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Posted on Sustainabilitank.info on October 18th, 2014
by Pincas Jawetz (pj@sustainabilitank.info)


How Billionaire Oligarchs Are Becoming Their Own Political Parties

By JIM RUTENBERG OCT. 17, 2014 – The New York Times Weekend Magazine

In August, Tom Steyer and seven campaign advisers sat in a small conference room in Coral Gables, Fla., trying to figure out how to save the world. Steyer, who is 57, has a fortune of roughly $1.5 billion, and his advisers were among the most talented political operatives in the United States. Steyer is especially concerned about climate change, and his immediate goal, the object of discussion that day, was to replace the sitting governor of Florida, Rick Scott, a Republican who has questioned the very existence of anthropogenic climate change, with Charlie Crist, the previous governor, whose environmental views hew more closely to Steyer’s.

The lead Florida strategist, Nick Baldick, was running through the campaign numbers. “There’s a problem here,” he said, brandishing a printout. Two bars, blue and red, were labeled “Total Raised,” and the red Republican bar was notably longer. “It’s just ugly,” Baldick said, with a shake of his head: “$74 million to Crist’s $24 million. And they have $38 million cash on hand to his $15 million.”

Tom Steyer is expected to spend $50 million of his own money supporting candidates who have strong environmental records.

In the spring, when Crist was riding a double-digit lead, Florida looked like a safe bet, but then Scott unleashed an $18 million ad campaign against Crist, painting him as a hack careerist who loves Obamacare and lays off teachers. Not only had Crist’s lead vanished, now he was losing in the key swing district of Tampa, winning by too little in Democrat-friendly West Palm and losing by too much in Republican-leaning Fort Myers. And as Baldick’s numbers showed, neither the state Democratic Party nor Crist could match the barrage.

Baldick is stocky and bald in the way that suggests he should always have a cigar jutting from his mouth. He is known in Democratic politics for his irascibility. It’s part act — political consultants make their trade in bad news — but he was truly annoyed this morning, he told me, largely because I was present at the meeting. Steyer and his communications team had invited me into their inner sanctum partly to make a point, namely that Steyer was more transparent than his rival powers, the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. Baldick saw it as a needless risk. In his decades of experience (in the Clinton, Gore and Edwards presidential campaigns, to name a few), reporters were not invited into sensitive strategy sessions like this one. It wasn’t done and shouldn’t be done, he told me.

Steyer, though, saw visibility as part of the job. He made his money as the founder of a successful hedge fund called Farallon Capital Management and so had spent most of his adult life wading through prospectuses and annual reports. He seemed enthralled and energized by his new course of study in domestic politics, with its incongruent mix of idealism and cynicism. This was democracy in action, real people making real change, not just mysterious figures behind closed doors. Tall, with grayish blond hair and shaggy sideburns, Steyer was in constant motion: his arms waving, his hands slicing the air, his tie — always the same stiff, scotch plaid — swaying to and fro as he spoke. In talking about the political offshoots of his money, he sometimes had the air of a new father.


Steyer’s long-term goal was to build an organization called NextGen Climate Action, which could mirror and oppose the rival private interests who devoted their own fortunes to blocking any action on climate change. Chief among those rivals were Charles and David Koch, the brothers who run Koch Industries. Steyer was especially interested in enacting a cap-and-trade system, which would allow companies to buy or sell emission rights under a strict state or federal limit. The Koch brothers, meanwhile, have worked hard to prevent, among many other government interventions, the adoption of a cap-and-trade system, which they view as the ultimate in reckless government intervention.


If Steyer didn’t step in as a counterweight, he reasoned, no one else would; after all, no one else had so far. Steyer pledged to spend at least $50 million of his own fortune this election season by way of NextGen on behalf of Democrats or, perhaps more accurate, against Republicans, in Florida and six other states: Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Most of the races were for the Senate, which Republicans are in a position to retake this fall. But the race that was closest to Steyer’s heart was here, in the state “most vulnerable to climate change,” as he put it; a crucial swing state where the Koch brothers had already spent millions to establish a political presence. Charlie Crist himself journeyed to NextGen’s San Francisco headquarters in June, to tell Steyer and many of these same strategists about sea-level rise in Miami, its troubling effects on drinking water and flood insurance and about the many ways in which he differed from Rick Scott. (“There couldn’t be a clearer choice,” Crist told me later. “I’m, like, the opposite of this guy.”)

Crist had been a Republican for most of his long career in Florida politics — as a state senator in 1992, as an education commissioner, as an attorney general — but after a single term as governor, during which he later claimed to have become increasingly alienated from a party that he described as “anti-women, anti-immigrant, anti-minority, anti-gay, anti-education, anti-environment,” he sought an independent U.S. Senate seat instead. He lost that bid to Marco Rubio, and in 2012 he announced (via Twitter) that he had registered as a Democrat. In November 2013 after an encouraging meeting with Steyer, he announced that he would seek the governor’s seat again. In his last turn as governor, Crist took climate change seriously; he pushed through a law that authorized the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to develop a cap-and-trade system. Scott and the Legislature dismantled the law, and Scott redirected the agency instead to “ensure that Florida leads the nation in new partnerships between government and industry.”

At the cramped conference table, Baldick rattled off more news, both good and bad. A series of recent polls found that both candidates were extremely unlikable. (“Crist and Scott Could Make History by Being So Unpopular in Florida” was the headline of one recent report at FiveThirtyEight.com.) Baldick said this could actually be a positive development. “Both of them are not liked,” he explained, but “if you think people are going to show up because they hate, not love — I do — there’s more people who hate Scott.”

