Today Calbuzz presents the third of our two-on-one interviews with for-sure and possible candidates for California governor in two years. The idea is to give each of them space and running room to express their views in their own words, in details and at length. No worries, we’ll get to the cheap shots and snark down the road.
Sure there’s a long time between now and 2018, with President Hair Boy presenting an immediate, clear and present danger to the state and nation; what the hell, maybe none of us will be around to cover the race to succeed Jerry Brown anyway, should the Tangerine Flake Baby blow up the Earth.
Because Brown’s has been perhaps the most successful governor since his father, Pat, a half century ago, by virtue of leading the state back from the brink of melt down, 2018 will have extremely high stakes. Voters must pick someone who approaches Gandalf’s experience, judgment and maturity in order to protect that progress; and given our authentic Methuselah statues, better early than never to take in a look at the possibilities.
But in talking in detail with him about the politics of 2016, and repeatedly pressing him on his possible gubernatorial ambitions, one thing became clear: if he decides to run, he’ll start the campaign with the strongest grassroots organization and the most readily available financial resources (his own) among the field.
“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha,” Steyer answered when we asked him “Why do you want to be governor?” our standard first question in this series of interviews (which, in his case, was just an old, old cheap reporter trick). “Well, as I said after I flunked math in the first grade, let me answer your question as if you’d asked me a fair question.”
He’s no dabbler. Unlike other successful mega-rich guys with political enthusiasm – hello Al Checchi, Bill Simon and eMeg Whitman – the 59-year old hedge fund manager is not a dilettante seeking to jump into the political trade at the top of the ladder. Not only have he and his wife decided to donate half their fortune to worthy causes, but he’s paid some political dues — contributing millions to progressive causes, helping pass a batch of initiatives that have sent big revenues into the state budget and, as the founder of NextGen Climate, overseen big voter registration and door-to-door campaigns in California and across the country.
“The No. 1 issue facing California right now is our relationship with the federal government,” Steyer told us, noting Trump’s travel ban and immigration, environment and economic policies as direct threats.
“The idea that they would try and move to a system that would remove $20 billion in health care money from the state of California! That’s why I’m saying it’s critical that we go outside of California to make our case because this is an administration that’s coming after us,” he warned.
“What we are trying to do, as a result of Nov. 8, is to figure out as best we can how to both organize Americans to actively resist the Trump agenda and the Trump administration and at the same time work for all the progress that we’d hoped we could have assuming a different outcome on Nov. 8.,” Steyer said.
Didn’t see it coming. “And so, did we think we were going to have to do the first half of that on Nov. 7th? We absolutely did not. And so we’ve been trying to figure out how to adapt what we did in 2016 and the grassroots stuff we did with a communications strategy to basically keep Americans civically informed, engaged and participating on a real time basis. And that is something we did not think was going to be our job description…
Yeah, sure, but are you running for governor or not?
“I don’t think I have to make a decision right now, but anything I decide to do personally is going to have to support what I described to you and make us more effective at doing it and amplify it. Because I think it is hard to overestimate the threat that this administration and the Republican entourage pose for Americans.”
In a telephone interview that mercifully did not require us to leave our dual headquarters in Aptos and Santa Barbara, where we have our fingers squarely on the political pulse of California, Steyer was direct, knowledgeable and high-energy or, more precisely, hyper-caffeinated.
“You have no idea how wound up I am in terms of the threat to this state and this country,” he said.
In key elements of his ebullient rap, Steyer:
— Warned that the state cannot adopt a “fortress California” policy towards Trump. He said California should use litigation as a front-line defense, along with the Senate filibuster and whatever other meager tools are available to power-deficient Democrats. “If we get into a prolonged fight with the federal government, they’re going to do things to us that hurt a lot; in particular they’re going to punish us for standing up.”
— Bragged on the performance of NextGen and its dozens of political partners in 2016, ticking off a list of numerical accomplishments appropriate for a Silicon Valley guy obsessed with metrics: “We were in California, we did a huge registration drive, 800,000 people, we did a big GOTV drive, worked on 22 local measures and 13 statewide props, including co-chairing the $2-a-pack cigarette tax, we were on 370 college campuses talking to people on mostly climate issues, and we went to 11 million houses door-to-door in the United States, talking about a broader group of issues including environmental justice, economic justice, racial justice and schools with five organized labor partners.” Whew.
