There are two sure signs on this Labor Day weekend that summer is giving way to fall: The days are getting shorter and political advertising is beginning to fill the airwaves.
Perhaps the most curious ad in this campaign season is a television spot featuring Tom Steyer, the Bay Area hedge-fund billionaire turned climate-change evangelist, major underwriter of Democratic candidates and crusades – and, maybe a year from now, a candidate to replace Gov. Jerry Brown.
It’s not so much what Steyer says. He alleges that oil companies are “trying to weaken our clean air laws.” What California Democrat doesn’t think the same?
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Rather, it’s how the billionaire introduces himself to voters. With just three words: “I’m Tom Steyer.”
As if he’s Johnny Cash greeting the inmates at Folsom Prison. As in no need to bother telling Californians who he is or why he’s credible on the topic.
Such vanity is exceptional for California politics, already a playground for the Golden State’s wealthiest. In 2002, Arnold Schwarzenegger co-starred with teachers and law enforcement in ads for Proposition 49, an after-school initiative. Ask a focus group to identify “Arnold” and 9 out of 10 Californians will choose the muscleman, not the pig on “Green Acres.”
And Steyer? Right now as far as name recognition goes, he’s just another Tom, Dick and Harry. That could change in a hurry should Steyer decide to invest a chunk of his fortune in the 2018 governor’s race that’s already filling up with Democratic officials (Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Treasurer John Chiang).
Just how would Steyer justify parachuting to the top of the state’s political pyramid? In addition to his ongoing commitment on climate change, he might cite his support for keeping the state’s ban on single-use plastic bags, the subject of Proposition 67, a referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot. Steyer has a more personal stake in Proposition 56 and its proposed $2-a-pack tax on cigarettes; he says his mother, a cancer victim, smoked three packs a day.
That involvement alone would make Steyer just as qualified as Schwarzenegger or Ronald Reagan or any of the others who tried to claim California’s highest office on their first political try.
But there’s another way to look at a potential Steyer candidacy. It’s not that Californians are begging him to run, but we need him to run.
It’s the nature of the beast. High-stakes California elections require a heavy – a candidate of wealth and privilege whose riches are both an asset and an easy target.
Neel Kashkari, with his Goldman Sachs roots, served that role in the last governor’s race, try though he did to portray himself as an everyman. Carly Fiorina donned the black hat when she took on Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010 – the same year that Meg Whitman’s eBay wealth was used against her as she sought to become California’s first female governor.
Schwarzenegger doesn’t fit this meme – one of his better skills as a politician was divorcing his persona from his rich ’n’ famous lifestyle. However, he’s the exception to the rule. Republican Bill Simon, an investment banker, couldn’t escape the modifier “wealthy businessman” when he challenged Gov. Gray Davis in 2002. In 1998, we had the spectacle of Al Checci (aka “Al Checkbook”), the financier and airline honcho who blew $40 million in a Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Maybe Steyer, by assuming no formal introduction to voters is necessary, isn’t so much arrogant as he is astute. The longer you don’t know he’s wealthy, the more you might like him. Unless you happen to be competing against those hedge-fund profits.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.