Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Tom Steyer spends big to save the earth and for redemption

You might think last week didn’t start out happy for Tom Steyer, the San Francisco billionaire who is spending his money and time trying to save the earth by fighting climate change.

The front page of the Monday New York Times described Steyer in so many words as being a hypocrite for having run a hedge fund that “pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into companies that operate coal mines and coal-fire power plants,” including an especially nasty 4,000-acre Australian coal mine.

It didn’t get much better the next day when a Wall Street Journal columnist piled on with an opening line that read: “Tom Steyer ruined the planet before he offered to save it.”

Investors Business Daily and newspapers in Montana chimed in, too, alleging he essentially is buying off Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other politicians by opening his checkbook wide to help Democrats who, like Steyer, are convinced of the threat of climate change.

I figured he’d be a little grumpy and glum when we spoke on Thursday.

“Ha, ha, ha,” Steyer said by phone. He added: “Ha, ha, ha.”

“Politics is a full-contact sport. If you get involved, expect people to take a shot at you,” he said, quoting sage political advice he received when he decided to quit his hedge fund, Farallon Capital Management, and become engaged in the political system on the side of the environment.

Reid, struggling to hold onto a Democratic majority, is waging a campaign to demonize libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, the oil magnates who fund many conservative campaign efforts.

The Kochs rank No. 6 on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people with fortunes of $41 billion apiece. Steyer is way down at No. 1,141, with $1.6 billion, still oligarch air. He is becoming the liberal conservatives love to hate, now that he is challenging the oil industry and its allies.

The Republican National Committee and House Speaker John Boehner denounce him, trying to shred him for doing what rich Republicans do: spend big to elect the people who will do what they want. It is the American way of politics.

Steyer doesn’t seemed bothered by the assaults. “They’re doing exactly what I would expect,” he said.

Californians became acquainted with Steyer in 2010 when he spent $7 million to defeat Proposition 23. That was the failed oil-and-coal-industry-funded initiative that sought to unravel California’s landmark Assembly Bill 32, which is forcing drastic greenhouse gas reductions.

In 2012, Steyer spent $30 million on his Proposition 39, which raised taxes on out-of-state corporations to pay for energy conservation programs intended to reduce reliance on carbon-based fuel.

“Yes, we did own that stuff,” Steyer said of Farallon’s investments in the stuff that chokes the planet. “Yes, we got a lot of new information. I changed my life. I changed my job.

“That’s the whole point of what we’re trying to say,” he continued. “We’re all involved in this energy economy. We all need to take in new information, and we all need to change.”

To bring about political change, Steyer is employing that old-fashioned red-blooded billionaire technique of spending money. Although a budget of $100 million has been widely reported, Steyer won’t specify how much he intends to spend to elect climate-change allies this year, except to say he has not met a political consultant who knows how to spell the word “budget.”

Steyer so far has infused his political action committee, NextGen Climate, with $16 million. Through NextGen, Steyer and his advisers are taking aim at “science deniers,” hoping to persuade voters that politicians’ doubts about climate change are akin to supporting the tobacco industry, which long denied that smoking could kill you.

NextGen’s 45-page campaign playbook describes the tactic as “Disruption Through Tobacco-ization.”

“NextGen Climate will target candidates who deny basic science and leverage the negative construct of being anti-women, anti-immigrant and anti-science,” the playbook says.

By any standard, Steyer’s plan is ambitious. He is seeking to elect Democrats in four U.S. Senate races and three gubernatorial races. In Florida, he is targeting Gov. Rick Scott, and siding with Democrat Charlie Crist, a former governor and a former Republican.

“Scott is a climate denier,” the NextGen book says, and it quotes Scott, the incumbent Republican: “I’ve not been convinced that there’s any man-made climate change ... nothing’s convinced me that there is.”

“NextGen Climate will disrupt the race by raising Scott’s decision to side with an out-of-state energy company responsible for polluting the Gulf.”

The book goes on, citing “science deniers” and Keystone pipeline supporters in the other states.

In his home state, Steyer pledges to spend in legislative races this year, with the hope of stacking the Legislature with members who might be willing to vote to impose a tax on oil extracted from California in 2015.

He also is considering an initiative for the 2016 ballot that would require a two-thirds vote of local residents before authorities could allow fracking to take place. That would doom the oil-extraction technique in California.

We’ve been here before. Hollywood producer Stephen L. Bing spent almost $50 million to win passage of an oil tax in 2006. Oilies spent $93 million. The measure failed, 45.4 percent to 54.6 percent, not particularly close.

Sabrina Lockhart, spokeswoman for the oil-industry-backed Californians Against Higher Oil Taxes, said in an email that Steyer is “woefully out of touch with how his proposals will actually punish middle-class Californians with higher gasoline and energy costs.”

“Hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer might be able to afford higher gas prices, but the average Californian simply cannot,” Lockhart said.

Steyer is not used to losing. He has guessed right on politics twice in California. He’s also able to laugh off what the mere mortals might see as a rough patch. But by challenging the oil industry, he is poking a mighty big bear.

Each side has its oligarchs, and they will spend huge sums. We little people get the final say, assuming, that is, we’re paying attention.

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