— Tut tutted at Hillary Clinton’s campaign for “completely inaccurate polling data (and) “really faulty information,” which led to fatal over-confidence in its standing in key Midwestern states, while also fingering the Democratic National Committee for utterly failing to mount any on-the-ground organizational effort: “I think the DNC last year, in 2016, did not have a grassroots presence. Full stop.”
— Offered a clear but complex analysis of the strategy he believes Democrats must set in motion going forward, a thoroughly grassroots operation that links the issues of climate change, jobs and health and environmental justice: “When we think about clean energy, when we think about climate, we have to do it in the context of a broader suite of issues.”
— Bashed the Trump Administration as a bastion of elitist, radical right wing white male privilege, uncaring and dismissive of the needs of ordinary Americans: “They have nominated and successfully gotten through a bunch of radical and unfit people for the cabinet (and) if the American people are not engaged, if the American public does not speak up…we don’t lose to this administration and their country club, we don’t lose to these guys because people agree with them, we lose if people acquiesce and are passive and let them do what they want.”
Come to think of it, maybe we’re asking the wrong question about Steyer eyeing the Capitol horseshoe; maybe he’s looking to take on Trump in 2020.
Q: Can we get rid of Trump?
A: To impeach a president, the House of Representatives have to vote to impeach him and the Senate has to convict him. And we’re very, very, very far from that.
Q: Would Pence be better?
A: When Paul Ryan kind of walked away from Trump during the campaign after the tape came out of him talking to Billy Bush, he walked away for one week, and Paul Ryan’s popularity went down 20%. I think every Republican politician in America looks at that and kind of goes, “OK. I get it.”
Our strategy has always been that the power and the integrity and the future of the American system are with the American people. And so our whole effort and our whole belief system are built around that idea. Because if enough American people are informed, engaged and participating, then the answers will be just and true. I’m not waiting for the Republican Congress or the Republican Senate to save us. Our thesis has always been, only the American people can save us.
Q: Why do you want to be governor?
A: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Well, as I said after I flunked math in the first grade, let me answer your question as if you’d asked me a fair question. What we are trying to do, as a result of Nov. 8, is to figure out as best we can how to both organize Americans to actively resist the Trump agenda and the Trump administration and at the same time work for all the progress that we’d hoped we could have, assuming a different outcome on Nov. 8. And so, did we think we were going to have to do the first half of that, and on Nov. 7th? We absolutely did not. And so we’ve been trying to figure out how to adapt what we did in 2016 and the grassroots stuff we did with a communications strategy to basically keep Americans civically informed, engaged and participating on a real time basis. And that is something we did not think was going to be our job description.
Q:You’re not speaking in the royal “we,” I assume.
A: Ha, ha, ha…why would you possibly assume that?
Q: So, are you saying you don’t want to be governor?
A: Ha, ha, ha, ha … I don’t think I have to make a decision right now but anything I decide to do personally is going to have to support what I described to you and make us more effective at doing it and amplify it. Because I think it is hard to overestimate the threat that this administration and the Republican entourage pose for Americans. I don’t think you can overestimate it because we’re seeing them attack American interests daily in profound ways and across a pretty broad group of policy areas. And it’s consistent. And we just can’t ignore that. And anything I decided to do personally has got to be supportive of the mission of standing up to that threat and trying to put forward the positive vision that we think California embodies. As imperfect as we are, in my opinion, what we’re doing here is the best example of the way America should be going.
Q: Then why wouldn’t it follow that the best place to be would be as the chief executive of California? If California were the resistance, wouldn’t you be able to both personally and politically achieve the most by being governor?
A: Boy, we have spent the last going on four months, trying to adapt what we did in 2016. We were in California, we did a huge registration drive, 800,000 people, we did a big GOTV drive, we worked on 22 local measures and 13 statewide props, including co-chairing the $2-a-pack cigarette tax, we were on 370 college campuses talking to people on mostly climate issues, and we want to 11 million houses door-to-door in the United States, talking about a broader group of issues including environmental justice, economic justice, racial justice and schools with five organized labor partners. All of that was stuff that we figured would be a 2016 effort and adapting that figure out how to stay in the grass roots and build an online voice has been a full-time effort so I don’t feel like I’ve had to make a decision about what to do personally, whether to run for something.
