- Tom Steyer is a liberal donor and billionaire investor who joined the 2020 presidential race as a Democratic candidate in July. He spoke with Business Insider about his campaign.
- Steyer responded to criticism of his pledge to spend $100 million on his campaign, saying that he has teams in place continuing his progressive activism, and that it’s not a zero-sum game.
- He said he supports a wealth tax on the ultra rich and a rethinking of America’s financial system but does not endorse rhetoric Sens. Warren or Sanders use when speaking about billionaires.
- Steyer said he’s running as an outsider who wants to fix a “broken system,” which would not currently allow progressive policies to be enacted.
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Tom Steyer introduced himself to millions of Americans a couple years ago solely as “American Citizen” in a widespread ad calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, just nine months into his term. But this wasn’t an average concerned voter. This was one of the most influential liberal donors in the country, a billionaire former hedge fund manager who used his fortune to bankroll both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and support for progressive policies on issues like green energy and immigrant rights across the United States.
Now, as Trump’s actual impeachment is underway, Steyer is in the 2020 race for president as a Democrat. Since launching his campaign in July, he’s positioned himself to the left of the moderates led by former Vice President Joe Biden. He supports a wage tax for the ultra rich, like himself, but unlike the progressive candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, he does not want to cast the richest Americans as enemies.
Despite an investment of over $47 million of a total $100 million he’s pledged from his fortune, that mix has yet to find a base. Steyer is polling under 1% nationally, but garnered enough support to get him into the last two Democratic debates. Steyer spoke to Business Insider on Thursday, after the fifth debate in Atlanta, Georgia. He gave us his case that as the only outsider progressive, he can fix a “broken system” through curbing corporate interest and calling for term limits in Congress. That way, he argued, progressive policies can actually get passed.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
On Bloomberg’s late jump into the race
Richard Feloni: Last night you said that unlike others on the stage, you have the financial expertise required to push back against Trump’s economic policies. Why do you feel that business experience is necessary for that fight? And then what will you say if Bloomberg says the same thing about himself?
Tom Steyer: I think that if Mr. Trump isn’t removed from office and is the Republican nominee, he’s going to run almost exclusively on the idea that he’s been good for the economy. I think it’s going to be necessary to be able to push back and expose the fact that that’s not true. And I think that my history in business lets me do that in a way that nobody else on that stage can do, because I’ve spent decades thinking and figuring out what makes countries prosperous, what makes them grow, what makes that growth be shared across a society. And honestly, he was a fake businessman, a fraud and a failure, and he’s a fraud and a failure as a steward of the American economy.
Feloni: If you were on a debate stage and Bloomberg said the same thing about himself, that he has the expertise, how would you counter that?
Steyer: I think I’m different from Mike Bloomberg. He definitely does have great business experience and acumen. But I think that an issue for all Democrats has to be inequality. I have an ability to talk about growth and prosperity — but I think something’s happened over the last 40 years, which is that there has been a successful organized war on working people in this country, on 90% of this country. And whoever is going to be the Democratic nominee is going to have to embrace the analysis that this inequality is absolutely unjust and unsupported and undemocratic. And talk about the ways to address it, including a wealth tax, which I proposed over a year ago.
Whether we really need billionaires
Feloni: To get to a point that’s been increasingly coming up among Democrats: Does the country need billionaires?
Steyer: You mean in general?
Steyer: Let me say this, I don’t believe in putting a ceiling on the dreams and ambitions of Americans. This is a country that was started by dreamers with big ambition and to say to all the young people in the United States, “People in Washington, DC, have determined exactly how far your dreams are going to go,” it doesn’t make any sense to me. It does make complete sense to me to undo all of those Republican tax giveaways and tax cuts for the richest Americans and the biggest corporations, to push as hard as possible for a living wage for working Americans, to support the union movement and organized labor in general. The idea of putting a lid on people’s futures, on people’s ambitions, on how far an American can go, that doesn‘t make any sense to me.
Feloni: You’re running against the moderates, with an appeal to progressives. And so how can you convince someone who has a progressive worldview that instead of going for Sanders or Warren, that they should be going for the billionaire hedge fund guy?
