Democratic Presidential Candidate Tom Steyer Is a Billionaire, But He’s Not That Kind of Billionaire

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Tom Steyer is a billionaire, but he wants you to know that he’s not that kind of billionaire. He’s the kind of billionaire who supports a wealth tax, the kind of billionaire who wants to squash income inequality, and be a friendly face to overworked, underpaid Americans who feel left behind by Washington, D.C. He’s the type of billionaire, he says, who wanted to red pill America, because he can. Because he’s a billionaire. 

He’s also the kind of billionaire who is self-funding his own campaign. And it’s costing him a pretty penny. New data shows that Steyer has accounted for 67% of all TV ad sales amongst 2020 candidates, shelling out nearly $50 million in 2019 on TV, radio, and Facebook alone. In the past, he said he’d spent up to $100 million on his campaign, though in recent weeks he’s indicated that he no longer has a set limit. 

But the presidential candidate and former hedge fund manager finds himself in the middle of a campaign in which several of his competitors openly question whether someone with a bank account as large as his should exist. And if former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg does enter the race, he may even lose his status as the only self-made billionaire running. 

Throwing money at the problem hasn’t seemed to help, either. Steyer entered the race late and lacks the name recognition of politico bigwigs like Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and former Vice President Joe Biden. He’s qualified for the fifth round of democratic debates but is still polling in the single digits. The next debate’s requirements are loftier, and he has not yet met them. 

Steyer, who spent $10 million on a series of ads calling for President Donald Trump’s impeachment before declaring his candidacy, is also trying to distance himself from the issue just as it gains national attention. At the end of our conversation, he asked me if anything he’d said surprised me. Coming off of an hourlong conversation, I blanked and demurred. But in reality, I was surprised when he told me that he didn’t even watch the first public impeachment hearing. Sure, he doesn’t want to be seen as a single-issue candidate, but I figured he might want to take a victory lap. 

“It says something about my willingness to tell the truth when other people aren’t, but this race isn’t about impeachment,” he told me. “This race is about what we’re going to do for the American people going forward. So if I talk about impeachment, it’s really going to be about a symbol that I’m willing to take on the establishment.” 

In a race that has instilled so much fear into the hearts of moderate and wealthy Democrats that they’re running two new candidates in a November surprise, perhaps Steyer has been overlooked as a socially progressive, yet fiscally conservative option. He’s got a gruff Sherrod Brown-esque voice, a folksy cadence, but speaks Wall Street-ese fluently. 

Steyer came to the Fortune offices, just blocks from Wall Street, on Thursday morning to make his case: 

Fortune: Elizabeth Warren released a campaign advertisement this morning blasting billionaires who have expressed concern over her wealth tax. As the only billionaire currently in the race, do you see this as an attack?

Steyer: I have noticed a series of rich people coming out and saying things. I don’t associate with what they’re saying, and I think she’s smart to do it. 

But how do you respond to a candidate like Senator Bernie Sanders saying “I don’t think billionaires should exist”?

Look, I’m in favor of a wealth tax and have been for more than a year. I’m in favor of repealing all of the Republican tax cuts for rich people and big companies. I think inequality is a huge issue in our country and I don’t think Mike Bloomberg should run unless he’s going to embrace a wealth tax. 

But what do you do when you’re on that debate stage next week and Bernie Sanders directly challenges you, saying there should be no billionaires? How do you respond to that?

I don’t think you should put a ceiling on the ambitions of Americans. I think the sky’s the limit as far as Americans go. So should we have a different tax structure? Sure we should. Should we have a different rate structure? Absolutely. But should the people in Washington, D.C., tell someone that they can’t succeed as much as they want to? Why? How is that a good thing? 

Do you think Sanders and Warren are wrongly villainizing billionaires? 

In my opinion, this isn’t a country that doesn’t like to succeed. This isn’t a country full of people who are like ‘oh, let’s all be mediocre,’ this is a very ambitious, competitive country and that’s great. If you think about some 8-year-old girl living in New York, N.Y., I don’t want to say to her ‘oh, by the way, you can only go this high and no higher.’ I don’t want to say that? Do you? That seems really un-American to me.  

Let’s talk about your wealth tax proposal. The last I saw, you were proposing a 1% tax on on families worth more than $32 million…

I think we’re going to come out with something more detailed very soon. But it starts lower and has a lower percentage than other candidates, those are the two things. But I think we’ll make it more specific going forward. 

Have some of your friends pushed back on the proposal?

Yes. They say ‘you don’t understand the ramifications.’

Do you?

