‘Someone Has Got To Tell The Truth To The American People,’ And Presidential Candidate Tom Steyer Says He’s The Guy

December 30, 2019
ap_18324496101898ap_18324496101898John Minchillo/AP Photo
Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer speaks during a "Need to Impeach" town hall event in Cincinnati in March 2018 prior to launching his campaign.

Like anyone aspiring to the highest office in the land, there are things that Tom Steyer would like to do — create transparency in elections, set term limits in the House and Senate, create a "justice-based" plan for climate change.

There's just a couple of things that have to happen first — beginning with winning the Democratic nomination for President. And, as it turns out, Steyer has a plan for that too.

"This isn't a national election; this is a series of state elections and they start with those four early primary states, which is really what's going to set the tone for what happens after that," Steyer said in an interview with Colorado Matters. "In those states actually, I'm doing really well and it continues to grow."

"Really well," though, is a matter of perspective. Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund manager from California, has been polling nationally at about one percent, on average. That would appear to place him in the lower tier of Democratic contenders, with the likes of Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, and far behind current the frontrunners, a group that includes Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

But Steyer did get a boost from his appearance in the last Presidential debate earlier this month, and his campaign staff says he's reached double digits in polling in those four early states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Should that actually play out in 2020 votes, Steyer said he would be able to move from boutique novelty to serious contender. That, in turn, would allow him to answer one of the biggest questions about his candidacy.

"You're asking me why am I running," he said, "And the answer is because someone has got to tell the truth to the American people on fundamental questions."

Interview Highlights

On his "21st-century Bill of Rights":

"These are actual rights that I believe Americans have right now. I don't believe they're being observed. So do I think these are things that absolutely should be codified? Yes. that Americans have a right to affordable healthcare? Yeah. I think in the 21st century that's a right for every American. In there is the right to a quality public education starting with pre-K and going all the way. Do I believe that that's a right for an American citizen? Yes, I do. Do I believe that they're getting that? No, I don't. "

On his "Green New Deal" for climate change:

"Mine is very different from the way that Bernie Sanders, for instance, describes it. But I have what I believe is the most effective, impactful version of the Green New Deal ... if we get environmental justice right, we'll get climate right. So I actually call my climate plan a justice-based climate plan because I start with the people in (Black and Brown) communities. "

On his hedge fund's investments in coal:

"We invested in every part of the American economy, and so we invested in fossil fuels. This was not a fossil fuel fund ... But I came to understand that actually the world that we all grew up in was a fossil fuel-driven world and that it had an unintended consequence of climate change ... I realized, 'Oh my goodness, we can't keep doing this. We need to make a change.'"

Read The Full Transcript

Ryan Warner: Mr. Steyer, thank you for being with us.

Tom Steyer: Ryan, please call me Tom.

RW: All right. Tom, you lay out what you call a 21st century Bill of Rights. This is a new set of five rights, including the right to universal healthcare, clean air, clean water, the right to a living wage. Is this a literal Bill of Rights that you'd want to see ratified and put into the U.S. Constitution?

TS: It is. Look, these are actual rights that I believe Americans have right now. I don't believe they're being observed. So do I think these are things that absolutely should be codified? Yes. that Americans have a right to affordable healthcare? Yeah. I think in the 21st century that's a right for every American. In there is the right to a quality public education starting with pre-K and going all the way. Do I believe that that's a right for an American citizen? Yes, I do. Do I believe that they're getting that? No, I don't.

RW: Ratification, of course, it would require a level of bipartisanship that seems positively foreign these days. Is this a reasonable policy?

TS: Well, I think Republican voters, as well as Democratic voters, actually want affordable healthcare. I think Republican voters, as well as Democratic voters, actually want their kids to be well-educated in the public schools. I think Republican voters don't want to be poisoned when they breathe or drink water that comes out of the tap. I think Republican voters want a living wage. Look, we have a broken government, Ryan. I think everybody in the United States, voters of both parties think this government has been purchased by corporations and doesn't serve them. I think people across the country know it, are upset about it, but don't know what to do about it.

RW: Yeah. This is an idea central to your campaign that people, not corporations should be in charge of the democracy. Give me a concrete example where you see undue corporate influence and how you would address it if you were elected president.

TS: Okay.

RW: That makes you laugh, Tom Steyer.

