Dan Morain
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  • Karl Mondon / Contra Costa Times

    Tom Steyer, wearing his good-luck plaid wool tie, poses in the office of his San Francisco hedge fund.

  • Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Wealth as a lever for social change

Published: Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013 - 6:11 am

Tom Steyer wore the same plaid wool tie that he wore the last time, and the time before that, and the time before that.

"It's superstition," he said, in his office at One Maritime Plaza, which has a billion-dollar view of Coit Tower and San Francisco Bay.

As he often does, he used a pen that morning to draw a simple cross on his wrist, with smaller crosses in each quadrant. He didn't want to talk about it, but has a spiritual side that he keeps private, and says he feels obligated to do his part to preserve the Earth for the next generation.

In a year when the superrich sought to control policy and politics in California and the country, Tom Steyer is a hedge-fund-founding billionaire of a different sort.

Other rich guys hoard their money and sail their yachts. Steyer and his wife, Kathryn Taylor, signed the Warren Buffett-Bill Gates pledge to give half their money to charity.

Steyer is 55, hardly retirement age for someone in his line of work. But he is quitting his Farallon Capital Management, where he co-manages $20 billion in assets. Also unlike other wealthy people who played politics this year, Steyer won, spending $29.58 million to pass Proposition 39, which got more than 60 percent of the vote, a landslide.

Proposition 39 will generate $1 billion a year by closing a corporate tax loophole that benefited companies that sell heavily into the California market but locate most of their employees and property elsewhere.

The $29.58 million price tag might seem excessive, given that the opposition wilted early. But applying business metrics to initiatives, he invested $29.58 million for a $1 billion annual return, including $500 million a year for the next five years earmarked for energy efficiency programs, one of his causes.

I tagged along with this Yale- and Stanford-educated son of a Wall Street lawyer and a teacher for a few hours the other day to get an idea of how he spends his time and money.

First stop, Center for the Next Generation, a nonprofit in downtown San Francisco partly infused with Steyer money. He and an older brother, Jim Steyer, convened a news teleconference to promote their Too Small to Fail campaign to aid children, Jim's particular passion.

People on the call included Mike McCurry, who was President Bill Clinton's press secretary, and Mark McKinnon, the cowboy-hat-wearing former Democrat who helped elect George W. Bush. McKinnon and Jim Margolis, one of the admen behind President Barack Obama's ads, created the ad that opens the campaign. Wealthy people hire good help.

The eye-catching spot, which airs on cable news channels, depicts a child struggling underwater and drowning. Words on the screen read: "Can't watch one child in danger? You do it every day. Stop watching." It drives people to a website, toosmall.com, for more information.

Steyer offered a few comments and left, walking fast 11 blocks to give a luncheon speech to the U.S. Green Building Council. He didn't eat.

The money man talked about the "fiscal cliff." Yes, it's important. But it's like thinking tariffs were the most pressing issue in 1862. No one will remember the fiscal cliff 150 years from now.

"There is no getting away from the underlying fact that climate change is the overwhelming issue of our time," he told the executives. "Unless we slow the warming of the planet, we face grave economic and human costs."

The $2.5 billion that Proposition 39 earmarks over five years for energy efficiency is where the builders will come in. He hopes they will hire out-of-work construction workers to retrofit buildings, particularly public schools, to conserve energy.

Steyer dismisses the notion that government shouldn't subsidize alternative energy and conservation, although he'd do it differently. All energy is subsidized. Sure, coal is a cheap source of power, until you add in the toll it takes on health and climate. Petroleum is relatively inexpensive, until you consider what the United States spends on the Navy to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. Then factor in the cost of extreme weather, like Katrina at $200 billion, and Sandy at $50 billion.

"The sooner we account fully for what is going on in the world, the better off we will be," Steyer said.

From the lunch, he walked fast 15 or so blocks and up the stairs to One Maritime Plaza. His office is a desk and a computer, not much more, in a row of desks in a large open room where Farallon analysts do what they do. At least one guy had a bottle of white wine on his desk.

Steyer said he planned to drink his lunch. That would have been fine by me, until I saw his poison of choice. One container held a green fluid that might have been ground-up spinach or caterpillars. The other was a liquid that was, well, yellow.

"Don't ask," he said.

In the past, Steyer has been mentioned as a possible Cabinet secretary. Maybe he'll run for state office, though Californians don't treat rich candidates well. Perhaps he will come up with other initiative ideas. He isn't saying.

"I would like to be one of the people who helps California pull itself out of the ditch," he said.

Steyer is building relationships that can't hurt no matter what he does. He has befriended folks at Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica, who aggressively crusade against rich people and politicians who cross them, and especially relishes mau-mauing rich politicians.

In 2011, Consumer Watchdog gave Steyer its annual public service award, ostensibly because he funded the campaign to defeat Proposition 23, the 2010 initiative backed by Texas-based oil companies to unwind AB 32, California's law to reduce greenhouse gases.

This year, Steyer helped Consumer Watchdog by giving it $200,000 to help it qualify an initiative to regulate health insurance that will be on the 2014 ballot.

Steyer also is close to labor. At the California Democratic Party's election night bash at the Sheraton in Sacramento, Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation, introduced Steyer as a "new visionary" for California, high praise from a union man who decries Wall Street greed.

"There is a lot of room in a lot of places for him – wherever he wants to go – and I would be likely to support him," Pulaski told me.

No one becomes a billionaire by chance. Steyer certainly plays to win. The No on 39 campaign raised a mere $45,000, largely because Steyer happily followed the knife-fight tactics of his political adviser and friend Chris Lehane.

Steyer paid for ads targeting potential donors – Chrysler, General Motors, International Paper and Kimberly Clark – accusing them of taking advantage of the loophole that 39 sought to close. The ads aired only on the Internet. But opponents stood down, rather than risk damaging their brands and costing market share.

Mitch Zak, a Sacramento consultant whose firm probably would have run the No on 39 effort if there had been one, couldn't argue with the tactic: "In any political campaign, you try to maximize your strength and minimize your opposition. In this instance, he bashed Chrysler, they acted, and the rest is history."

So why is Steyer quitting Farallon, giving away his money, and devoting his time to combating climate change and helping children?

"Why would I draw a cross on my left hand?" he said by phone as he parked his 10-year-old Honda Accord hybrid, then proceeded to his next meeting, one about using social media to combat climate change.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Dan Morain, Senior editor



Dan Morain, editorial page editor

Dan Morain

Dan Morain, editorial page editor, has been a columnist at The Sacramento Bee since 2010. As a news reporter, he covered the California Supreme Court when Rose Bird was chief justice, the Legislature when Willie Brown was speaker and the Governor's Office during Gray Davis' tenure. He spent 27 years at the Los Angeles Times, where his final assignment was to be part of the team that covered the 2008 presidential campaign. He and his wife, Claudia Morain, have three children, each of whom attended public schools and California's public universities.

Email: dmorain@sacbee.com
Phone: 916-321-1907
Twitter: @DanielMorain

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