NEW ORLEANS ― In a speech to Netroots Nation on Thursday evening, liberal donor Tom Steyer delivered a stinging rebuke to “establishment Democrats” for failing to back the immediate impeachment of President Donald Trump.
Steyer, who noted that not one member of the Senate Democratic Caucus has embraced his impeachment crusade, indicted these elected officials for a misguided lack of political courage.
“In less than a year and a half, Donald Trump has gone from someone too awful to think about ... to someone so awful that we have to think about him every single day,” Steyer declared. “And I don’t see the Democratic establishment doing anything real to stop him. They’re not willing to face a devastating and obvious truth about this president: That he is wildly corrupt.”
Thanks to a $40 million campaign with a barrage of television ads, Steyer has amassed an email list of 5.5 million voters across the country who believe the president should be impeached right now. And Steyer continues to draw big crowds to his impeachment-themed town halls; a forum in New Orleans on Wednesday night was packed to capacity.
However, the remarks to an audience of some 3,000 progressive activists on Thursday marked Steyer’s first real broadside against the same congressional Democratic leaders who have often been on the receiving end of his largesse.
At first blush, Steyer’s anti-establishment pitch seemed ready-made for the crowd of grassroots organizers and political operatives. After all, there was plenty of talk about how Democratic congressional leaders were too weak on things like Trump’s Supreme Court pick and pay-go rules.
Which is why it was all the more the surprising that he got a lukewarm response. Early on, Steyer elicited a lot of applause for his denunciations of Trump. But as he went further into his indictment of establishment Democrats, the reactions grew more tepid.
“I would say to these politicians, if you don’t think impeachment is a good idea, if it’s too divisive, then what’s your plan?” Steyer asked.
A conferencegoer called out, “We need control of the House!”
As Steyer began to discuss the electoral work of his groups NextGen America and Need to Impeach, another attendee interrupted him. “What’s your plan?” the activist shouted.
“We have a plan,” he replied. “We’ve held more than 40 town halls and candidate forums across the country. We’ve built the largest youth voter program in history.”
Steyer finished strong with an appeal for victory in the midterm elections that drew solid applause.
But he was hardly the evening’s favorite, let alone one of the conference’s stars. For comparison, Collette Pichon Battle, a Louisiana-based environmental justice leader who followed Steyer onstage, stirred the crowd into a veritable verve with whooping cheers and standing ovations.
In a conversation with reporters later in the evening, Steyer maintained that the crowd agreed with him on the fundamental goal of impeachment.
“People in that group are unquestionably in favor of impeachment. My sense is, they wonder if we can really get it done,” Steyer said.
“This is a grassroots organizing group, and I think they’re sitting here trying to figure out how it can really happen,” he added.
I’m probably more afraid of Pence than I am Trump. Felicia Perez, Center for Story-Based Innovation
Based on interviews with attendees, however, HuffPost found feelings about impeachment that ranged from apathy to downright hostility.
Several of the activists cited the practical concern that Vice President Mike Pence, a right-wing ideologue, would replace Trump.
“I’m probably more afraid of Pence than I am Trump, so the idea of getting rid of one to trade in for another equally divisive, racist, homophobic, misogynistic individual does not give me any relief at all,” said Felicia Perez, creative director at the Center for Story-Based Innovation. “It’s not a win. I want them all out.”
Kia Baird, interim senior director of the Connecticut-based nonprofit, Writers Block Ink, had a similar response. “As a member of the queer community, Pence is not really a great alternative,” she said.
At a deeper level, progressive activists took issue with the idea that Trump is the underlying cause of the political system’s problems. Instead, they tend to view Trump as a symptom of a two-party system that has failed to provide adequate choices to voters.
And at a conference full of activists, many people said the focus needed to be more squarely on organizing ― both in elections, and on progressive campaigns for higher wages, police accountability and voting rights.
“There is no shortcut to organizing,” said Delvone Michael, a senior political strategist for the Working Families Party, which is engaged in a costly battle to unseat New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).
Michael called Steyer’s Need to Impeach initiative a “massive waste of money. A lot of community groups, a lot of organizations could have used that money to actually build capacity.”
Of course, as Steyer noted in his speech, he’s put serious money into organizing as well, with the specific goal of flipping the House for Democrats. Among other initiatives, he has spent $32 million on NextGen America’s youth-centered voter registration and turnout program.
The group already has some significant wins under its belt. It ran the Democratic Party’s field operations for under-40 voters in the 2017 Virginia elections, when the party both held the governorship and flipped 15 state House seats. And in a contentious Pennsylvania House primary, it helped defeat a conservative Democrat who opposed abortion rights and supported Trump’s border wall.
Steyer rarely gets personally involved in intra-Democratic contests, but he has endorsed Kevin de León, the California state Senate leader challenging Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in November. If elected, de León would insure that at least one Democratic senator supports immediate impeachment.
Trump “makes Richard Nixon look like a choir boy,” de León, who was a featured speaker at Netroots, told HuffPost. “What he’s done is easily impeachable.”
Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.