- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2016

PHILADELPHIA — Talk about embarrassing: At a posh reception thrown by Democratic billionaire Tom Steyer, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland decided to take a shot at runaway campaign spending.

“Money cannot buy this democracy!” thundered Mr. Strickland, who is challenging Republican Sen. Rob Portman in November.

On the other hand, dropping a cool $74 million in a single election season on behalf of Democrats does have its perks, as Mr. Steyer can attest.

The San Francisco billionaire, a former hedge fund manager turned climate activist, is the toast of the Democratic National Convention, the biggest dog at the Wells Fargo Center not named Clinton, Obama or Sanders.

Mr. Steyer was the single largest individual donor, Democrat or Republican, in the 2014 midterm elections, and he is well on his way to repeating the feat this year. He already has sunk $31.5 million into this year’s campaign, the most of any contributor, including longtime liberal donor George Soros, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets.

Mr. Steyer, 59, is often described as the left’s answer to the Koch brothers, but unlike Charles and David Koch, Mr. Steyer isn’t keeping a low profile. The Kochs were no-shows at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, but Mr. Steyer has bestrode the DNC like a colossus.

His “Winning on Climate Together” reception was packed with A-list operatives and officials, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

In his brief remarks, Mr. Steyer accused the Kochs of spending $34 million to counter his impact. His interviews and appearances are aimed at raising the profile of his top issue: climate change.

“It is true that I am somebody who’s been very worried about climate change and environmental justice,” Mr. Steyer said in an interview Monday on Bloomberg TV.

His influence also extends behind the scenes. Several commentators have pointed out that this year’s Democratic Party platform takes positions on climate change that bear an uncanny resemblance to the goals of NextGen Climate, the group Mr. Steyer founded in 2013.

For example, the platform calls for making the nation’s power grid 50 percent carbon-free by the next decade and 100 percent carbon-free by midcentury. NextGen’s goal is nearly identical: 50 percent carbon-free by 2030 and 100 percent carbon-free by 2050.

In a report issued Tuesday, the Energy & Environment Legal Institute described the similarities as “policy plagiarism” and accused Mr. Steyer of “buying the Democratic Party platform” in order to boost his investments in solar energy.

A NextGen spokesman dismissed the report: “This dirty fossil fuel front group dusts off the same false and preposterous press release every year, and it is typically only covered by partisan right-wing websites.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Steyer has praised the party’s declared policy as the “most progressive environmental platform in the history of the Democratic platform or in the history of American politics.”

“If you look at 2016 and the platform that we’ve agreed on, it is a quantum leap forward from four years ago,” Mr. Steyer said.

What’s more, he said, the theme of tackling climate change runs through the entire document.

“So it really isn’t a question of any one single silver bullet. It’s an attitude where we basically put it into every discussion we have, so when we’re talking about jobs, we’re also talking about clean energy, we’re also talking about fighting climate change,” Mr. Steyer said. “It really is an idea that all parts of this progressive agenda fit together and are addressed together.”

The platform fight is also evidence of Mr. Steyer’s evolution from maverick to insider. In 2014, he panicked Democrats by threatening to target incumbents, such as Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, who were not on board with his climate agenda.

He ultimately switched his focus to defeating Republicans, with mixed results. Three of the seven Republican Senate candidates he targeted in 2014 lost their races.

This year, Mr. Steyer has moved closer to the party establishment by investing directly in Democratic candidates. Still, his candidates must meet certain criteria such as opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, according to Politico.

He kept the Democratic establishment on pins and needles by waiting until June to endorse Hillary Clinton.

“Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine are committed to addressing the climate crisis and turning America into the clean energy superpower of the 21st century, while Donald Trump and the GOP would cause permanent, irreversible damage to our climate and destroy the EPA,” he said in a statement last week. “We cannot let that happen.”

Mr. Steyer has shown signs of moving beyond climate change in order to benefit Democrats. He has invested in voter registration efforts in California, which include an appearance in a television ad in May called “Wall,” which criticizes Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s plans to reinforce the southern border.

“That’s not America. We’re all Californians. I’m Tom Steyer. It’s time to speak out,” says Mr. Steyer, flanked by a dozen or so millennials.

In May, he launched with labor unions the For Our Future PAC with the goal of raising $50 million in battleground states in order to “mobilize working families.”

Despite his status as the nation’s No. 1 political spender, Mr. Steyer also has taken aim at the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which sanctioned corporate and labor union spending on campaigns, saying Monday that he wanted it overturned.

The Energy & Environment Legal Institute report accused him of being a “crony capitalist” intent on using the political system to enhance his own wealth, but Mr. Steyer said this week that he wants to level the playing field between the parties.

He insisted that Republicans spend more than Democrats on campaigns, although recent elections show the parties nearly even. In 2012, for example, President Obama and his backers spent $1.14 billion on the presidential race versus $1.25 billion for Republican Mitt Romney, according to Open Secrets.

“When you look at it, it’s David versus Goliath. The other side has much more money,” Mr. Steyer said. “We are looking at a system that exists. We are really trying to work for old-fashioned values. We don’t profit from it, and we try to make it as transparent as possible.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide