Billionaire Steyer spends $15M pushing low priority climate change message in FL


By Tori Richards and William Patrick |

Gov. Rick Scott

In an effort to oust Gov. Rick Scott, billionaire activist Tom Steyer has underwritten a nearly $15 million campaign focusing on climate change, an issue one poll says few Florida voters care about.

Steyer’s advocacy group, NextGen Climate Action, set up shop in Miami this year, targeting Scott as oblivious to global warming disasters, a partner of eco-threatening big business and alleging that “2.4 million people… are vulnerable to sea level rise,” as NextGen’s website says.

It’s no accident Steyer chose Florida as Scott is ripe for the taking. Scott’s poll numbers have been mostly underwater since the first-time public officeholder and career businessman barely squeaked by his Democratic opponent in 2010, amid a tea party-driven wave election.

The stakes are also high. Putting former governor Charlie Crist back in the governor’s mansion could create leverage against a decidedly Republican state legislature, not to mention impact future elections. Florida is the largest swing state in presidential elections with 29

Tom Steyer

Electoral College votes; only California and Texas have more.

The environmental carpet bombing, however, has political observers wondering.

“It’s not entirely clear why a San Francisco billionaire is pouring millions into a Florida governor’s race, but I suspect if Crist wins we’ll see some sort of policy payback that benefits Mr. Steyer,” said Phil Kerpen, president of the free market advocacy group American Commitment.

“For all the talk of Tom Steyer and the millions he’s spent here, I don’t think that there’s going to be much impact of it,” said Sean D. Foreman, former president of the Florida Political Science Association.

Many of the ads have included factual errors such as Scott promoting a pollution-causing oil drilling fracking venture in the Everglades when the state actually forbid such a procedure and fined the company when it proceeded anyway. No pollution has been documented.

AP Photo

Charlie Crist

The same ad also said Scott received donations from the driller when the money came from the landowner. One television station pulled an ad after receiving a cease and desist order from Scott’s camp.

The mistakes “probably blunted the message that NextGen was trying to communicate,” political scientist Rick Foglesong of Rollins College, in Winter Park, Fla., told NPR.

A recent poll showing only 4 percent of voters in Florida think of climate change as an important issue suggests most voters aren’t absorbing the misinformation.

A national Associated Press poll found that nine out of 10 voters were concerned about the economy, followed by foreign affairs. The 4 percent came from a Florida Latino poll — a group NextGen has been targeting. Respondents cared more about the economy, immigration and health care in that order.

Sea level changes would mostly impact the Democratic stronghold of Southeast Florida, but the electorate as a whole cares far more about the economy because the state was crushed by the 2008 financial collapse and following recession. More than 800,000 jobs were lost and the unemployment rate was stuck in double digits from April 2009 to Sept. 2011. Today, it’s 6.1 percent.

“Global warming and the environment are extremely important issues,” said Liliam M. Lopez, president of the South Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “However, when a person is not employed and cannot bring food to the table for their families, then, for obvious reasons, this important issue will not be important to them. It’s logical.”

“No matter who wins the election in Florida, Tom Steyer already lost if his goal really was to make global warming an important political issue,” Kerpen said.

NextGen did not respond to two requests for comment.