California Billionaire Tom Steyer On 2020 Race: 'This Is All About Message And Vision'

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Tom Steyer speaks during the California Democrats 2019 State Convention at the Moscone Center on June 1 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Tom Steyer speaks during the California Democrats 2019 State Convention at the Moscone Center on June 1 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California billionaire Tom Steyer was absent from the Democratic debate stage this week.

The former hedge fund manager turned activist is perhaps best known for his TV ad campaign to impeach President Trump. Steyer announced his candidacy last month and has promised to invest $100 million of his own money to fund his campaign.

Steyer, who is significantly low in the polls behind dozens of other candidates, says he is on track to qualify for the next debate in September.

“At this pace, we’ll do it,” he says. “I'm asking every American who wants me to be able to change this debate to give a dollar to, so I can get on that stage and take on these corporations and also commit to declaring a climate emergency on day one of my presidency.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders criticized Steyer as a billionaire who is trying to “buy political power.” But Steyer says he has used his power as an outsider to bring change.

“I think if you look at the four people who are leading in the polls, every single one of them is a senator or a former senator. Between them, they have over 70 years in the Senate or the Congress,” he says. “The question is, do you believe that somebody who's a Washington insider is going to reform Washington, or do you believe somebody who's been doing it successfully for 10 years as an outsider is going to bring that power to reform?”

Some of Steyer’s critics also argue that his wealth could be seen as a liability, but he says this race is all about “message and vision.”

“What is missing in the United States, what is missing in these debates, overwhelmingly what gave Donald Trump the ability to win is the fact that we have not had a positive vision of what we're going to accomplish together in the United States since FDR,” he says.

Interview Highlights 

On why he decided to enter the race so late 

“I'm running because I felt that the most important points for the American people weren't being nearly adequately discussed. We have a broken government. We've had a hostile corporate takeover of our federal government and that we have to break that corporate stranglehold, return power to the people, and that until we do that, all of the policy discussions that people are having in these debates about health care, about the Green New Deal, all of those conversations, which are very important, are impractical because the corporations control what actually happens in Congress. And none of those things are going to happen.”

On how he’s used his power to bring change 

“Well for the last 10 years as an outsider, I've been organizing coalitions of ordinary citizens to take on corporations. I've been doing it through direct democracy where we actually put on the ballot something and go head-to-head with corporations, starting in 2010 when we took on the oil companies in California over the most progressive energy laws in the world. We've done it to the tobacco companies, where they've won 17 times in a row. I closed ... a billion-dollar corporate tax loophole in California and used the money to fix up schools and put new textbooks in the hands of kids. If we're going to solve the problem in Washington, D.C., I believe that it will be an outsider powered by grassroots and the power of the American people who does that reorganization — not somebody from inside the beltway.”

On “Medicare for All” proposals 

“I am in favor of health care as a right for every American. I'm in favor of a public option. I'm not in favor of saying to 150 million Americans who get their health care through their employer, 'That's now illegal. You will have to do it our way.' My belief is we can make the public option so much cheaper and better than what's provided through insurance companies that working people can go to their employers and say, 'I want to take the public option, and I want the money that you're spending on my health care to go directly to me. I want a huge raise, but I want the public option.' I want to drive them out as opposed to tell people they have to do exactly what the government tells them to do with their lives.”

On if the middle class should be taxed to pay for these plans

“We do not need to go to the middle class to get money to do these plans. What we can do is we can go directly and undo the tax cuts for corporations, tax cuts on rich people. I was actually the first person to propose a wealth tax before Elizabeth Warren did.”

On why Democrats aren’t convinced on impeaching Trump

“It's really funny that you ask that question today because over half of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives is in favor an impeachment inquiry. So in fact, when you say, 'Why haven't we been able to convince Democrats to do it?' over half of the Democrats in Congress have come out publicly. A vast majority of Democratic voters are in favor of it, and it has actually changed.

“The funny thing is what we've been calling for is multiple televised public hearings to bring in the American people. I think it's amazing that we're this far knowing that we're through the first seven months of the year, and we've had two hearings. One was Michael Cohen back in February and the other was Mr. Mueller in July.”

On his plan to deal with climate change

“Specifically, I would declare a state of emergency, which provides 126 different specific powers. I would give Congress a 100 days to pass a version of the Green New Deal. And if they didn't do it, I would start putting in place regulations and requirements to push us forward so that we could actually respond to the scope and timing of this problem.

“If you look at the rest of my plan, the two other things that I believe distinguish it are that we would do this based on environmental justice and start with the communities that have been most disadvantaged by pollution, and also make sure we hold harmless the workers who will be displaced from fossil fuel increase to make sure that they do not suffer in any way. And lastly unless we make a strong commitment, we can't do the third thing in my plan, which is to make sure that we build an international coalition to solve what is a global problem.”

Jill Ryan and Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on August 2, 2019.

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Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.



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