Tom Steyer Wants To Be Known As America’s Wokest Billionaire

South Carolina voters seem to be listening to what Steyer has to say. But the broader progressive movement is skeptical.
Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Tom Steyer at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally on Jan. 20 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Tom Steyer at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally on Jan. 20 in Columbia, South Carolina.

COLUMBIA, S.C. ― Retired California hedge fund manager Tom Steyer is on a quest to convince Americans #NotAllBillionaires.

As leading progressive candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) deride millionaires and billionaires for rigging the economy, Steyer wants to be clear that he’s a billionaire who thinks he should be taxed, a lot.

“I am somebody who would undo all the tax giveaways to the richest Americans, and to corporations,” Steyer said in a phone interview with HuffPost while on the campaign trail in Iowa. “We have redistributed wealth to the richest Americans.”

He’s the billionaire who, on the debate stage, has said that “corporations have bought this government,” leading to a “40-year attack on the rights of working people and specifically on organized labor.”

He’s the billionaire who looked like he was having the time of his life dancing in South Carolina on Martin Luther King Jr. Day next to Sanders, who has said that billionaires should not exist.

He’s the billionaire who told the audience on MLK Day that he, a white man from California, is not trying to “claim someone else’s pain,” but understands the history of slavery in the U.S. and supports reparations for Black Americans.

“When you look at the policy issues that the presidential candidates are addressing,” he said, “you can’t look at any of those issues without realizing that there is an underlying point about race in every one.”

Steyer wants to be known as the wokest billionaire in America. And in the states he’s willing to pay to get face time with people, people are listening.

He surprised the nation in early January when a Fox News poll put him in second place in South Carolina, at 15%. Former Vice President Joe Biden had 36%, while Sanders and Warren trailed with 14% and 11% respectively. Similarly, Steyer has made gains in Nevada, where he has tied with Warren for third, behind Biden and Sanders.

In South Carolina, Steyer’s name is hard to avoid. His billboards surround major metropolitan areas, and his ads have blanketed every corner of every market. Among Democratic candidates, he has one of the biggest organizations here, with more than 80 staffers — and they were on the ground early. Voters seem genuinely interested in what he has to say, or at the very least, they know exactly who he is.

“I think Tom has the capacity to address a lot of grassroots issues,” Harold Murray, 74, who currently lives in Columbia, said. “When he came down to South Carolina, he went down to a little town south of here called Denmark. They have a water problem that no one wants to address. At least he went down and gave the people of Denmark hope. And he dealt with the right people, the grassroots people.”

Scott Huffmon, the founder of the Center for Public Opinion & Policy Research at Winthrop University in South Carolina, attributed Steyer’s bump in South Carolina’s polls largely to name recognition.

“He just has money to be everywhere,” Huffmon said. “Everyone I know who is on Facebook, is saying that he is all over their Facebook, all over their YouTube. He’s been blanketing the area.”

Steyer and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another billionaire, have massively outspent every other Democrat in the race. Steyer’s campaign has spent $139.8 million on media in 2020, according to data from Advertising Analytics. Bloomberg’s campaign has spent $262.9 million. By comparison, Sanders, who has raised more money from individual donors than any other candidate in the race, has spent $27.4 million.

“So far as I’m concerned Mike Bloomberg can pay as much money as he wants but the question is whether he embraces a wealth tax,” Steyer said. “Someone who is rich like him or rich like me needs to embrace the wealth tax … How can he possibly run as a Democrat if he isn’t willing to represent Democrats?”

But while he is in line with Warren and Sanders in calling for a wealth tax, he doesn’t think billionaires and millionaires should be as vilified as they are. Nor does he use the term “class warfare” when describing income inequality in America.

Instead, he defines the biggest problem in America as a “corporate stranglehold,” in which executives “think they are being honest” in pushing their company’s bottom line. He’s adamant about drawing this distinction: It’s the “perversion of the corporate interests” that needs fixing.

“Is it rich people who are preventing us from getting anti-gun legislation? No, it’s gun manufacturers,” Steyer said. But, he added, “does it benefit rich people who own those corporations? Yes.”

“Is it rich people who are preventing us from getting anti-gun legislation? No, it’s gun manufacturers.”

- Tom Steyer, presidential candidate

He’s also realistic about how his positions appeal to his fellow billionaires: “Do I think the richest people in this country have to come around and agree for us to do this? No.”

But how his candidacy will impact the race — and the broader progressive cause — is harder to discern.

“We know what Bloomberg is doing and wants, it’s not clear what Steyer wants,” said Sean McElwee, the founder of progressive think tank Data For Progress. “The effect of his entrance in race is mostly to make it harder for candidates who are not Biden to get delegates.”

McElwee isn’t the only one unsure. When Steyer announced his bid for the presidency, progressive climate activists expressed their confusion about Steyer’s decision to enter the race to HuffPost’s Alex Kaufman.

Steyer rejects the notion that he could be splitting support in states like South Carolina and Nevada, which could be crucial to a progressive victory for Sanders.

He says he’s not a “progressive doctrinarian;” he sees himself as someone who is using his platform to tell the “truth” about the country.

His textbook billionaire biography, however, is impossible to shake: He grew up in New York City, attended elite private schools, and then went on to the Ivy League and a job at Goldman Sachs. He made $1.6 billion by investing heavily in the fossil fuel industry, and has spent the greater part of the last decade investing heavily in Democratic politics.

In 2013, he founded NextGen Climate, an environmental advocacy group that poured so many millions of dollars into clean-energy initiatives and electing Democrats that Steyer’s name was once floated as a possible pick for secretary of energy. When he’s asked about his fortune in interviews, he’s quick to say he’s signed a pledge to donate most of his wealth to philanthropic causes.

Most of the Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally.
Most of the Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally.

“While Tom Steyer has done a lot of good for grassroots organizing, I also think sometimes Republicans paint social justice as ‘cosmopolitan values of the elite’ and I would be anxious about billionaires taking up the social justice cause,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the progressive group Justice Democrats.

But Steyer’s supporters don’t seem to mind that his fortune is core to his seeming omnipresence in South Carolina.

“I’m sick and tired of folks saying he is buying the election,” said Oliver Francis, a Black 70-year-old Columbia resident and Steyer supporter. “If I can bankroll my own campaign, that’s my business.”

Francis went so far as to place Steyer among political royalty: In Steyer, he said, he sees a little bit of Barack Obama.

“If Tom wins South Carolina, it’s over,” he said. “If he wins, black folk are going to say, ‘wait a minute.’ If Tom wins South Carolina, Tom will win the nomination.”

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