. He added, "How would you feel about a President Trump? Would it change your trajectory? It would change mine."
He wouldn't say how his plans would be altered by the election of Republican Donald Trump as president. Steyer said he doesn't deal in hypotheticals.
"The facts are going to be the facts," he said. "You have to let them be the facts and then figure out what to do."
Earlier this year, Steyer hosted a fundraiser for Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton at his San Francisco home (E&E Daily, May 1).
Hanretty with CEI said it's clear Steyer is leaving his options open.
"If he's not thinking about tomorrow, he would just come out and say, 'I'm not running for governor.' But he's not saying that," she said. "They all say, 'We'll have to wait and see,' right up to the moment when they file their papers."
Money given to Democrats
Steyer's recently hired people with deep reach in the state's political arena. His new head of California communications is Gil Duran, past spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and Villaraigosa, the former L.A. mayor. Duran also earlier worked as adviser to California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D), who's now running for U.S. Senate -- a race that Steyer passed on.
Steyer's also spending money to influence state politics. His NextGen Climate Action PAC doled out $1.9 million for lobbying the California government the first nine months of this year, a more than 16-fold increase from the 2013-14 period.
His lobbyists sought to influence measures that included S.B. 350, a bill mandating that by 2030 utilities make half their electricity come from renewable sources. The measure also requires a doubling of the energy efficiency in buildings by that year. It was signed into law in October.
Steyer additionally gave money directly to Democratic campaigns and causes, donations totaling more than $1.5 million in the past two years.
Steyer in mid-2014 also donated $1 million to Californians for Voter Turnout, Education & Registration, a political action committee that aims "to increase Democratic voter turnout and help elect Democrats to public office," according to its Facebook page. He gave $300,000 to the California Vote Project. It's supported by Democratic-leaning groups including labor and teachers' unions.
Steyer gave $285,000 to the California Democratic Party and its governing group, $27,200 to Gov. Brown's re-election campaign, and $50,000 to help pass Propositions 1 and 2. Those were top Brown priorities in last year's election. The first of those approved the sale of $7.5 billion in bonds to fund water projects, and the second changed how the state's financial reserves work.
Steyer said he supports Brown because he's a stalwart in the fight to limit climate change.
"I think that he is unbelievably determined. He's really a visionary," Steyer said. "He's spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to figure out how to make things happen here, and he cares a great deal. I don't think there's any question about that."
Steyer and Brown linked their efforts in the lead-up to the U.N. convention on climate change in Paris, which kicks off this week. The billionaire and Brown's office jointly sent out a letter, on the governor's letterhead, inviting business leaders and others to attend the conference. It said that "government and business can come together to confront the singular challenge of our time -- combating climate change."
Brown spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said the tie with Steyer wasn't an unusual move because "the administration often works with [nongovernmental organizations] on such international missions."
Steyer is among a group of billionaires who's joined with Bill Gates to fund a clean energy research and development effort, to be announced in Paris today (Greenwire, Nov. 27). Steyer will be in Paris this week.
Fight over bill's petroleum cuts
Asked his goals in donating to the California Democratic Party, Steyer pointed to S.B. 350.
The original version of the bill also required the state to cut its petroleum use in half by 2030, part of a platform Brown put forward after he took the oath for his fourth term (he also was governor from 1975-83). Faced with fierce opposition from the oil industry and moderate Democrats, Brown and state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D) pulled that provision from the bill to get it passed.
"If you looked at what didn't happen in 2015, you don't have to look any further than S.B. 350 to see that we are once again leading the country, but we did not finish the task," Steyer said. "There was a record amount of money spent against it. I think the amount acknowledged was a fraction of what was spent, in terms of indirectly affecting votes."
