Steyer, largest 2014 donor, says Americans worried money in politics gets ‘special privileges’


By Josh Kaib and Kathryn Watson |

MONEY IN POLITICS: Billionaire and environmentalist Tom Steyer speaks to a liberal-leaning audience on climate change after the November 2014 elections.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — San Francisco environmentalist and billionaire Tom Steyer was the single-largest donor in the 2014 election cycle.

But he’s encouraging like-minded liberals to shift the conversation about climate change to emphasize how money in elections and industry lobbyists are hindering a healthier environment. People may not inherently care about big-picture ideas, but they do care about special breaks for big business and the influence big money has on policy, he said at a panel discussion on climate change here Wednesday hosted by the Center for American Progress.

“People are very worried about the idea that money in politics is getting special privileges, and to the extent they ever see that actual connection between political favors and any kind of contribution, they are very upset about it,” Steyer said.

Steyer failed to mention that he represents money in politics through his group NextGen Climate, the largest single donor this election cycle. One might sympathize with the billionaire former hedge fund manager. He spent nearly $67 million of his own money in 2014, only to see most of his favored candidates lose.

With everything else happening in the country and the world, climate wasn’t close to being a top issue on the minds of Americans during this year’s midterm elections. A whopping 1 percent of Americans in a Gallup poll Nov. 6-9 said climate or pollution is the greatest issue facing the United States.

Steyer had a different takeaway from the 2014 election cycle — that failing to step up for environmental beliefs didn’t help Democrats.

“I think that my interpretation of the 2014 elections is, not standing up for the things you deeply believe in is not really a great idea,” he said, echoing the sentiments of many progressives following the Democrats’ drubbing at the polls.

Steyer said “in this case, particularly given the way that activist Democrats and young people across the country feel about this, not standing up for the things you really believe in, in an attempt to protect yourself doesn’t feel like a winning strategy.”

His spending wasn’t a winning strategy in 2014, but it’s possible Steyer’s cash influenced the failure of the Keystone XL Pipeline vote in the Senate this week. Keystone supporters fell one vote short, a vote that could have come from someone like Steyer-supported, outgoing Colorado Sen. Mark Udall. Udall voted against the project.

A March ABC/Washington Post poll showed 65 percent of Americans support the passage of the pipeline.

The new GOP-controlled Congress is expected to vote to approve Keystone when it takes over next year. In the meantime, progressives like Steyer plan to double down on their climate rhetoric.

“From my point of view, when we look around the country in the states where we’ve been active, being wrong on these issues has not paid off for anybody.” Steyer said.

He may want to speak with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Both were caught on Watchdog cameras leaving the event in SUVs. McCarthy, to be fair, was spotted in a hybrid Chevy Tahoe. Steyer left in a cab.

Before his departure Wednesday, caught up with Steyer in the hallway of the Mayflower Hotel. He refused to answer questions, and his staff directed us to contact NextGen Climate to set up an interview.

Josh Kaib and Kathryn Watson are reporters for