Thomas Steyer’s interest in the 26th Legislative District raceOctober 21st, 2013 by Steven Gardner
In a Facebook post on Oct. 18, state Rep. Jan Angel, running to unseat appointed incumbent state Sen. Nathan Schlicher in as the 26th Legislative District’s senator, wrote:
“Don’t allow this man to buy this election—mark the box by Jan Angel–I have lived and worked right here for over 30 yrs and no California dude can buy this seat unless you allow it!! Time to fight back 26th District!!”
The “dude” in question is Thomas Steyer, a California hedge fund manager who has since become a bigtime contributor to environmental causes. Angel links to this story from the Washington State Wire, which does a pretty good job of explaining who Steyer is and where the $6.3 million he put into committee named “NextGen CLimate Action Committee Sponsored by Thomas Steyer” can and cannot go. More recent Public Disclosure Commission reporting shows that of the $6.3 million Steyer put into the committee, all but about a half million has been spent, the bulk of it on out-of-state causes. What’s more is that NextGen cannot put a donation greater than $5,000 into the legislative races anymore.
Why so much money is reported in Washington is unclear. I tried to contact Steyer and got no response. Lori Anderson, PDC spokeswoman, said it’s possible Steyer is just operating his overall political spending operation here for convenience sake, because he has to report here anyway.
Steyer has put in $525,000 into two Washington committees. She’s Changed PAC, the organization doing all the advertising against Angel, has received $250,000. Washington Conservation Voters has received the rest. That committee then donated $150,000 to She’s Changed PAC, meaning Steyer has spent $400,000 to defeat Jan Angel.
Before getting to Steyer’s presence in Washington, it’s worth pointing out that most of the attention he gets recently has been for his opposition to the Keystone Pipeline. He has done plenty of work elsewhere to suggest his environmentalist leanings are legitimate, but one element of his opposition against Keystone provides easy fodder for his critics. He made the bulk of his money with Farallon Capital, which owns a boatload of stock in Kinder Morgan, which owns the Canada-U.S. West Coast pipeline that would be a major competitor to Keystone. If Keystone is blocked, Steyer’s critics argue, Steyer stands to benefit financially in a huge way. He has since said he will divest his portfolio of “dirty energy” holdings within a year.
A New Yorker story on Steyer and his opposition to Keystone is a great read, and shows that some of Steyer’s allies on other environmental issues are not solid with him on Keystone.
That story also illustrates some of what might be moving Steyer to invest in Washington.
Steyer wanted to test (former Al Gore and Bill Clinton operative Chris) Lehane’s theory that traditional campaign politics—the world of Super PACs and field organizations and TV ads—was the best way to spend his money. “Once politicians start to become aware that this issue can either help them or hurt them, you begin to change the conduct and behavior of those who are in elected office,” Lehane insisted. “Politicians very rarely lead, despite the fact that they talk about leadership in every speech. They typically follow.”
Where that first showed itself was in the Massachussetts Senate race to replace John Kerry, who had been named Secretary of State. Edward Markey opposed Keystone and Steve Lynch supported it. Both were Demcorats and faced each other in the primary.
Steyer’s group spent $1.8 million attacking Lynch and backing Markey. Lehane said they used the same “formula” that had been successful in California: an “enemy” oil company pursuing its own self-interest was hurting the state. Markey won, and went on to victory in the general election. Steyer began looking for his next opportunity.
Schlicher and Angel don’t appear in the New Yorker story, but Steyer’s financial presence just very will might owe itself to the success Steyer saw in Massachusetts and in his philosophical compatibility with Inslee.
In May the online site ClimateSolutions.org reported on speeches Inslee and Steyer gave at the Climate Solutions annual breakfast in Seattle. Both said the West needs to lead the way in battling climate change.
“What are we on the West Coast going to do about the bigger picture of climate change?” Steyer asked during his keynote address. “I think the solution is pretty straightforward: the West Coast needs to lead. And we will do so by exploiting every opportunity in the proposition process, the electoral process and the legislative process. It’s a big task.”
Remarks from Steyer paralleled earlier comments from Governor Jay Inslee. “The West Coast of the United States does not have to wait for the District of Columbia to move forward on strong climate policy,” the Governor stated. “I believe we are a laboratory of innovation and I believe we have the power to set a deadline for reducing our CO2 admissions, and to lead the world as we have done in so many ways.”
That Facebook post wasn’t the first time Angel referred to Steyer as a “dude.” Two days earlier she wrote:
“Rumor has it this billionaire dude putting all this money against me has had meetings with the Governor and perhaps swapping deals/favors –this is all starting to smell real bad!!!!”
I don’t know what deals/favors Angel has heard Inslee and Steyer might be swapping. I contacted Jay Inslee’s spokesman, David Postman, to see if the governor would like to respond to Angel’s comment. Postman wrote back, “Thanks for reaching out, but I’m not going to have a comment.”
Were the 26th Legislative District not the only district with a two-party race this year, it’s unlikely all of Steyer’s money would be in it. As it is, it’s the only real party challenge in the Legislature this year, and it’s between one legislator who has a lifetime score of 11 (out of 100) from Washington Conservation Voters against another who during the first half of the 2013-14 session scored a 100, according to WCV officials. Steyer advocated “exploiting every opportunity in the proposition process, the electoral process and the legislative process,” so in that context it should no longer be a surprise that Steyer is making good on his claim that the West should lead the way on climate change and that he is backing up that claim with his money.