He’s a late entry and is polling lower than Delaney in Iowa and New Hampshire. Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to ignore Steyer; he’s going to make a difference in at least two early races unless something big changes, and all else aside he’s likely to split that all-important Billionaire Bloc of voters. So who is he? Why do we care that yet another rich old white guy is running?
The first thing to know is, Steyer is not just some rich old white guy. He’s a man who made his own billion as a hedge fund manager, which normally would rank him in my book as one of the evillest of the evil, at best a successful version of Donald Trump. However, the investment model underlying his company, Farallon Capital, was during his tenure precisely opposite that of more predatory hedge groups. They engaged in an extremely broad portfolio of non-traditional acquisitions, including such things as factories on the verge of collapse due to poor economic conditions. His group would move in, purchase, inspect management, and then underwrite production until the local problems passed, which resulted both in keeping the factory open (and people employed) and a hefty profit for the investors.
Now he’s retired, Tom Steyer views his life goal to be to use his vast fortune to change the world. He began by promoting environmentalist ventures, but these days he’s more concerned with the impact of legislation and executive action. In 2015 he founded NextGen Climate, an advocacy group; he’s also long been associated with the Hamilton Project and the Democracy Alliance.
I think of him as a sort of benevolent non-Machiavellian version of George Soros with excellent taste in neckwear.
During his time at the helm of Farallon, his organization at times held large positions in coal mining, private prisons, and carbon-intensive manufacturing. There was public outcry among student organizations at Yale, which had entrusted some of its endowment funds to Steyer’s group; much of it was overblown or completely in error, but some of their accusations appear to have been true. Steyer doesn’t deny it; he doesn’t like to dwell on what he calls his past mistakes, but, as he said in a 2005 article in Institutional Investor, “…We try really hard, when we discover we’ve made a mistake, to correct it and not cover it up.”
So much for the past — but what does the genius investor intend to do now? The first step, according to him, is to rid the country of Donald Trump; he’s given an estimated $70 million to fund pro-impeachment advertising and lobbying groups. And now he’s “…running to end the corruption of our democracy by corporations and give more power to the American people.”
His candidacy is narrow and has limited interests; he focuses mainly on a very few areas and has targeted South Carolina and Nevada for his big early push. He’s not avoiding Iowa or New Hampshire; rather, he’s accepted that both states will likely spread the votes among other candidates, and in a move reminiscent of his investment strategies, he’s moved on to other, more profitable venues.
In the Not Fake News 2020 Scorecard, we’ve dismissed Steyer as a “hockey puck”, only there to get beat on, knocked around until he scores someone else a goal. And that’s very likely to be true. However, if Steyer can make it to what promises to be an extremely divided convention with even a handful of delegates, he’ll have invaluable leverage in choosing the final candidate. What’s probably more to the point, he may even have enough temporary clout to garner an appointment as Secretary of the Treasury, a post for which he was considered under Obama and for which he’s richly qualified — or even Interior.
It would be unnecessarily insulting to say that Steyer is perfect for the role of Vice President in most races, but today it must be acknowledged, however painfully, that Uncle Joe is 76 and Bernie’s 77. Even Warren is in her seventies. And, while most losing candidates in a presidential primary tend to foolishly rate themselves above second place — and to the detriment of our country — Steyer is probably humble enough to accept it if offered.
My only personal doubts about Steyer — and I hope to settle them — concern his commitment to his political positions. While a hedge fund director, he famously did his own research, hiring specialists to be experts in extremely narrow fields. As a candidate, however, his public positions are precisely those of The Party; he avoids heretical views like the plague they would undoubtedly be in a hotly contested primary. However, outside the area of pragmatic environmentalism, his positions on the issues are largely untested. It is to be hoped that, during the next few weeks, this candidate will go on the record with some detailed statements on the issues.