Liberal Billionaire Tom Steyer Defends His Populist Credentials Before Union Crowd

"It’s not just the oil companies ... We have beaten the drug companies, we have beaten the tobacco companies," Steyer said at a forum for Democratic candidates.

Tom Steyer, a liberal billionaire and philanthropist, argued on Saturday that his work defeating corporations in public policy battles is a better reflection of how he would govern than his background as a hedge fund manager.

Steyer was one of 19 candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination to speak at a presidential candidate forum hosted by the public-sector labor union AFSCME in Las Vegas. Jon Ralston of The Nevada Independent, who moderated the discussion alongside HuffPost’s Amanda Terkel, asked Steyer why union members should trust someone who amassed a fortune running a hedge fund. Hedge funds are notorious for their lucrative fees and low tax rates, as well as their occasional role in pressuring companies to adopt anti-labor practices in the name of fatter profits.

Steyer asked union members to look at his record as a founder of progressive organizations like NextGen America and For Our Future, through which he has fought corporations at the ballot box and in public policy referenda ― and won.

“For 10 years, if you look around the United States and see who’s been leading directly in this fight, honestly, we have beat these people consistently,” he said. “It’s not just the oil companies who we have beat ― we beat them in Nevada, we beat them in California. We have beaten the drug companies, we have beaten the tobacco companies ― we have taken these people on.”

Tom Steyer, a liberal billionaire and philanthropist, made the case on Saturday that only an "outsider" could end the corporate hold on the federal government.
Tom Steyer, a liberal billionaire and philanthropist, made the case on Saturday that only an "outsider" could end the corporate hold on the federal government.
HuffPost/Damon Dahlen

Steyer implied that his experience as a hedge fund manager gave him the kind of familiarity with corporations needed to effectively confront them.

“I know these people. I worked as an investor for a long time,” he said. “I gave up that job. I gave up my business. I took the giving pledge to give my money to good causes. And I’ve been organizing coalitions of Americans because this is the job: The job is to take back the government.”

If Steyer’s argument sounds familiar, it’s because it resembles the case put forward by President Donald Trump, who claimed as a candidate that his participation in the system of political corruption equipped him to clean it up. Trump also argued that his status as a businessman without political experience would make him more capable of cleaning up the federal government.

Ralston asked Steyer to account for that similarity.

“Well, he’s a terrible guy,” Steyer said, noting that he has funded a major push to impeach Trump.

But even Trump had insight about the rottenness of the political system and its capture by special interests, according to Steyer.

“That awful guy was making a point that’s true, which is, this government is broken, there’s been a hostile corporate takeover of our federal government. And until we break that stranglehold on government and get back to ‘of, by and for the people,’ we’re not going to get any of the policies that we want,” he said. “And my argument is, to do that, we need grassroots energy and an outsider like me who’s been doing it together with the people in this room, beating corporations for 10 years directly, to go into Washington and make that change. I ask you: Do you really think it’s going to be a Washington insider who’s been there for decades, or is it going to be grassroots energy and the people of the United States asking for change?”

In a subsequent exchange with Terkel, Steyer said he wanted to restructure the tax system to place a greater burden on billionaires like himself, but that he did not oppose the existence of billionaires altogether in the economy. He claimed that he was the first person in the presidential field to advocate for a wealth tax, a policy that has been a pillar of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign platform.

Steyer also said he opposes the existence of private prisons, much as he opposes private, for-profit elementary schools.

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