Greens get billionaire ally, money

A California billionaire is pledging to spend as much of his fortune as necessary to make climate change “the defining issue of our generation.”

Tom Steyer, who made his riches as a hedge fund manager, told The Hill on Tuesday that he wants to make climate change a campaign issue for years to come and Democratic support for environmental protections as widespread as support for gay marriage and immigration reform.

“The goal here is not to win. The goal here is to destroy these people. We want a smashing victory,” Steyer said of candidates he judges to be on the wrong side of the climate change debate.

“Really, what we’re trying to do is to make a point that people who make good decisions on this should be rewarded, and people should be aware that if they do the wrong thing, the American voters are watching and they will be punished.”

Steyer, whose wealth is estimated at $1.4 billion, last year quit the hedge fund he founded to devote his energy and resources to environmental causes. He has contributed millions to charitable organizations that work on climate change issues, and is a big financial supporter for Greener Capital, a venture firm that invests in renewable energy endeavors.

He has so far spent at least $126,000 on ads in the Massachusetts special Senate election. Despite being asked to stay out of the contest by both Democrats seeking their party’s nomination — Reps. Edward Markey and Stephen Lynch — Steyer targeted Lynch for his support for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Though he’s hosting a $32,500-per-person fundraiser with President Obama on Wednesday to raise money for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he says he has no plans to discuss his opposition to the Keystone pipeline with the president that night.

Instead, he’s planning to invest millions in races at every level, both primary and general, to boost leaders on environmental issues and to “destroy” those perceived as anti-environment.

His approach mirrors that taken by New York City’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, in his crusade for gun control. Bloomberg spent more than $2.2 million in Illinois’s 2nd District special election in opposition to a pro-gun-rights candidate.

Spokesman Chris Lehane said Steyer looks to Bloomberg’s actions as a potential blueprint for his own efforts.

But in Massachusetts, Markey has long held a solid lead over Lynch, and Democrats are likely to retain the seat regardless of which one wins the nomination.

Lehane said that Steyer’s engagement in the race was as much about making an example of Lynch as it was about supporting Markey.

“Tom intentionally wanted to enter with a loud boom in Massachusetts to send a signal to a number of audiences that there’s going to be a new outside game in town, one that’s going to start playing on this issue in a fundamentally different way,” Lehane said.

Unlike gun control, however, where polls indicate the public is ready for some level of reform, the verdict’s still out among the American public on many environmental issues, including the Keystone XL pipeline. A Pew report out this week revealed that a majority of Americans support its construction.

But Steyer believes that if the issues are communicated well, climate advocates can win in races nationwide.

“In politics, I’ve now been heavily involved with two campaigns on this topic, and it really is a question of how you describe the issue and who does the describing. If you talk about it in terms of its economic impact, in terms of jobs, in terms of the health of our kids ... it’s a winning issue,” he said.

Frustrated with the lack of any discussion of climate issues in the 2012 presidential campaign, Steyer quit Farallon Capital at the end of the year and decided to devote his time — and as much of his net worth as it takes — to making climate change an issue at the ballot box.

He plans to target young voters and Hispanics, and partner with faith groups in future initiatives — all demographic groups he says are receptive to arguments on climate change. 

The Keystone XL pipeline won’t be his only fight. He said that he’ll look to engage more broadly where there is a “clear choice” between a candidate who supports environmental protections and one who is opposed. A source familiar with Steyer’s thinking said that the Virginia governor’s race is one where he could chose to use his clout.

“I see this as a very broad-based societal change that has to take place. This is a target-rich environment,” he said.

That means that Steyer could again engage in ballot initiative fights, where he has had his most prominent successes to date. Steyer spent more than $37 million of his own money on California ballot initiatives that, he believed, bolstered the state’s environment and economy.

Lehane also noted that climate change deniers — those lawmakers who have expressed skepticism on the science that proves climate change exists and is man-made — could come under particular fire.

“One of the places you’ll see a significant focus is on candidates that are anti-science, the ones who explicitly put their heads in the sand and said they don’t believe in the science,” he said.

But Steyer won’t engage on behalf of climate matters to the detriment of Democratic chances in a race, Lehane said.

“I think we’ll be smart and sophisticated and strategic about the races that Tom chooses to engage in, clearly with a sense of some of the bigger issues involved,” he said.