Hanretty with oil group CEI said Steyer pulled back from the spotlight role he had when S.B. 350 was first introduced. The billionaire appeared with de León when the measure was announced, then testified at a Senate hearing on the measure. But when moderate Democrats -- particularly those in the state's Central Valley -- began to turn against the petroleum part of the bill, Steyer didn't spend money directly to try to keep the original version of S.B. 350 intact, Hanretty said.
"Everyone expected that he would be running ads," she said. "The oil industry, they had ads, they were engaging in a public affairs campaign. Everyone expected that Tom Steyer would do the same, that he would do what it takes to pressure moderate Democrats."
Democratic strategist Maviglio, however, said Steyer funded mailed advertisements and ads on social media supporting the original S.B. 350. He also paid for people to work in select state Assembly districts, knocking on doors and urging residents to call their representatives and ask them to support the bill. Steyer's group spent about $1.7 million on the work.
"Could he match the oil industry? No," Maviglio said. But "for an environmental campaign, it was one of the best I've ever seen."
A Steyer aide who asked that he not be identified so he could speak openly said that there were some television ads, on the Spanish-language network Univision, but that "the focus was on social media, direct mail ads and community engagement," because "this was a legislative bill with strong public support, not an election."
Steyer this summer said legislation or a ballot measure is needed to force more disclosure on how oil companies set gas prices in California. He joined Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, in calling for the information. Steyer hasn't confirmed whether he'll pursue a ballot measure that would add a severance tax on each barrel of petroleum pulled from California ground. He floated that idea in 2013.
Steyer in an interview said Chevron Corp. should be "ashamed" of overcharging Californians for gasoline and "the fact that they're spending record amounts of money to protect those fat margins."
No decision yet on severance tax
Hanretty questioned why Steyer hasn't made a decision on the severance tax. To get a measure on the ballot in November, signatures would need to be collected and verified by spring 2016.
"What's he going to do about it other than wag the finger and say shame on you?" Hanretty said. "Jamie Court, he doesn't need another finger wagger. He needs somebody with money, and Tom Steyer was supposed to be that person."
Steyer, asked about the oil severance tax ballot measure, said he's talking with people about "different revenue alternatives" that could be put on the ballot.
Maviglio said Steyer's probably leaning toward the cigarette tax instead of the oil severance tax because it's politically popular and can raise a lot of state revenue.
"This is a guy who is an investor. He does a lot of research and sees what has the best chance of passing," Maviglio said. "He likes to see what the path to victory is and if it's feasible. He's very smart where he puts his money."
Maviglio worked as communications director for the "No on Proposition 23" campaign, which Steyer co-chaired in 2010. The measure, which was defeated, would have tabled the state's climate law. It had been bankrolled largely by two oil companies.
California is the only state where Steyer is working on the wage issue. In other states, he said, they are looking at how voters respond to the message of climate within a "justice frame." His Fair Shake Commission is only in the Golden State.
"I live in California. I love California," Steyer said. "We are a blue state. We are a state whose voice really matters. We're a strong voice for progressivism in the country and the world.
"We are a state which has traditionally been a leader in terms of thinking. It's really important that we do a good job and come to the right conclusions."
Steyer noted that he and his wife, Kat Taylor, in 2007 opened Beneficial State Bank in Oakland. It lends money with a focus on "transformative sectors," including affordable housing, sustainable food, clean technology, and women- and minority-owned businesses. Through that, they already were working on equity issues earlier in a non-political way, he said.
Steyer said he's always seen the pay and jobs issue as a part of the climate cause. In 2010, the No on Prop 23 campaign in part argued that clean energy was spawning job creation.
"Any time you're talking about climate and energy, you're also talking about economic justice," he said. "We've really felt that the two are inextricably linked; we've really felt that the whole way of talking about it is linked."
2016 election plans
Steyer hasn't officially weighed in on the Democratic presidential primary. He said he's focused on "progressive climate policies and justice. That's our issue."
When he hosted the fundraiser for Clinton at his San Francisco home in May, she had not yet opposed Keystone XL. Steyer said he expected her to come out against it, and she did in September (Greenwire, Sept. 23).
