Capitol Alert

Steyer won’t run for U.S. Senate; attention turns to Villaraigosa

Tom Steyer, shown in October at John Marshall High School in Los Angeles, was co-chairman and a major funder of California’s Proposition 39, approved by voters in 2012. Marshall High was approved for $1.8 million in Prop. 39-related energy projects.
Tom Steyer, shown in October at John Marshall High School in Los Angeles, was co-chairman and a major funder of California’s Proposition 39, approved by voters in 2012. Marshall High was approved for $1.8 million in Prop. 39-related energy projects. The Associated Press

Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer said Thursday he will not be a candidate to succeed U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and instead will continue his focus on helping fellow Democrats and working to reverse the effects of global climate change.

“Given the imperative of electing a Democratic president – along with my passion for our state, I believe my work right now should not be in our nation’s capital but here – at home in California, and in states around the country where change is on the move,” Steyer, a 57-year-old Democrat from San Francisco, wrote in an entry on The Huffington Post.

Steyer came to his decision after watching President Barack Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown give recent speeches in which they made protecting the environment a top priority. Steyer’s exit from the field raises the possibility of a gubernatorial campaign in 2018, while more immediately shifting attention to other potential Boxer successors, such as former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has indicated he is looking closely at the Senate seat.

“Tom Steyer has shown himself to be a real champion for change in his passionate campaign for a cleaner and healthier world,” Villaraigosa said Thursday. “I am proud to be an ally in that fight and wish him all the best.”

A former hedge fund manager with an estimated worth of $1.6 billion, Steyer’s national profile has grown in recent years amid his sustained campaign against the Keystone XL oil pipeline and his emergence as a deep-pocketed ideological opposite to the billionaire conservative industrialists Charles and David Koch.

A Senate candidacy would have presented Steyer with another way to highlight what he considers the defining issue of his time: climate change. His NextGen Climate organization and its related super PAC have won him influence in the national debate. His email list of registered California voters exceeds 1 million. He had planned to use his time in the Senate to focus on reducing carbon emissions, reforming the tax code and expanding higher education.

But Steyer also would have faced mounting critiques about his investments and political contributions.

Staying out of the Senate race was a difficult decision, Steyer said in Thursday’s post, in which he did not endorse Attorney General Kamala Harris, the only announced Democratic candidate so far to succeed Boxer.

“The U.S. Senate offers a unique opportunity to serve, but I also know that we will have excellent candidates,” Steyer wrote. “I applaud and respect those running, and am confident that Californians will choose a representative who will serve them well.”

The Senate race is likely to become expensive, crowded and highly competitive. Harris last week became the first to declare her candidacy. Villaraigosa, Treasurer John Chiang, Xavier Becerra, Loretta Sanchez, Adam Schiff and other members of Congress are considering bids. Republicans, despite early interest, have not yet fielded a candidate.

If he had run, Steyer’s opponents would have stepped up efforts to portray him as out of touch and a dilettante. He spent roughly $74 million in the 2014 midterm elections and was the largest public donor, although his preferred candidates lost crucial Senate races in Colorado and Iowa, along with gubernatorial contests in Florida and Maine. Democrats supported by Steyer’s spending notched wins in Michigan and New Hampshire.

Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant and former aide to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said he had planned to launch an effort opposing Steyer “almost immediately.” Steyer’s efforts to create a political movement around his own agenda alienates Republicans and Democrats alike, Stutzman said.

“He started to receive a lot of scrutiny last year, and I think that will pale in comparison to what he would have to endure as a candidate,” he said.

Steyer had spent the past few weeks polling and talking with supporters and prospective donors about a Senate run. He also was piecing together a team of veteran operatives with experience working for President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.

Steyer planned to raise money, but he also could easily have financed his own campaign, potentially an advantage in a large and diverse state where it can be prohibitively expensive to run TV ads. California voters, though, have been unkind to wealthy, first-time candidates for statewide office in recent years.

Republican Meg Whitman, the former chief executive of eBay, contributed $140 million to her 2010 gubernatorial campaign and lost to Brown. The same year, Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, spent $5 million of her own money and was beaten by Boxer.

Michael Huffington, Al Checchi and Bill Simon all were stymied in their statewide campaigns in 1994, 1998 and 2002, respectively.

“The history of California politics is littered with the carcases of wealthy candidates on both sides of the aisle,” said Ruben Barrales, a former aide in the George W. Bush White House. “I don’t know, even with all his money, how viable (Steyer) is as a candidate.”

Democratic consultant Rose Kapolczynski, who worked on Boxer’s campaigns, said wealthy candidates often are viewed too simplistically. Research she’s reviewed suggests voters harbor no ill will toward wealthy candidates and “actually admire successful people.”

“California voters don’t punish wealthy candidates,” Kapolczynski said. “The question is, what did you do with that success? Are you in touch with the voters? Do you understand their concerns?”

Well-heeled candidates pay a price, she said, “when your wealth becomes a symbol of being out of touch because of other things you’ve done.”

Before becoming a player in state politics, Steyer joined with leading Democrats in opposing a GOP-led initiative proposal in 2007 that sought to change the way electoral votes are awarded in presidential races. The measure did not qualify. In 2008, he contributed $25,000 to support Proposition 2, which banned confinement of farm animals such as chickens.

In 2010, Steyer pumped $5 million into the campaign to defeat Proposition 23, a measure sponsored by Texas oil interests to roll back California’s 2006 law on greenhouse gas emissions. He also gave $1 million to the unsuccessful campaign to quash Proposition 26, which requires a two-thirds legislative vote to pass many new fees and taxes.

The 2012 election marked Steyer’s political breakout. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama’s re-election effort and spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

Closer to home, Steyer contributed more than $30 million to pass Proposition 39, a state ballot measure that changed the state’s corporate income tax structure, adding $1 billion to government coffers for clean energy projects at schools and other public buildings. He also spent big to beat back Proposition 32, a measure designed to curtail the political spending power of labor unions.

Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.

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