Steyer leaned back in contemplation.

“You think that’s what gets people to vote?” he asked.

“Oh yeah, hate, fear —”

One company to which Vinyard granted a permit was Georgia-Pacific — the permit it had been seeking for many years under the Crist administration. The Department of Environmental Protection under Scott required some containment and monitoring measures that environmentalists had sought — officials of the department say it was among the strictest permits they had ever issued — but not the extra dioxin test. The Legislature also passed a provision banning the state from requiring any environmental test that was not on its officially recognized list. In Rinaman’s view, this language seemed suspiciously designed to exclude the test that the Crist administration had been pushing on Georgia-Pacific. Scott signed the provision into law; he also instituted a freeze on any new regulations, and then shed existing regulations by the hundreds.

Scott’s deregulatory efforts did not go unnoticed. Americans for Prosperity invited Scott to speak at the group’s Defending the Dream summit in 2013. “Here we are, two and a half years into his term, and he’s created more than 370,000 jobs in the state of Florida,” Slade O’Brien, the Florida director of the group at the time, said by way of introduction. “And one of the ways he did that was by eliminating over 1,000 burdensome regulations.” When Scott spoke, he noted that the number had grown to 2,600.

At a NextGen fund-raiser in July, the host, Mitchell Berger, a prominent Florida lawyer, told a group of wealthy Democratic donors in Miami that the choice was stark: New ideas and new energy in direct combat with the old coal and gas barons — “Tom Steyer versus the Koch brothers, right?” Steyer, in the speech that followed, offered a gentle corrective to this. It was not just about him, he said; he was hoping like-minded donors would join him. Right now, climate change is nowhere near the top of the list of items that motivate people to vote. He knew that he would never create the sense of a consensus for action if only one billionaire was behind it.

Near the end of September, as the race was entering its final phase, Steyer met once again with his team, this time in a borrowed conference room on the campus of the University of South Florida in Tampa. NextGen data showed that in total, Crist and the local Democrats had raised $44.4 million; that was roughly half what Scott and the Republicans had raised, but still good news, considering how far down Crist had been just a few months before. The money was flowing. The Florida Democratic Party, still the big player, had spent $16.8 million thus far, and the Crist campaign was just behind, with $16.4 million. NextGen was in for $7 million so far, and about to commit to $5 million more.
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Steyer got good value for his money. Crist now held a three-point lead in a head-to-head race; he and Scott were tied at 41 percent when the Libertarian candidate, Alfred Adrian Wyllie, was included. In the three markets where NextGen was advertising in August — Tampa, Fort Myers and West Palm Beach — Crist had moved into a lead of 2 percentage points from what two months earlier had been a deficit of 8. The Duke Energy ad, in particular, had been effective in dampening Scott’s support in Tampa. Scott had just $4 million more in his cash reserves than Crist, and Baldick predicted that Scott, who had a large personal fortune, might eventually be forced to cut himself a check.

“I mean, the bottom line is that what we did worked and worked in a fairly significant way,” his pollster, Geoff Garin, said.

“Yeah,” Steyer said, “it feels good.”

In fact, though, Steyer seemed tired. He had been traveling across the country, visiting his battleground states. He was also, as he would learn the following day, suffering from a kidney stone.

The campaign seemed to have pushed Scott to temper his image on environmental policy. Scott announced that he would reverse some of his earlier cuts to springs protection and the state’s land-buying conservation program. He also said he would get tougher on polluters. He had even agreed to meet with a group of scientists who offered to explain to him why so many of them thought climate change was a genuine threat. (The scientists were disappointed by the meeting, though; during its 30-minute duration, the governor did not ask a single question about the climate.)


With six weeks left before Election Day, NextGen and Americans for Prosperity were each gearing up for aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts, befitting their strange new role as political parties in all but name. A.F.P. had spent the year visiting 280,000 households as part of a “voter education” program, knocking on doors and leaving door-handle placards: “Thank you Gov. Scott for creating jobs.” Chris Hudson, the group’s Florida director, said he expected to follow up with as many as 120,000 of them before Nov. 4.

In Tampa, Steyer and his team were tending to some details about their last-minute commercial blitz. The Crist campaign, Baldick said, had asked if they would extend their advertising in Fort Myers and Tampa; he suggested Steyer do Tampa, but skip Fort Myers. The additional $2 million for new television and online ads would come out of Steyer’s own pocket. The big-money donors that he had hoped would join him had not yet materialized, at least as of mid-September, when federal and Florida election filings showed that Steyer had provided $31.6 million of the $35 million NextGen raised nationwide.

After the meeting, Steyer sat down with 10 student volunteers in the University of South Florida alumni hall. They told him about their interest in solar power and restoring sea grass, their hopes to reduce emissions in India and oil dependence in Trinidad. Steyer could not have been happier. “The younger you are, the more you agree, the more urgent you think it is,” he told them.

By the time he stood up and took a few of them to a NextGen call center near campus, the exhaustion I’d seen in him earlier that day had dissipated. The swing was back in his arms, in his gait. He took his place beside the students to hit the phones. This was democracy at work. “I know you’re in the checkout line, but. . . .” he said to one contact who picked up. Then, to another he said, “If you can believe it, I’m the person who started NextGen Climate Action.”

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