Capitol Alert

Out of Senate race, Steyer now player in 2018

California Prop. 39 co-chair Tom Steyer takes photos with students at John Marshall High School in Los Angeles Tuesday in 2014.
California Prop. 39 co-chair Tom Steyer takes photos with students at John Marshall High School in Los Angeles Tuesday in 2014. AP

Democrat Tom Steyer once again is a potential player in the next gubernatorial election.

The billionaire climate change activist spent a couple weeks flirting with a U.S. Senate run. Barbara Boxer’s seat is coming open in 2016. But in the end, an executive position likely proved more enticing to the former hedge fund manager.

“... I believe my work right now should not be in our nation’s capitol, but here at home in California, and in states around the country where we can make a difference,” Steyer wrote in an entry for The Huffington Post.

In the Senate, Steyer would have been a freshman in a body controlled by Republicans. While the Senate could have served as a national platform for his views, few there are as deeply invested in a single cause as he is. And the ones who are often take years to develop sufficient seniority to do anything about it.

On Wednesday, senators took a vote and overwhelmingly agreed that climate change was not a hoax. Still, a smaller majority affirmed that human activity is a contributor. Close associates said Steyer also wants to reform the tax code and expand college availability. But he was only willing to give it one six-year term. That’s an exceedingly tough haul, particularly given the current political climate.

Ultimately, he reasoned that he would be more effective pushing those causes from outside government.

Steyer plans to help elect Hillary Clinton as the country’s first female president. He also may use the next few years to craft statewide ballot measures, and possibly lead an initiative on education.

He’s been largely successful at using voter-approved measures to move the ball forward on his goals. Still, California is a massive state, and it takes years to become known here as a candidate for office. As Gale Kaufman, a Democratic strategist, put it recently, few players even in his own party know him, “beyond the cocktail party level.” His considerable resources would help some; but his wealth also would have been a vulnerability.

Steyer has worked to increase his own presence, speaking to the Democratic National Convention in 2012, and last year to the California Democratic Party. Much of his charitable work remains under the radar.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican, has known Steyer for years. Steyer roomed with Riordan’s son at Phillips Exeter Academy, the prep school in New Hampshire. Riordan, who ran for governor in 2002, offered that if Steyer chooses to run for the office in 2018, he needs to take some time to build a reputation in California “different than who he is now.”

“Nobody has a feel for who Tom is,” said Riordan, adding that Steyer’s qualifications could make him a good fit for governor. “He’s a brilliant guy; he can manage very well. But I think even then he’s got to really build his personality up. He is a really nice guy.”

Riordan recalled what former President Ronald Reagan told him when he first campaigned for mayor. He said it still very much applies: “When you give a speech, people don’t care whether you’re great or not. They want to like you,” Riordan said. “If they like you, you’re successful.”

If Steyer runs, a probable opponent would be Democrat Gavin Newsom, the current lieutenant governor. Newsom released a statement Thursday after Steyer’s announcement.

“Any political race would certainly be elevated by Tom’s perspective and passion but I respect his decision,” Newsom said. Later in an interview with KCBS, he was asked about the attention Steyer is getting about a run in four years – either for governor, or Senate. “Tom is worthy of that buzz,” Newsom said.

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

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