Who is Tom Steyer, the Democratic debate newcomer hellbent on impeaching Trump?

The billionaire literally bought his way into a Democratic campaign that has no need for him. Surely that money could have gone to better use.
Image: Tom Steyer arrives to speak at a news conference in Washington on Jan. 8, 2018.
Tom Steyer arrives to speak at a news conference in Washington on Jan. 8, 2018.Carolyn Kaster / AP file
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By Steve Krakauer

If you’ve been a regular viewer of 2019’s political reality show, also known as the Democratic primary, you’ve watched 20 separate and distinct candidates stand on a stage and debate at some point since June. Now the debate field has been narrowed to 12, who will each get a chance to talk for approximately four minutes Tuesday night. But, incredibly, you’re also going to see a face tonight you haven’t seen before.

Yes, inserting himself into this relatively diverse field is a straight, cisgendered white man who thinks he has what it takes to be president. Tom Steyer may not actually have what it takes at all — but he does have a lot of money.

Inserting himself into this relatively diverse field is a straight, cisgendered white man who thinks he has what it takes to be president.

The billionaire literally bought his way into a Democratic campaign that has no need for him. What are you doing, Steyer? And perhaps more importantly, by spending so much money on this one singular obsession, what is Steyer not doing? But before we look into what, or why Steyer is doing this, let’s start with the how it’s even possible.

The path Steyer took to tonight’s Democratic debate stage perfectly encapsulates the blatant absurdity of his presidential run. In order to meet the requirements of the October debate as laid out by the Democratic National Committee, candidates needed to register at 2 percent support in four polls, as well as secure 130,000 small donors. Steyer jumped into the race late — in fact, he had the right idea back in January when he announced he wouldn’t run.

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But after changing his mind, Steyer was forced to play catch-up. So he spent $7 million on television commercials and $2.6 million on digital advertisements, all so he could convince 130,000 Americans to donate as little as $1 to his campaign. This is the kind of idea that gives silly rich guy vanity projects a bad name.

Steyer claims he’s in the race because, according to his kickoff video from July, “American are deeply disappointed and hurt by the way they’re treated by what they think is the power elite in Washington, D.C., and that goes across party lines and goes across geography.” Sound familiar?

In order to understand who Steyer is, it’s important to know how he made his money. His career started, as it does for many billionaires, at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, and then he moved over to the world of hedge funds, where Steyer started Farallon Capital. But that investment background is secondary to what Steyer was investing in — what made him all that $1.6 billion. “Over the past 15 years, Mr. Steyer’s fund, Farallon Capital Management, has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into companies that operate coal mines and coal-fired power plants from Indonesia to China, records and interviews show,” The New York Times reported in 2014. “Together, those mines have increased their annual production by about 70 million tons since they received money from the hedge fund.” (Steyer says he has since moved to divest from these kinds of holdings, although the process is ongoing.)

Needless to say, this is not the sort of background that makes Democratic primary voters swoon. In more recent years, Steyer has tried to rehabilitate his lifestyle and his image by flying economy and driving a hybrid car. Of course, these reductions in his personal footprint aren’t going to come close to counteracting the carbon footprint left thanks to his hedge funds investments — which have helped him fund his longest of long shot campaign.

Meanwhile, as Steyer has emerged, others on the stage have seen their time come to an end, like Gov. Jay Inslee, who made climate change a central issue of his campaign. Inslee was, in essence, a single issue candidate. But unlike Steyer's "issue," Inslee's focus did seem to help shift the conversation.

Even before his decision to run for president, Steyer had been leading the impeachment charge, heading up the online petition drive “Need To Impeach” and filling his YouTube page with full-throated impeachment messaging. The problem, of course, is the circumstances have changed, and now calling for the impeachment of Trump (or at least an impeachment inquiry) no longer makes him stand out much from the Democratic field. What once felt like a bold stance no longer makes him unique (unless, of course, you think being richer than Donald Trump is a unique element).

The Democratic race has tightened — former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are clearly in the top tier with Sen. Bernie Sanders right behind them. Meanwhile Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris and even Andrew Yang are holding strong with some constituencies.

That’s to say nothing of Sen. Cory Booker, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke or Julian Castro, who remain on the debate stage and have been since the beginning. What does a Steyer voter look like?

Steyer has spent millions of dollars to achieve one thing — get into the Democratic debates. But what will that money accomplish now?

On a recent Bill Simmons podcast with Chuck Klosterman, the “Raised in Captivity” author brought up the issue of climate change. “You have all these candidates saying that climate change is an existential crisis that’s putting the entire world in jeopardy,” Klosterman said. “That’s great, that’s probably true. But if you actually believe that, that wouldn’t be your third point. You wouldn’t be like, ‘Let’s talk about busing problems now.’”

And here we come to the biggest mark against the latest rich man who would be president. Steyer has spent millions of dollars to achieve one thing — get into the Democratic debates. But what will that money accomplish now? If Steyer really believes Trump should be impeached, why isn’t he spending money to make sure progressives win Senate and House races around the country? If Steyer really believes climate change is a big problem, couldn’t he find something maybe a little more useful to spend $9.6 million dollars on? Principles over vanity — it seems a relevant topic, considering the criticisms of the current White House occupant.