A New Top Dog in Public-policy Funding

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 2010

Hedge funder Thomas Steyer made lots of money developing new coal mines in Asia. More recently, he decided fossil fuels are evil, and developed a taste for policy fights on this subject. In 2010 Steyer personally launched and funded a $25 million campaign to defeat a voter proposition in California that would have suspended the state’s global-warming law (which requires a statewide reduction of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels) until the state unemployment rate fell below 5.5 percent (it was then above 12 percent). The year before, Steyer had given $40 million to Stanford to bankroll a climate and energy center, and the year after he pledged $25 million to Yale for a similar environmental center.

By the time the next election rolled around in 2012, Steyer had funded a California voter proposition of his own. This one would raise about a billion dollars of taxes and steer much of the money into “clean energy” spending. Steyer poured tens of millions of dollars into getting the referendum passed. Next, he started funding and appearing in a series of 90-second ads attacking the Keystone XL pipeline; they were instrumental in stalling that project. The philanthropist has recently been a strong supporter of the Energy Foundation (see 1991 entry).

In 2013, Steyer stepped out as America’s No. 1 public policy and politics donor on the left. He spent $11 million to help elect Terry McAuliffe as governor of Virginia, millions more on the Democrat primaries in Massachusetts, and then invited a couple dozen other top liberal donors to one of his vacation homes to announce his creation of NextGen Climate—his own politics and policy organization focused on global-warming activism. He donated $50 million to the group and asked others for matches so they could seat 2014 candidates favoring global-warming controls. In the end, Steyer poured around $73 million into various 2014 campaign races. For the 2016 election season Steyer reoriented NextGen almost completely away from policy formation and toward political efforts on climate issues.

Steyer has become the largest funder not only of climate causes, but also of the Democratic Party and of the left-wing Democracy Alliance (see 2005 entry). According to the Center for Public Integrity, he gave more than any other political donor in the U.S. in 2014. After the election, his chief strategist told the New York Times that “Steyer’s spending was a down payment on a multiyear strategy aimed at ensuring that climate change stays at the center of the political debate.”