Bill Whalen

Tom Steyer can clean up California – if he runs for governor

Tom Steyer speaks at a rally calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump in San Francisco on Tuesday.
Tom Steyer speaks at a rally calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump in San Francisco on Tuesday. AP

Here’s hoping you spent last weekend cavorting in a pumpkin patch as opposed to mucking around in state politics. For if you saw what California’s two parties were up to, you might feel the urge to flee the Golden State – and maybe de-flea, too.

Let’s start with the state Republican Party, whose annual fall convention featured populist provocateur Steve Bannon, late of the Trump White House. Sadly, Bannon is what passes for a GOP philosopher-in-residence these days – the very mistaken perception that political hay can be made from nativism, protectionism and a “season of war” to rid the ranks of dissenting Republicans.


As for California Democrats, the fright show was a Sunday morning event in Anaheim hosted by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, ostensibly to see gubernatorial contenders line up to kiss organized labor’s ring – and other body parts.

There’s no winner in such a forum. Candidates invariably overpromise (most notably, single-payer health care). Or they melt down in overheated rhetoric, like this from state Treasurer John Chiang: “Since President Trump assumed office, nearly every single day I think, ‘Not on our watch,’ ” he said. “Not on our watch are we going to allow Wall Street dictate our economic future.…We know that together, we stand for something better. Together, we can go on a road of prosperity that includes all of us.”


Now that single-payer health care is a litmus test for Democrats, it seems like a good moment for a reality check. Vermont started down this road in 2011, but couldn’t make it work. Single payer in Vermont cost an extra $2.5 billion – $200 million more the state’s total annual revenue. California’s predicted costs overruns are even more severe.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, one of Chiang’s rivals, tried to play the sober candidate on the stage (funny how not being a frontrunner provides such political courage). “I support covering everyone,” he told the union crowd. “What I’ll never do is sell you snake oil. We all agree that we need to get there, but we need a plan to get there.”

Villaraigosa is right. Without a solid funding mechanism, California’s experiment with single payer is doomed to join high-speed rail and the Delta water tunnels as one more big idea with plenty of curbside appeal but poor design.

One key figure should have made the trip to Anaheim – Tom Steyer, the billionaire activist flirting with a challenge to Sen. Dianne Feinstein. That is, if it’s the same Steyer who penned this to a political activist: “Perhaps the only way to change the establishment is not from the outside, but by going into the arena and taking them on directly, with independence from corporate interests, a willingness to do whatever it takes without regard for subsequent elections, and allegiance to the people we serve.”

If Steyer truly wants to buck the establishment, a Senate run is a waste of our time and his considerable resources. Even if he wins, Steyer loses in that he’d have to report to Chuck Schumer, the lead Senate Democrat and a Wall Street lickspittle, the favorite senator in either party of lobbyists, bankers and hedge fund managers.

Steyer should redirect his outrage and run for governor instead. And while he’s at it, re-register as an independent. Political reform isn’t feasible in Washington, but it could happen in California if its governor is financially independent, not beholden to special interests and willing to slug it out via ballot measures.

For a guy who wants to save the planet, saving our state isn’t a bad start.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at