Steyer: Well, I’m running because I think this government is broken, that it’s been purchased by corporations, and that before we get to any of the progressive policies that everyone on that stage wants, we’re going to have to get back to government of, by, and for the people. And I have a decade-long history of organizing coalitions of ordinary American citizens to stand up for their rights and beat corporations.
If you want to know who has actually succeeded in that, we’ve taken out oil companies and beaten them when people said we couldn’t, we’ve taken on drug companies and beaten them when people said we couldn’t. We’ve taken on tobacco companies. We’ve spread clean energy around the country. If you believe that this government is purchased, ask who, as an outsider, has a history of not only taking on the fights, but winning them, and who’s willing to actually change the structure of Washington, DC.
When I talk about term limits and a national referendum, there’s no one on that stage that will even say they disagree. They won’t even utter a word. So I think there’s a real question here about if you believe the government’s broken, who are you going to trust to restructure it? Someone from the outside or someone from inside the Beltway?
Why Steyer is spending $100 million on a campaign instead of activism and voter registration
Feloni: The millions that you’ve invested in activism, whether it’s been for fighting climate change, registering young voters, or supporting progressive candidates, the recurring question is why not just spend that $100 million that you’ve pledged, along with all of the time and energy, towards continuing those causes instead of this presidential run?
Steyer: I’m still doing that stuff. The organization I started, NextGen America, did the largest youth voter mobilization in American history last year — it’s still running, I’m just not running it. My partnership with seven national unions to knock on tens of millions of doors — it’s still going, I’m just not directing it now. All the things that people say, “Why don’t you do this?” We’re doing it. It’s not either-or. But there’s no one else saying what I’m saying about broken government and the need to fix that before we get progressive policies. There’s no one on that stage who will say climate’s their No. 1 priority except me.
Feloni: If you were still doubling down on these issues, at what point did you realize that you could do more by running for president? When did that moment hit you?
Steyer: Watching the early debates. I listened to the debates and people were talking, as they did last night, about different kinds of policies: which health care policy, which Green New Deal, which gun violence policy. And actually they were never bringing up the basic question, which is government is broken. It’s been purchased. The reason we don’t have those policies is because the government doesn’t want it to happen, the drug companies don’t want it, the gun manufacturers don’t want it, the private insurers don’t want it, the banks don’t want it, the private hospitals don’t want. So if we’re going to get any of those progressive policies, we have to start with how are we going to get back our government.
Feloni: Had you ever considered taking an alternate route, like getting into a state race?
Steyer: At this point, the issues that I’m talking about are national, or international. I know there’s been great work done in the states, as an example, in climate. But I also know that given where we are in climate and the state of emergency that we’re actually in, you don’t have time to work through the states because it happens to be the government of the United States that’s leading the world.
How to curb corporate influence
Feloni: In terms of appealing to voters, how are you going to make a case to that particular type of American who voted for Obama but then voted for Trump because they felt that they were let down?
Steyer: It’s funny, because the way I see this election and the way that I see elections in America in general is different from the traditional way. And it comes from my background as an organizer and someone who’s registered, engaged, and tried to motivate people to participate in our democracy. When I think about it, there are somewhere between 30 and 50% of Americans, somewhere between one out of three and one out of two, who don’t vote. And those people are all Democrats. We don’t need to convince them of anything. They already know what I’m saying is true.
So when I think about how we’re going to win this election, my question is how do we get that one out of three or one out of two people. When everybody shows up, we’re going to win everything. That’s what has to happen next year. That’s what’s going to happen next year. And it’s going to be based not on trying to convince that sliver of people who can’t figure out if they do or don’t like Mr. Trump at this point, it’s about getting that gigantic pool of Democrats to realize that when they participate, that’s the first step to healing the system.
Feloni: As for the nature of the debate around capitalism itself in this country, you have some that are saying that we need to completely reform the entire way that we’ve looked at the system. You’re saying that we have to curb corporate influence. Do you think we need to rethink the entire system from the ground up?
Steyer: Unchecked capitalism has failed. We can see that in the absolute disparities of income between Americans. We can see it across the board. But I believe deeply in a competitive, innovative, dynamic private sector. What I believe, though, is the rules of the road have to be written by the government on behalf of the American people, not on the behalf of corporate bottom lines. And that absolutely has to change.