TS: It makes me laugh because there's so many, Ryan, but I'll just start with climate. We have a climate crisis. There aren't two arguments about this.

RW: And yet not everyone embraces the idea that there's a climate crisis.

TS: Well, first of all, I think I'm the only candidate of either party who has made climate his or her number one priority. I've literally talked to national journalists who have said to me, "Do you really believe that the oil companies will let you do anything on climate?" And I said to them, "Do you really believe that we're going to let the world go up in smoke to protect the profits of oil companies?" They said, "You're naive to think that the people can overcome the oil companies politically." Now, if that isn't corporations buying the government, I don't know what is.

RW: So give me the how. How do you reduce the influence of oil companies, if that's your goal?

TS: Well, the first thing we do is we talk about it in this campaign and we get the people of the United States to agree publicly and at the ballot box that this is the issue that we need to take back our government. Then once we're in, the first thing that a president can do is get the Federal Election Commission, which is completely more abundant and doesn't work at all, reconstitute it and insist that we start with transparency in elections, in money and politics, and put in completely different penalties for people who break those rules because those rules are being broken.

RW: Now, some of this, of course —

TS: But the last thing is I'm talking about term limits. I'm talking about term limits in Congress of 12 years for Congresspeople and senators, because if we're going to get bold change, then we need new people, different people in charge. I'm talking about direct democracy, which you have in Colorado, which we have in California.

RW: You're talking about direct ballot access for issues, referenda, for instance.

TS: Yes.

RW: National referenda. In the last debate you made it clear that if elected president, you would declare climate change a national emergency on day one. Practically, what does that mean? Who has to stop doing what on day two?

TS: Well, what it means is the president can put in rules and regulations about how energy is going to be generated, the equivalent of renewable portfolio standards.

RW: Which Colorado has also.

TS: Right, but that's very much state by state. The president can put in rules about building codes. The president can put in rules about what kind of cars are produced in the United States of America, the miles per gallon averages. So in effect, we can start putting in schedules for the transition to clean energy at a rate in which we can actually get the changes that we need.

RW: And you do this through executive orders?

TS: Yep.

RW: It doesn't sound like you have a lot of buy-in from Congress in this model.

TS: No, I would also ask Congress to pass some version and I have a version that's on my website of the Green New Deal. Mine is very different from the way that Bernie Sanders, for instance, describes it. But I have what I believe is the most effective, impactful version of the Green New Deal. But to be fair, Ryan, Congress has never passed any climate legislation ever. My point is, first of all, I would declare a state of emergency on day one because it is an emergency. Can I finish?

RW: Sure.

TS: Secondly, everything I've done in the last 12 years about climate has started with environmental justice, has started with the communities where it is unsafe to breathe the air, where it is unsafe to drink the water when it comes out of the tap. Those are overwhelmingly Black and brown communities. If we deal with that appropriately, if we get environmental justice right, we'll get climate right. So I actually call my climate plan a justice-based climate plan because I start with the people in those communities.

RW: Let's talk about those who perhaps work in the coal industry or in Colorado. Oil and gas, those aren't just the folks who are doing drilling and driving trucks, but those are the attorneys and the accountants. Talk to them about this transition.

TS: Okay. Let me start with the idea that we are going to hold the people in the fossil fuel industries, which are not going to go away on day one. This is a 20- to 25-year change. But we're going to hold them harmless as to wages, healthcare, and retirement. My plan puts aside $50 billion for the people in those industries to make sure that we are not solving this problem on the backs of working Americans who are just doing jobs.

RW: Where's that money coming from?

TS: That has to be appropriated by Congress. We're also going to create over four and a half million jobs per year, millions of jobs rebuilding America in a sustainable fashion, good-paying union jobs. We're going to put the people in the declining industries at the front of the line to get those jobs, and this is going to happen all across America.

RW: The New York Times has called you one of the most influential environmentalists in the U.S. You once vowed to spend $100 million to defeat candidates who don't back policies to fight climate change. But during the fifth Democratic debate, Vice President Joe Biden came at you with this claim in regards to the hedge fund you created and its investments in coal.

Joe Biden: My friend was producing more coal mines and produced more coal around the world, according to the press, than all of Great Britain produces. Now, I welcome him back into the fold here, and he's been there for a long while. But the idea that we talk about where we started and how we are, let's get this straight.