Q: Did you see the Trump thing coming at all?
A: No. Honestly, we could see that the – everyone wants to focus on Hillary versus Trump and I think that is really too simple, honestly, to gather the picture because, a year ago Democrats, including me, thought we would re-take the Senate and thought we would be within spitting distance on the House.
And if you look at the Democratic turnout in 2014 plus what happened in the races in 2016, including but not limited to the presidency, what you see is something much more broad-based than just Mr. Trump.
You can’t just look at Trump. I like to say he’s a mess but you can’t take your eyes of him. He’s great at dominating the airways but there was something much broader going on between all the other races going on outside of California in 2016 and in 2014.
From our standpoint, we spent a ton of time and effort in California – our organization, I’m not talking about myself but including myself – and it couldn’t have really gone much better. And it was grass roots, grass roots, grass roots. And if you look outside of California, I think we’re going to have finished our analysis sometime in the next two weeks, and you’re going to see that grass roots worked outside of California but there wasn’t enough of it.
Q: Were you active in Michigan and Wisconsin?
A: We did go door-to-door in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Q: In urban areas only?
A: I’d be happy to give you guys a review of exactly what we did state by state (when it’s done).
Q: Did you see something in Michigan and Wisconsin that the Clinton campaign should have seen?
A: There’s no question that the information that the Clinton campaign was getting about where the voting stood was wildly inaccurate. There’s no question about it. And therefore they were making decisions based on completely inaccurate polling data. There’s no question about it.
We could see in a bunch of states that we were the biggest… we were not only the people who were on the most college campuses in the United States. I mean that’s crazy, but we were.
But we were also, our organization with these labor unions, also doing more grass roots than anybody else in some of those states … it’s a question that the (Clinton) campaign, I think, did not feel that it needed to do work in places where it turned out that they desperately needed to do work.
If you look at how much money was spent and how much of the candidate’s time was spent in Michigan and Wisconsin you have to understand they would never have made those decisions if they’d know how close it was. I think they made a decision publicly to go after states where they could work toward a Senate that would support her as president because they thought it was in the bag.
I don’t think I’m saying anything that everybody doesn’t know. They had really, really faulty information and what we could see was that they weren’t doing things that we desperately wanted them to do because they didn’t think they had to… but I think they were going off inaccurate information and so they were making decisions that, in hindsight, look tragic but at the time, based on the information they had, were logical. That’s the big story, I think.
Q: Are you focused more nationally now or on California?
A: We are still incredibly focused on California just the way we were last year. I spend 90% of my time here. My wife is in a business meeting in Katmandu and I’m driving to Fresno tomorrow morning at 7:15. That’s really what’s going on.
I view California as a place where it’s working and it’s also the place that I live and everybody in our office lives and we are incredibly serious about getting it right.
Having said that, we do not believe that California can succeed as fortress California. That we can go about our merry business, we can have our energy laws, we can have our minimum wage laws, we can protect our citizens and welcome immigrants and integrate them into our society and provide health care in the way that we want to, without regard to the other 49 states or the federal government.
I think it’s quite clear that that cannot work. If we get into a prolonged fight with the federal government, they’re going to do things to us that hurt a lot. In particular, they’re going to punish us for standing up.
This administration has made it clear that they punish people who don’t do what they want. And California has a mind of its own and is succeeding in a different way and is making them look stupid and they can’t abide that and therefore they will have to try to punish us.
We need to be taking our ideas and our values to the rest of America because I believe that we are standing up for basic American values in California. When we talk about inclusiveness, that’s a basic American value. The civil liberties that this administration is going after – we’re strongly in favor of civil liberties, Americans have fought for those for hundreds of years.
We are doing the basic patriotic duty of American citizens and we need to get that idea outside of California as well as inside because otherwise these guys are going to come after us with impunity. And we can’t allow that to happen?
Q: Do you think the Legislature’s aggressive stance on this is shortsighted?