Of course I do, I think it’s hilarious when they say that. My experience of people with taxes, and it doesn’t matter who it is, people don’t like to pay taxes. So if you suggested a tax that hits anyone, they always complain. For someone with a ton of money who has been part of this really shocking inequality that’s grown over the last 40 years in the United States, to complain that they’re being picked on seems a little absorbed. To me, there’s something going on here that should be redressed, this shocking inequality in the system. And so I think there’s this sense that this is a redistribution of wealth, but there’s already been this redistribution of wealth from 1980 to 2019.

But you’re a billionaire, it’s hard to believe that you fully understand the struggle of low- and middle-income Americans.

I really made that money, I didn’t start with that money. I was very fortunate to have a great education and a really nice family, but I didn’t inherit any of that money. I spent seven years traveling around the United States meeting people and learning about them and their lives. 

Does being a self-made billionaire help you take on President Donald Trump?

I think that to the extent that this is going to be about the economy, I think I have a gigantic advantage over many candidates. I spent decades understanding what drives economies and what drives people to prosperity. 

What’s your take on the president’s potential trade deal with China? What would you do differently? 

I would end the tariffs on day one. They’re a disaster, what have they accomplished? I can see that they’ve hurt Americans and I can’t see that they’ve done anything else. There are issues with the Chinese for sure and I would go directly to those issues. Those are about theft of international intellectual property, closing of markets, abuse of power. Yeah, there’s a ton of that and it’s definitely wrong. But [Trump] is going indirectly at that, and it’s not working at all. And I wouldn’t do it unilaterally, I’d do it in coalition with other countries, we’re not the only country they steal intellectual property from, we’re not the only country they close markets to. But the president did say, apparently, that trade wars are easy to win, he had no idea what he was talking about. 

Let’s talk about campaign finance reform, which is something you’re focusing on…

Structural reform, yes. I’m in favor of 12-year term limits for Representatives and Senators, I’m in favor of a national referendum process to direct democracy, I’m in favor of systematically making it easier to vote and getting rid of voter suppression. 

What does that mean?

Vote from home, mail-in ballots, anything to make it easier that’s safe. At this point everyone is worried about election security.

Are you worried about the perception of a lack of election security going into 2020? Could the president use that to his advantage? 

It will happen, that’s the Republican cover for voter suppression. Of course he’ll say there was fraud, but who cares? This is a guy who has lied 13,000 times. You’re asking me if I think he’ll lie one more time? Yeah, I do. It would be kind of a stunner if he didn’t. Listening to Mr. Trump claim that he’s a victim got old about 70 years ago. 

So, what did you think yesterday? Were you watching the impeachment hearings?

Nope. 

No? But you’re the impeachment guy

I was busy! 

Did you watch Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell yesterday?

I thought what Powell said was actually the most important thing that happened yesterday. What the president is doing with the Fed is completely improper. It’s classic short-term stupid thinking by a man who doesn’t know anything about economics. Every single thing Trump is doing economically is for a short-term boost at the expense of the long term. It’s like a sugar high, he’s basically living from minute to minute and trying to do a lot of short-term things to make the economy look good so he can get re-elected, including yelling at the head of the Fed to lower rates as much as possible. Powell said yesterday that if you do that, you take away our ability to do anything when times get tough. 

Do you think times are about to get tough?

I’m deeply worried. If you look at some of these numbers, they look like a slowdown but consumer numbers look pretty good. To me the real question is not so much the short-term fluctuation, it’s whether you’re creating value and growth and increasing prosperity for the long-term. The biggest thing that Powell said was to talk about deficits, he was saying that we’re in a terrible position with no traditional ammunition to respond during a tough time. 

Are you a deficit hawk?

I don’t think it’s going to be a huge political issue because I think most people don’t understand deficits. It was an issue for Republicans who used it as an excuse to never vote for a social program. In fact when the deficit numbers came out this fall, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said that this was a Democratic problem because the left wouldn’t cut social programs. That’s a pathetic thing to say, it’s so stupid. Oh, really that’s the problem with the deficit? That we didn’t cut the social programs enough when you just put in a $1.2 trillion tax cut for the richest Americans? Incredible. It’s a pathetic and cruel excuse. If you travel around the country you see what that means on human beings, I’ve seen the impact of this Republican program of cutting taxes for rich people and corporations and then cutting education or healthcare benefits and going after unions. It’s terrible, it’s not just a theory so for Steve Mnuchin to say that implies an immense amount of cruelty. 

Let’s talk about healthcare. You’re not in favor of Medicare for All…

I want to expand a public option, people who aren’t otherwise covered or who choose to take it can get their insurance through something like Medicare. We have a healthcare program already in the United States, 160 million people are getting it through their employer and they’ve negotiated for that. Maybe it’s better and maybe it’s worse than the public option but they should get to pick. My goal would be that the public option is so good and cheap that everyone wants it, but that will always be their choice. We don’t want to tell 160 million Americans that we’re going to scrap the system we’ve built up and that they’re going to get healthcare the way they tell them they’re going to get it or they’ll be breaking the law. That seems unnecessary and very risky, there’s been a lot of controversy about how much it’s going to cost and how we’re going to pay for it. There have been projections that have been off by 75%. 

