SAN FRANCISCO — Billionaire activist Tom Steyer says he will use “the exact same methods” in his fledgling Democratic presidential campaign that he’s used for more than a decade in California, where he has registered hundreds of thousands of voters and thrown millions into passing several major ballot measures.
“We’re a get-out-to-the-people, directly-address-the-people organization,’’ Steyer told POLITICO Tuesday. “I’ve been an outsider this whole time in Democratic politics.”
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Steyer will base his campaign in San Francisco, the city in which he launched his hedge fund and later opened offices for NextGen and Need to Impeach. He responded to sharp criticism from Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, who told MSNBC Tuesday that “I’m a bit tired of seeing billionaires trying to buy political power.”
The 2020 campaign, Steyer said, will focus on “who has a vision that connects with the American people … of what we can practically do to take back this democracy and get the government to work for people.”
“That is the question for every single person in the race,’’ he said. “Money can’t buy that.”
Steyer sidestepped questions about his strategy to make the cut for future Democratic debates, which require participants to meet one of two key requirements — breaking 1 percent in three polls from pollsters approved by the Democratic National Committee or tallying 65,000 unique campaign donors, with at least 200 donors in 20 different states.
NBC is reporting that ad trackers show Steyer has already reserved about $1 million in TV ads in the first four primary and caucus states — a move that could bump up his polling numbers there.
Steyer channeled more than $60 million of his own money into campaign causes from 2010 to 2018, including NextGen’s California political operations. Much of that has gone to ballot fights: passing a cigarette tax in 2016; altering how corporations calculate their tax burden and sending the proceeds to clean energy back in 2012; and beating back a 2010 effort to repeal the law that set emissions targets and allowed cap-and-trade.
He’s also spent millions on voter turnout and sent a steady stream to various state legislators, statewide candidates and Democratic party committees.
In addition, NextGen California’s political arm has donated to various ballot initiatives and sought to elect Democrats, funding $1 million worth of independent expenditures on behalf of a quartet of state Senate hopefuls in 2015-16.
And NextGen has become one of Sacramento’s biggest lobbying spenders, putting more than $11 million into shaping policy between 2015 and 2018. Its spending spiked as the Legislature debated critical climate legislation around cap-and-trade and emissions targets, but the organization has also lobbied on an array of causes that include clean drinking water and Medi-Cal for undocumented immigrants.
Steyer acknowledged that his move to get into the race is a turnaround from earlier this year, when he had publicly vowed to focus his money and his energies on impeachment of President Donald Trump. The shift, he said, was driven by what he called frustration over recent political developments on the national stage.
He said he will continue to fund the efforts of Need to Impeach, which has collected 8.2 million signatures and spent millions on ads promoting impeachment. Steyer said efforts on climate change at NextGen Climate, in addition to assisting Democratic candidates heading toward the 2020 election cycle, will not be affected by his run.
He said what prompted him to jump into the crowded 2020 field at this late date was “worrying that our broken government and our broken politics weren’t going to respond to what I see as the twin crisis facing us — that no one was going to activate the grassroots to get the power back to the people and retake this democracy.”
“Honestly, I literally couldn’t sleep,’’ he told POLITICO. “I had decided not to do this — and I thought, ‘You’re going to regret that for the rest of your life. You cannot not do this.’”