Steyer's NextGen Climate Action has people in key primary states asking candidates to release plans showing how they'd get to 50 percent renewable power by 2030. The PAC is funding a six-figure ad campaign urging voters to tell candidates they want to see those blueprints. In 2015 and 2016, "this is an issue that every candidate and elected official should address seriously," a Steyer spokesman said.
"We're already on the ground in Florida, Ohio, Iowa and New Hampshire organizing voters -- particularly young Americans -- to call on all candidates to lay out a plan to achieve this goal," the spokesman said in an email. "We're using a combination of paid media and the latest digital tools (like Snapchat and pre-roll ads) to contact voters -- especially young Americans -- as well as old-fashioned, door-to-door direct politics. We're committed to using every tool to reach the voters who will play a key role in 2016."
Steyer has not given a specific dollar amount on what he'll spend in 2016 but has said he'll spend "whatever it takes," a Steyer aide said. Before the 2014 ballot, he had announced he would spend $100 million to influence races. He wound up spending $74 million.
Steyer's involvement in the 2014 cycle hurt the Democratic candidates he backed, said Scott Segal, lobbyist with the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, which represents oil and gas companies.
"Tom Steyer was taught some important lessons in the last political cycle, that maybe his heavy-handed approach to supporting legislative and political outcomes wasn't always appreciated," Segal said. "I can't tell if he's less active because he's busy with other things, or not active because he's not wanted."
He added, "I think at best it's a mixed blessing to have Tom Steyer involved in your issue or campaign."
In the 2014 cycle, three of the seven Democratic candidates Steyer supported in competitive Senate and gubernatorial elections won.
For Democratic candidates, Segal said, there's a conflict in that many of them decry the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, which allowed unlimited campaign contributions to political action committees. Democrats have condemned the Koch brothers bankrolling political races, he said.
"It's hard to maintain the consistency of that message" if Steyer is spending money on their behalf, Segal said.
Some familiar with Washington, D.C., politics said Steyer seems less visible nationally compared with last year. The billionaire didn't run any ads seeking to influence the Senate before it voted to approve resolutions that would block President Obama's U.S. EPA rules on power plant emissions.
Steyer's aide said the earlier work on Keystone XL and the debate over the Clean Power Plan "are two very different situations. KXL, which once seemed like a foregone conclusion, necessitated a strong campaign to stop it. On the other hand, Obama was pretty clear about his plan to veto Republican attempts to block the EPA rules."
He added that "Tom has traveled to Washington several times this year," so claims that he's stepped back from national involvement are inaccurate.
Because Steyer could fund his own campaign for any office, he can wait to make a decision on whether to run, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. That's different from other candidates, like Newsom, who has already announced his plans to run for governor in 2018.
But California in past elections "has not always been kind to billionaire candidates," Sonenshein said. Brown in 2010 defeated Republican Meg Whitman, past CEO of eBay. She spent $144 million of her own money in the race, California records show.
Working on wages and health issues could help Steyer appear more well-rounded to voters, Sonenshein said.
Maviglio, the Democratic strategist, said Steyer in the end might stick with the activist approach he's employed so far and not run for office.
"He's showing all the signs he's thinking of running, but he might think he's more effective funding causes from the outside," Maviglio said.
If he doesn't run for office, working on other issues helps Steyer move away from a funding model that been problematic for Democratic causes, Sonenshein said. Big-money donors on the left tend to be driven by single issues. The billionaire conservative Koch brothers, meanwhile, have a sophisticated group looking to get like-minded people elected in state legislatures and judicial seats, he said.
"They've got a pretty reasonable plan to advance their agenda broadly in a lot of ways," Sonenshein said of the Kochs.
"It is unusual these days for Democratic-leaning money to try to become more than single issue," Sonenshein added, "but it's overdue if they're going to keep up."