Have you looked at Elizabeth Warren’s plan?

I think it cuts out people’s choice and there’s a lot of risk in projecting anything over 10 years and a lot of controversy over whether her numbers are right. And not on one thing, on multiple levels. Look, Medicare for All and my plan are both built to drive down costs and provide healthcare for people, the question is…do you do it in a way that builds on the existing system or destroys the system? 

You identify as a progressive, but it seems like you stay away from some bedrock ideas that Sanders and Warren support: Medicare for All and a Green New Deal…

Well actually, I think we need to completely rebuild America to deal with climate change. We will change everything in a huge way. I’m talking about changing rules for the way people do things.

How would you change those rules?

I’m not anti-free market, I’m very anti-corporations running the government and writing the rules. My first day in office, I would declare a state of emergency on climate change. 

Some candidates say their first act would be to get the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement…

The Paris thing? No. People talk about that, but what does that do? Would I do it? Sure, why not? But what does it even do in the real world? The Paris Agreement was a pledge with no economic enforcement that no country is living up to. The state of emergency changes the rules and changes how we generate power. I’d make rules that would have to be met. Rules on building efficiency and miles per gallon. We’re going to have to meet these goals. We have to do this, I don’t care what anyone says. We can do it in a way that makes us grow faster and richer with good jobs. This is a huge work problem that you can’t do from China. It’s gigantic job creation. 

So, you would use executive power to get this done…

Look, Congress hasn’t passed a piece of climate legislation ever. So sitting here and saying I have a great new policy that if Congress would pass would really help, it’s like…good, but not really. The issue with climate is that we understand what needs to be done but don’t know how we’re going to do it, I’m telling you how to do it. 

Do you think big tech has too much influence over the government?

There’s no question that some of these big IT companies are natural monopolies and traditionally they start doing things that in their favor and not in their customer’s favor. That’s why we have antitrust laws. 

What about the way some companies like Uber and Lyft treat gig workers?

There have been numerous successful attempts by large companies to redefine ’employee,’ so they don’t have to live up to employment laws. It’s just not right. There have been so many different attempts to say, you work for me full-time but you’re a part-time employee who doesn’t get benefits. It’s like, really? These are huge corporations that make billions of dollars. We need to define what a full-time employee is federally. This just fits into the idea that all the money is going to the top. People are now killing themselves for work to survive because their employers are breaking the law. 

Was there any particular moment that made you decide to run for president?

I was in Las Vegas talking to unionized workers in the biggest public hospital. I’m eating lunch in the dining room with lots of people who clean the wards, nurses, orderlies, everybody but the doctors. And they took an immense amount of pride in their work. These were the people who were cleaning the wards, you clean everything…but they were really proud of their hospital and said they loved their jobs and save lives. They’re working their asses off in a very high-minded idealistic way, as far as I’m concerned. I asked them, who fights for them and represents them and they said nobody. I said there’s nobody you look to in Carson City or Washington D.C. and they said no. I thought, ‘okay, that’s not right.’ These people are working very hard at dirty jobs and they should not feel as though there’s no one who has their back. 

You want to have their backs?

When you think about that story you think about who’s actually working hard and what they’re getting for it and you think, ‘that can’t happen.’ 

Why are you the person who can help them?

I have a different background. I’ve been directly fighting corporations for a decade when I think they’re out of line, and beating them. And I think that’s different from everybody else. I don’t have to be scared of telling the truth. Everybody knew President Trump was a crook two years ago when I started Need to Impeach, they just weren’t allowed to say it, and they were worried about Washington politics. 

I’ve heard you say, ‘I don’t have to be afraid of telling the truth before,’ but I want to know what it means to tell the truth. 

Why weren’t people afraid to call for the impeachment of someone who was clearly breaking the law? All the Republicans know he’s breaking the law, their argument is that it’s not improper enough to impeach him. I’m not tied to the political system. I have a freedom, no one is telling me what to do. 

Is that because you’re funding your own campaign?

No, it’s not about the money. It’s about not having to protect the system. Because I’m an outsider, I don’t owe fealty to the system. 

But when I hear that rhetoric, I’m reminded of our current president’s 2016 campaign…

He ran on something that really resonated with people, that the system is corrupt. His message was that the system doesn’t work for you, the system doesn’t care for you or even respect you and people responded to that. But it turns out he’s a huge swamp rat. I’m not. 

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