A: I don’t. Let me be clear: I don’t. I think the Legislature is doing the right thing in standing up and trying to loudly proclaim California values. I support them. I think that they have done a terrific job….It’s going to be necessary, maybe not immediately – because a lot of things this administration has done and will to are illegal and the court systems still exist – but unless we can go out to the rest of the country and talk about the kinds of values that we believe in, the kinds of values other Americans believe in, and get the positive story out there about how we can go forward, this administration is going to attack us with impunity…
I’m completely supportive of what the Legislature is doing I just feel there’s something else that has to happen which is that there has to be … we have to take our case to the rest of the American public.
Q: What does that look like?
A: Well it looks like 370 college campuses and knocking on 11 million doors plus a lot more.
Q: But it didn’t work.
A: If you give me two weeks, I’ll show you the presentation that showed it wasn’t enough but where we did it had a huge positive impact.
Q: There are some Republican Congressional districts with high-profile representatives that could be overturned if there was a strike force leading the charge.
A: I happen to know that there are seven congressional districts in California held by Republicans that Hillary took. By chance, I happen to know that. Which is awesome…. One of those seven people is not Devin Nunes…
Our thesis in 2016 was that we can’t be in 3,000 water district elections or 3,000 school board elections in California – what we can try to do is register and engage California citizens with partners throughout the state – of which we have 30 organizational partners – to register and engage people so we change the math.
That’s what we tried to do. That is a strategy that we completely believe in, which is that if American citizens register, engage and participate we will get good outcomes. We believe in democracy. We believe in direct democracy right now – organizing people to do things between elections – and we believe in democracy on Election Day, too.
Q: Is the DNC positioned to be receptive to that message, or not?
A: I think the DNC last year, in 2016, did not have a grass roots presence. Full stop. However, I also know (newly-elected chairman) Tom Perez is a very talented and responsible guy and so I’m hoping they will have a completely different profile. And I expect they will. But I can say, in 2016 the DNC did not exist as a grass roots organization.
Q: Where is the center of power in the Democratic Party today? Is it in the DNC, individual states, Congress?
A: We really have a philosophy of trying to engage directly with citizens. We really do. We feel like that is the power. If you show up, if you engage with citizens directly, the grass roots is where all the power lies…if you think about everything that’s happened since Nov. 8 – the women’s march, protests against (U.S. Rep. Tom) McClintock, the climate march that’s coming, the stuff that happened at the airports about the travel ban – everything was about grass roots. They’re outraged American citizens making their voices and their opinions felt. That’s what we believe in.
Q: What do you do about the 22nd CD – Devin Nunes?
A: We are in the process of figuring our exactly how to adapt what we did in 2016. It’s not going to be done by trying to influence Mr. Nunes…. What we’ll do is register, engage, inform citizens so that they know what’s going on and turn out…I know where Mr. Nunes is from. I know who his constituents are.
And I know he represents them terribly. So how has he managed to stay in office? Because not enough people have shown up and not enough people are participating in the political system because they don’t think it necessarily works for them.
This is as much a democratic crisis as anything else. Because if you look at ’14, we had historical low turnout from Democrats and if you look at ’16 what really happened was we had much lower turnout for Democrats than we did in ’12 and ’08. …
Do Americans believe in their own political system as a way of having a just and forward-looking society? It is critical and you would say, looking at the level of intensity, the level of civic engagement, subsequent to Nov. 8, it appears Americans are taking it much more seriously.
But we will see what happens in the next 18 months and we’ll see what happens in November of 2018 and we’ll see whether people understand that participating in Democracy is a necessity. You don’t participate in Democracy; you have no right to complain.
Q: Can your organization spark a grass roots prairie fire in those districts where people like Devin Nunes are operating?
A: I assure you we will be out there trying to broaden democracy.
Q: Would you agree that the most important target for progressives to focus on is the 2018 midterms?
A: No. We think about it slightly differently. It’s not that I don’t think that’s very important, but honestly there’s an awful lot of water that’s going to go under the bridge between now and November 2018.
And if the American people are not engaged, if the American public does not speak up…we don’t lose this to this administration and their country club, we don’t lose to these guys because people agree with them, we lose if people acquiesce and are passive and let them do what they want.
If we do nothing between now and November ’18, we’re in a horrible pickle. The only thing we can do is be active that whole time, continuously, in an organized fashion and if we don’t do that then 2018 is way too late.