RW: The essence of what Vice President Biden is saying is true, that the funds investments in these coal plants led to a dramatic increase in production adding up to more than what Great Britain consumes annually. You've said that this is partly why you left the firm in 2012 because it conflicted with your values. Do you regret the history? Is it something you feel you're trying to make right.

TS: Look, we invested in every part of the American economy, and so we invested in fossil fuels. This was not a fossil fuel fund. We invested in fossil fuels less than the percentage of the economy. But I came to understand that actually the world that we all grew up in, Ryan, was a fossil fuel-driven world and that it had an unintended consequence of climate change. I realized that about 12 years ago. I divested from fossil fuels. I took The Giving Pledge to give more than half my wealth away while I'm alive to good causes and I've been organizing against climate for the last 12 years.

So I am asking Americans. I view myself as a classic American. I grew up in a fossil fuel economy and participated in it. And then I realized, Oh my goodness, we can't keep doing this. We need to make a change. That's exactly what I'm asking every American to do, make the exact same change that I made. Do I wish that I'd figured it out earlier? Sure I do.

RW: Your polling numbers have stayed in the single digits. You did make it onto the last debate stage. When I solicited questions for you on Twitter, a theme emerged, folks wondering why you're in the race spending $83 million on campaign ads, this is according to a recent Politico report, when you could direct that money to Democratic candidates up and down the ballot who have broader support. Tom Steyer, differently put, people seem to want your money more than your candidacy. What would you tell them?

TS: I'd say that actually if you look at the four early primary states, I've done nothing but go up ever since I started.

RW: I have some friends who were in Iowa over the holidays. They said that commercials were almost exclusively Tom Steyer ads, a lot of Tom Steyer ads.

TS: Okay. But I'm just saying, so if you actually think about this, this isn't a national election. This is a series of state elections and they start with those four early primary States, which is really what's going to set the tone for what happens after that. In those States actually, I'm doing really well and it continues to grow. The other thing I'd say is this, I continue to support all the grassroots stuff I've been doing. So if people are worried, this isn't a question of either/or. I'm doing both.

RW: You mentioned The Giving Pledge earlier. You and your wife signed a pledge to give half of your fortune away before you die, during your lifetimes. It occurred to me, money is power, money is influence. Money can help pay for the kinds of changes you want to see in the world. What is it about the presidency you desire that the power and the influence and the money you have right now don't afford you? Does that make sense?

TS: Yeah. Listen, you're asking me why am I running, and the answer is because someone has got to tell the truth to the American people on fundamental questions.

RW: Are you saying no other Democrat is doing that?

TS: Yes. That's why I'm running. If someone else were saying what I'm saying I wouldn't be running, and that's why I got in the race.

RW: I mean some of your messages aren't dissimilar from other Democrats in the race.

TS: There literally is no other Democrat who will say that climate is his or her number one priority. There's no other Democrat really that is going to deal with this on an emergency basis at home and abroad.

RW: I mean I talked to Bernie Sanders. There is no doubt climate change is a huge part of his platform.

TS: There is no doubt that it is a huge part of his platform. It is also true that is not his number one priority. It is also true that he would have to pass his program, the Green New Deal, through Congress. If you remember Barack Obama, if it is not your number one priority, it may not get done. It didn't get done for Barack. His number one priority was the Affordable Care Act. He spent two years on it. We never got any climate legislation. He did a lot of stuff in his second term on climate, but if it isn't number one, there's a very good chance it won't get done.

But the other point is this. This is a timing question when we look at climate. It's not just a question of are we going to do it? It's also a question of when are we going to do it? There is a clock here that is running. This is not a stable situation. This is a situation that gets worse every day.

RW: In November in Iowa, you made headlines with this comment.

TS: I know this is going to sound a little strange kind of. I don't want to be president, but I do want to do things as president.

RW: It occurs to me that primary season is the ultimate job interview. If I were in the position to hire someone and the job candidate said, "I don't want this position, I just want to do the things this position does," that would give me pause as an interviewer. What if you heard that from an employee you were hiring? "I don't really want this job, but I want the things this job does.”

