Shortly before praising farm laborers at a United Farm Workers press conference, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer had some choice words for the supposed billionaire who aspires to be president.
“I will oppose him in every way I can,” Steyer said over an iced coffee, across from the Capitol.
Toward that end, Steyer will spend tens of millions on ads, voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives in California and in swing states. As he motors around the state in his Chevy Volt, and jets here and there by commercial airliner – no gold-plated 757 for him – Steyer also will be fueling speculation about his future.
Steyer, 58, retired from the San Francisco hedge fund where he made his billion in 2012 to focus full-time on philanthropy with an environmentalist bent. In his hedge fund days, Steyer said, he did business with people he trusted. That would never include the likes of Donald J. Trump.
Trump, he said, is a cheap chisler and a huckster. He is appalled that Trump borrows money with the intention of defaulting, uses bankruptcy as a business tactic, and has left a trail of lawsuits by, among others, workers who depended on him for their paychecks.
Steyer does have a clue why Trump, unlike every top presidential candidate for the past half-century, refuses to publicly release his tax returns.
“It’d be embarrassing how little he makes,” Steyer said.
An hour later, Steyer was standing alongside United Farm Workers leader Arturo Rodriguez and Bishop Jaime Soto on the north steps of the Capitol. There, he again raised “the alarm about climate change,” his passion, and showed support for the plight of farmworkers, not bad politics. Many liberals have aligned themselves with the union founded by Cesar Chavez. Steyer is the first billionaire.
As the temperature neared 100, he urged lawmakers to approve a bill granting overtime for farmworkers. He also talked about what for him is a token, providing 3,000-plus insulated water jugs for farmworkers. On the sides of the jugs are labels detailing regulations intended to prevent heatstroke, with the UFW’s phone number.
“When Mexican immigrants are being explicitly targeted in a racist way by somebody running for president, I think it’s really especially important this year to recognize how hard they work,” Steyer said afterward.
Steyer has been paying to air ads on television and on the internet attacking Trump over his anti-immigrant rhetoric and Trump’s claim that global warming is a hoax, while urging people to register to vote, in English and in Spanish.
“He opposes every value we hold dear,” Steyer said.
A handful of donors probably spend more on politics than Steyer. However, he stands out because he gives in ways that require public disclosure. No one spent more on federal campaigns in disclosed donations in 2014 than Steyer, $74 million, and he has disclosed spending $17.5 million so far this year, more than any other Democratic donor.
Although he won’t telegraph how much more he intends to spend by November, he does say he will engage in campaigns in seven swing states, from Nevada to New Hampshire, all to block Trump and help Democrats reclaim the U.S. Senate, if not the House.
Steyer believes 2016 will be like 1932 when Roosevelt’s voters became lifelong Democrats, who would vote for yellow dogs so long as they were Democrats. “This is going to be a generational-defining election,” Steyer said.
Hence, he is focusing on registering voters on the 208 college campuses in the swing states. Exactly why he’s spending to register voters in California, already firmly Democratic, gets back to that speculation about 2018.
California voters have not looked kindly on rich business people running for governor, as Al Checchi and Meg Whitman can attest. If he is running, Steyer is going about it differently, building a record that dates back years. In 2008, he gave $100,000 to a California Labor Federation voter registration effort and has spent millions more since then to help labor to register voters.
Improbable though it is, Trump, the self-declared billionaire son of a rich developer, runs against elites by claiming that the middle class is losing out because rich people buy politicians who offshore jobs. True, the rich are getting richer and the middle class is being squeezed. But Steyer argues, with some evidence, that there are jobs in the clean energy economy he envisions and has helped create.
In 2012, he spent $29.5 million to win passage of Proposition 39, to close a loophole that benefited out-of-state corporations. Half the money from the corporate tax hike – as much as $456 million this fiscal year – is earmarked for energy-efficiency projects.
One of the individuals who has gained is Gabriel Navarro. He was an Upland High School graduate working at temporary minimum wage jobs in 2013 when he decided to join the California Conservation Corps. There, he worked on Proposition 39-funded energy-efficiency projects at Inland Empire schools, for 25 cents above minimum wage.
He also caught the eye of people from SmartWatt Energy, a company that was mentoring the crew. Now, he’s making far more working for SmartWatt Energy, which helps businesses, schools and government agencies improve their energy efficiency. SmartWatt is sponsoring Narvarro to go college; he hopes to become a mechanical engineer.
“I wasn’t into anything bad. I just wasn’t doing much,” Navarro told me.
He isn’t sure what he would be doing without the Conservation Corps and Proposition 39. He doesn’t like to think about it. But he knows that for the first time, he will vote this fall. And he’ll probably vote in 2018, too.