Q: It’s hard to envision what your metrics for success are or what kind of pressure you can actually bring to bear when the Democrats hold no points of power in the federal structure.
A: I think there are a couple of different points: one is litigation because these guys tend to break the law; two is to the extent that there are legislative points either in Sacramento or in Washington where Democrats can make a difference then that can happen too. And that includes, I guess, in DC the filibuster rule is probably the most obvious case. But then there’s a whole bunch of things that legislators in Sacramento are passing that are protections that I think are also important, as well as the positive things that they can do.
You know this administration wanted to put a 20% tariff on all goods imported from Mexico until people got up and screamed and yelled. The Congress wanted to get rid of the independent ethical oversight of Congress until people screamed and yelled. They’ve tried to do a series of things that have failed, either because they were illegal or they were so unpopular they couldn’t pull them off. Let’s see what they do with the Affordable Care Act.
They have nominated and successfully gotten through a bunch of radical and unfit people for the cabinet. But the American people have been able to stand up against the worst excesses of this administration in terms of proposals they’ve made and they’ve been prevented them from getting much of anything done because Americans are informed and they’re standing up for their rights. And why should that change? That’s our protection.
Q: Do you think that in September of 2018, you’ll be more focused on midterm Congressional races or other efforts within California?
A: Ha, ha, ha … I don’t know. There’s an awful lot that’s going to happen between now and September 2018.
Q: Well, just tell us what your timetable is about making that decision.
If you think about what is going to happen between now and the next 18 months, imagine how much is going to change. It’s hard to believe.
Q: We have covered politics for 40 years and the Al Checchis or the Meg Whitmans or the Bill Simons of the world – people who have come in with a lot of money and tried to buy their way to a top spot, has never impressed us. On the other hand, you have a different history: you’ve actually put your money and your time into building something, paying dues inside the political process, which makes you a rich guy who’s not just coming in off the bench. So we’re pushing you hard to try to figure out whether you’re going to be in that game.
A: Let me say this: A) everything you’re asking me is legit so you don’t need to say that and B) I have co-chaired three successful statewide props: No on 23, that protected the cap and trade money; 39, that brings in about a billion dollars a year, and 56 last year that is worth $3-4 billion a year with the federal match.
There aren’t many people in California who’ve been responsible for that much money coming to our revenue base and none of it from income taxes or property taxes. Every one of those is an attempt to both make us stronger fiscally and also get people to pay a tax who were taking advantage of the majority of taxpayers, the majority of citizens.
Trust me – I have worked full time on this for years. I’m leaving at 7:15 tomorrow to go to Fresno…
Q: That’s our point…
A: You have no idea how wound up I am in terms of the threat to this state and this country. I am really wound up. It is not right what’s going on and it is a much bigger crisis than I think people understand.
Q: I think what we’re saying…
The Democrats were not perceived as representing working people. That’s amazing. In California, we got good registration, good turnout, good engagement. That is grass roots, that is human beings going door-to-door, that is citizens talking to each other, that is organization, it happened here and the result was fantastic.
Q: This is why you’re not Meg Whitman or Al Checchi or any of those folks – you’re a completely different character. And that’s why we’re pushing to find out whether you’re going to get in the game full time as a candidate for governor…. Your profile is 100% different than any of the other wealthy businesspersons that we’ve covered over the years.
A: I’ll tell you what: I’ll make a deal with you guys. When I make this decision public, I will do it with you guys.
Q: Perfect. Do we need to stay around this week or can we kinda goof off?
A: You’re both living on the beach. It’s hard for me to feel sorry for you guys. (Laughter).
Q: What should the state be doing on climate change?
We have the most progressive energy policies in the world. The issue to me on climate is everyone wants to look at this in a silo and that’s the wrong way to look at it. And that’s why the environmental organizations have had so little traction for so long.
When I look at energy policy, you cannot separate it from health and jobs. To make it work we have to make sure that the people who are getting sick from bad air in California, who are mostly poor people living around refineries or living in places where tens of thousands of diesel trucks go back and forth every day, we cannot solve climate without solving that air pollution problem.
It makes people sick, it makes people unable to go to school, it ruins kids’ lives, you cannot separate climate from that fact. And you cannot separate climate from the fact that energy drives our economy and if we’re going to move to a different kind of energy we have to make sure the it is done in a way that the people working in it get a decent wage.