TS: Well, I must have said it poorly then. Look, there are people who want to be things and there are people who want to do things. I want to do things. I think if you look, for instance, at George W. Bush. He wanted to be president. He thought that being president was a success. Actually, it was a terrible failure. In my mind. He was a totally failed president. From his standpoint, he was president. My point is being president, that's not a success. Being a successful president who accomplishes important things, that's success.

RW: Another question from Twitter —

TS: So yes, I would definitely hire that person because I don't want someone who's a placeholder. I want someone who has a reason to do it and is trying to accomplish things.

RW: Another question from Twitter. James Constis asks, "How does Tom Steyer plan to convince Trump Democrats in swing states to vote for him?" You have no doubt made climate a key part of this conversation and of your campaign, of course. Modifying James' question just a bit, is that the issue that will bring Democrats to the White House?

TS: Look, I think for everybody who's running, they're going to have to take on Mr. Trump on the economy, including me. We know how Mr. Trump's going to run, because he said it. He basically said to a group of Americans, "I don't like you. You don't like me. But you're all going to vote for me because if the Democrats get in, they're going to blow up the economy in 15 minutes." So what can I do that's different from everybody else? Look, I started a business and ran it for 27 years and turned it from an absolute nothing into a big multi-billion-dollar, international business.

I can beat Mr. Trump on the economy. I can talk not just about economic justice, about redirecting money, I can also talk about prosperity, economic prosperity, growth, what we can do to actually create long-term growth and prosperity for people across the spectrum in the United States of America.

RW: Which you see as intimately linked to the transition of the energy in this country, I gather?

TS: I do, but it's much more than that. I mean I —

RW: Give me one other example of what it is.

TS: In my mind, the way that we should think about growth and prosperity is capability of the American people, investing in the American people. We should stop thinking about education as something that's a cost and start thinking about how do we have the most productive people in the world, because that's how we'll have the most prosperity. We should be sitting here thinking about how does America invest in the American people so they are successful, because that's what makes the country successful.

I have a completely different attitude about how to create growth and prosperity long-term as opposed to short-term. I think this whole idea that the way to do it, which is what we've done for 40 years, which is to cut taxes on the richest Americans and the biggest corporations and watch GDP grow, has been a total failure because for 90 percent of Americans, they haven't participated in that growth. Just looking at GDP doesn't work for me at all. Just looking at unemployment rates doesn't work for me at all if you can't live on the jobs that you have that the economy produces.

We're looking at a country … I know I'm in Denver, Colorado. There's a huge question about gentrification and can you afford to live in Denver, Colorado?

RW: Or any of the communities around it. They used to be affordable too.

TS: No. But, Ryan, it's a completely different way of thinking. What about mobility? What is the ability for someone who grows up in a low-income family to move out of that income bracket? Really low in the United States of America, by the way. I don't know if you've checked, but mobility has basically stopped. So when I think about success in America, I think about it completely differently. I know Mr. Trump. He's full of bologna on this. I know in Colorado, half the school districts have four-day weeks because they can't afford to have five day-weeks. That is not how you create the most productive people in the world, and that's exactly who we need to be.

RW: Critics have said that you're trying to buy your way into the White House, and a recent AP report adds some fuel to that fire. It found that one of your top aides offered money to politicians in Iowa in exchange for their endorsements of you. That's not illegal by the way, if it's properly reported. Given that you're here, in part, to announce an endorsement from a long-time solar industry executive, I just want to know if your campaign is doing any exchanges of money for endorsements.

TS: Well, just to be clear, Ryan, that was an unauthorized fact and he left the campaign that day.

RW: When you say he left the campaign, did you fire him?

TS: He left. Look, when you run an organization, it's important that you stand by your values, so that was reported. Nothing ever changed hands. It was unauthorized, and he left the campaign that day. So in fact, that's exactly what a high integrity organization does. When unauthorized things happen, I mean you're reporting as if it happened and it was authorized. Neither is true. In fact, what happened was we found out about it and he left.

RW: Finally from Twitter, "If you're not the Democratic nominee, will you financially back who is?"

TS: Look, I've said under all circumstances I'm a Democrat. Everybody on the stage, the first thing I said in the first debate I was in, is that everyone on this stage is 100 times more competent, more honest, and more prepared than Mr. Trump. So of course I'm going to back the Democrat.

RW: Thanks for being with us, Tom Steyer.

TS: Ryan, it's a pleasure to see you.