Puppet master or politician?
Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer fancies himself as neither, despite the tens of millions of dollars he’s pumping into American political campaigns, the national advertising war he’s openly waging against President Donald Trump and the 30-city town hall tour he brought to the Washington, DC, region this week.
Steyer, a hedge-fund-manager-turned-environmentalist who hails from California, is the closest thing Democrats have to the Republican-backing Koch brothers. His recent political contributions eclipse even those of liberal billionaire George Soros. He plans to spend $30 million on the 2018 midterms alone, and his NextGen America super PAC has been a juggernaut for left-leaning candidates in recent years.
After a town hall meeting in Largo, Maryland, on Tuesday — one of the early stops on his anti-Trump “Need to Impeach” tour — Steyer acknowledged he’s spending a lot of money, just as the Kochs, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and others on the right are.
But Steyer sees himself as a different kind of billionaire bankroller: Someone who's opened himself up to the proletariat instead of cloistering himself in the comfort of exclusive gatherings packed with 1 percenters. Indeed, in Largo and at a second stop that day in Arlington, Virginia, Steyer treated his supporters like old friends: He shook hands, patted backs, smiled for pictures and laughed at their jokes.
He says he’s tried to be as transparent as possible under a set of federal rules — particularly those that spring from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision — that allow vast sums of money to be spent, sometimes without public disclosure, on politics.
“I’m sitting here talking to you, talking to them, sitting here on TV saying, ‘This is me,’” Steyer told the Center for Public Integrity. “We’re not shy about it. You should try and call up the Koch brothers to get a lengthy interview to hear what they’re really thinking.”
Steyer also says he’s different from his big-spending Republican counterparts because he’s not personally benefiting from his high-dollar media blitz and campaign expenditures.
“We’re attempting to stand up for the rights of broadly speaking Americans,” Steyer said. “It’s not going to profit me in any way, shape or form. As opposed to me working my ass off to change regulations or change laws or improve my tax status, there’s no instance of my ever having done that.”
David Dziok, a spokesman for Koch Companies Public Sector, said his bosses have a track record of opposing policies that would benefit their bottom line.
His evidence: Earlier this month, Charles Koch penned an op-ed for The Washington Post blasting import tariffs, including those on steel, “which would be to our immediate and financial benefit.” Among its myriad endeavors, Koch Industries is involved in the steel industry.
In the recent tax debate, the Koch brothers came out early against the US House’s proposed border adjustment tax, which would have significantly benefited business, and they successfully lobbied for the repeal of direct ethanol subsidies, despite being one of the largest ethanol producers in the nation, Dziok said.
“Such irresponsible claims only add to a public discourse that’s already too careless,” Dziok said of Steyer’s remarks.
Steyer has taken his “Need to Impeach” Trump message — and his personal brand — to national audiences in slick television and digital commercials.
Despite significantly raising his profile through a push for Congress to put Trump on trial, Steyer has said he’s not running for office anytime soon.
Still, he and his staff — there are 41 employees on Steyer’s “Need to Impeach” team alone, an aide confirmed — seemed to be working out of the playbook of a politician in full-on campaign mode during the two events he conducted in the Washington, D.C. area on Tuesday.
Steyer started both his Largo, Maryland, and Arlington, Virginia, gatherings with a moment of silence for the victims of the shooting earlier in the day at Great Mills High School in Maryland.
Wearing cowboy boots and a blazer atop a sweater and dress shirt, he leaned forward when his audience members were talking, and he scribbled notes when they made a point he liked. He remembered their names and made sure to acknowledge them — Kia, Gregor, Reta, Bob, among others — after they finished speaking.
He commiserated when they asked questions, such as, “Why aren’t more Democrats standing up to President Trump?” and, “Would Mike Pence really be a better president if Trump is removed from office?” He exchanged affable banter with anyone who wanted to speak to him individually afterward.
A staffer said the town hall meetings were giving Steyer a chance to hear from his “constituents,” a word that telegraphs implicit leadership.
And like a politician, Steyer sought out two distinct audiences that are both crucial to Democrats’ fortunes at the ballot box: a group of mostly African Americans in Largo, and mostly white, upper-middle-class residents of Northern Virginia.
Steyer’s refrain was largely the same with both groups: “We’re here to discuss impeaching a dangerous and lawless president,” and only a groundswell of angry voters will convince Congress to take that step. (The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment about Steyer on Wednesday.)
But the gatherings themselves were worlds apart, even though they were in the same metropolitan area.
Steyer’s Largo event was billed as a “luncheon” with NAACP leaders and “campaign supporters.” It was tucked in the back corner of a nondescript, bifurcated ballroom on the ground floor of a DoubleTree by Hilton.
Fewer than 20 people attended the event — possibly because a staffer initially gave a number of guests the address of the wrong hotel. Several people had to be rerouted.
As Democrats grapple with one of their biggest challenges — connecting with and mobilizing African American voters, a key part of their base — Steyer appealed to the exasperation and skepticism expressed by some people in Largo.
“Most Democratic elected officials are saying, ‘It’s inconvenient at this point to bring (impeachment) up,” Steyer said. “Looking at a room with a lot of African-Americans in it, we all know that the history was that people did not bring up the human rights and the civil rights for African-Americans for centuries because it was ‘inconvenient’ and not politically expedient.”
His message was well-received. Several people took photos with Steyer after the event ended.
The guests picked out a boxed meal from a table in the hallway as they left; few stuck around to eat together. A staffer called a homeless shelter and offered to deliver about 25 lunches that weren’t going to be used because the crowd was smaller than anticipated.
If Steyer was disappointed in the turnout, he didn’t show it.
About six hours later in Arlington, Virginia, more than 70 people packed the Capitol View Room on the 14th floor of a DoubleTree by Hilton, overlooking Washington, DC. The audience was mostly white. Wine, beer, artisan cheeses and other hors d'oeuvres were offered.
Steyer received a standing ovation when he entered the room at the hotel in Arlington. More than an hour after he began speaking, at least half a dozen audience members still had their hands raised to ask him questions.
Janice Brangman, one of the few African American women who attended the Virginia event, told Steyer his impeachment plan didn’t go far enough at rooting out problems in American politics.
“There’s millions of Americans that do not have a president right now because he doesn’t represent any of us that think different from him,” Brangman said. “Impeachment is too nice.”
Steyer grinned and continued taking stock of the frustration in the room.
Next up for Steyer: he plans to attend an anti-gun March for Our Lives event organized by high school students Saturday in Orange County, California, an aide confirmed. Steyer’s next public meeting is scheduled for April 11 in Oakland, California.
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative journalism organization based in Washington, DC.