You can’t look at 2016 in terms of Bernie, in terms of Trump and not understand that Americans are not getting a fair wage. Working people are not getting a fair wage. And I think people blew it in terms of understanding how that was happening. But when you look at changing the way our energy complex works, it’s absolutely critical that whatever we change to, as we move to clean energy in its different forms, that those jobs be decently paid jobs you can support a family on. Otherwise it’s not going to happen.
So it is absolutely incumbent on us as Californians to not just understand how not to pollute but to move to clean sources where it protects poor people, especially poor kids, and where the jobs that are created will create many more jobs. And those are well-paid jobs and their organized so that working people can see this as a salvation for them in multiple ways.
Q: What is California not doing that it should be doing?
If you look at 2017, the cap and trade re-authorization, the question on this is going to be how do we do it in a way to both clean the air so kids are healthy, create enough of a revenue stream to send to poor zip codes and also set up a market-based mechanism to end up with clean energy on a time table we want.
And the issue is, when you’re think about creating legislation … if you only have one instrument and you’re trying to get it to solve three separate policy questions, you’re going to create a three-humped camel. Because one instrument can’t solve three issue very well.
From my standpoint, when we think about clean energy, when we think about climate, we have to do it in the context of a broader suite of issues, taking care of the day-to-day needs of working Californians and California families.
And when we think about 2017, I don’t know if you know this but we’ve been pushing really hard to replace diesel trucks and diesel school buses. That is a huge source of asthma for 3.3 million Californians, most of them poor, most of them living near refineries or big truck routes.
We need to see what are we actually trying to do and then break down the ways of addressing it so that we deal with the real issues and don’t complicate it so the issues are working against each other in designing the bill.
To me, every time you try to look at these issues and you try to silo them you make a clear mistake. What you’ve really got to do is understand how the interplay works and then be clear in writing legislation to address the actual problem instead of trying to solve the problem under the table by not really talking about it. That’s how you get into all kinds of bad feelings and bad legislation.
Q: Is there somebody in Sacramento who’s doing a good job at that?
A: I think we have a really good Legislature – no kidding.
Q: But is there somebody who is taking a holistic approach to the issue of climate change, social justice, poverty, and health care?
A: I think the leadership of both of the houses is pretty darn good. I really do. Anthony Rendon and Kevin DeLeon are both very responsible legislators.
If you went back 10 or 15 years and went around the United States and said, “The California Legislature is kicking the ass of the American Congress,” people would have laughed. But you know something? The California Legislature is kicking the ass of the American Congress in terms of being responsible and thoughtful and professional and effective.
That’s the truth. So I’m hoping that California is the harbinger of what happens in the United States of America…
Q: Would you rather be going to a business meeting in Katmandu or breakfast in Fresno?
Breakfast in Fresno, are you kidding me? And I’m not teasing.
Q: (Aside, from Jerry to Phil) Yeah, he’s running.
A: Would I like to go to Katmandu? Sure, I’d like to go to Katmandu. But you know something? There’s something absolutely critical going on in Fresno and I wouldn’t miss it for the world and I’m not kidding. I’m going to end the day with a rally, probably a victory rally, for Proposition H in Los Angeles.
Q: Is this non-silo-based approach to climate change, the No. 1 issue facing California?
The No. 1 issue facing California right now is our relationship with the federal government. It’s overwhelmingly obvious. There’s a new travel ban and there’s all kinds of immigration rulings; the stuff that’s coming out of the different environmental departments; the economics that they’re going to try to go after us on, I mean the idea that they would try and move to a system that would remove $20 billion in health care money from the state of California.
That’s why I’m saying it’s critical that we go outside of California to make our case because this is an administration that’s coming after us.
And a lot honestly has to do with money. They’re also coming after California citizens’ civil rights. And I’m not trying to underplay that – those are critical issues. They’re also coming after the money for kids to go to school and kids to eat and people to go to the doctor and people to pay for their medicine.
We don’t live in a moated community. We live in an open community that’s part of 50 states.
And we need to get that relationship right and we need to go make the case that what we’re doing is basic American values that everybody can get behind. And we need to make that case and win that argument.