Why Tom Steyer Changed His Mind on Running for President

The billionaire investor and impeachment advocate on where he thinks he fits into the Democratic primary field—and what separates him from Donald Trump

Steven Senne / AP

Tom Steyer’s surprise entry this week into the Democratic primary has confused and annoyed many professional Democrats, with the party desperate to start winnowing the field and focus its resources on running against President Donald Trump and winning back the Senate. Republicans, meanwhile, have greeted Steyer with glee, convinced that he’s going to make sure the primary race becomes a self-defeating clown show.

But the billionaire investor and impeachment advocate says the doubters have him—and the race—all wrong: Huge as the field is, there’s no other candidate running with his business and grassroots-organizing experience. He’s the founder, and funder, of both Need to Impeach, which is pushing for Trump’s removal, and NextGen America, an environmental advocacy organization focused on activating new voters.

There’s also no one in the race with his fortune, for better or worse: Steyer has pledged to put at least $100 million of his own money, to start, into his campaign. It’s a sum that, in and of itself, has the potential to completely upend the primary race: It’s more than the combined fundraising of the five Democratic candidates who have the highest totals for the entire second quarter of the year. Steyer says he’s also going to continue funding his two advocacy groups, though they’ve pledged to remain independent of his presidential campaign.

Steyer has clear obstacles ahead. Democratic voters don’t tend to respond well to self-funding candidates, typically viewing their intentions with suspicion. And July is late for a candidate to get into the race: Elizabeth Warren kicked off primary season when she announced her run on New Year’s Eve, and Representative Eric Swalwell of California just this week became the first candidate to drop out. Steyer, who said earlier this year that he wouldn’t run for president, is hoping his campaign will provide yet another example of how the rules have changed in American politics—that his timing, no matter how frustrating to Democrats, won’t affect his performance on the trail. I spoke with Steyer by phone on Tuesday afternoon about how he thinks he fits into the field and what separates him from Donald Trump. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Edward-Isaac Dovere: You announced you weren’t running for president in January. Now you’ve announced that you are. What changed?

Tom Steyer: What I said in January is that I’m not going to do this now, because I believe I have a responsibility to pursue impeachment. At that point, we had about 6 million people who had signed our petition [on the Need to Impeach website, demanding Congress begin removing Trump from office]. We were still kind of a lone voice in the wilderness saying this president is the most corrupt in history—that he is unfit for the office, dangerous for the country, dangerous for the Constitution, dangerous to the rule of law, dangerous to the American people. And I felt like we couldn’t abandon those 6 million people, and we had to make that case.

I think in the last six months, a lot of things have changed. First of all, I think we won the argument. All those people in Washington, D.C., who were giving us a hard time have come to admit that everything we’ve been saying in the last 21 months is true.

Dovere: But we’re still not any closer to impeachment.

Steyer: We won the argument. What we were asking for, really, was a series of public, televised hearings so that the American people, whose voice we were trying to organize—who we felt were the actual judge and jury—could be brought in, informed, and engaged. And we’ve had one hearing in the first six and a half months of this year, which was Michael Cohen back in February. We made the case and won the argument. We have a much stronger coalition.

The second thing that happened is, I was watching how this campaign was going, and in my opinion, the overriding issue today is that the politics of our country, the government, has been taken over by corporate dollars. We have a broken government as a result of corruption from corporations. The solution to that, the only solution to that, is retaking the democracy and returning the power to the people. All of the policy [plans in the Democratic primary] that are [being] hotly debated are important, nuanced, thoughtful, smart—but not going to happen.

Dovere: That’s similar to what Elizabeth Warren is saying—that corruption and corporate power are the central problem in American politics. You spoke positively about her campaign when you decided not to run in January. So is that now a criticism of Warren?

Steyer: I believe I’ve [shown how to actually make change] for 10 years, both in terms of direct democracy—all the propositions that we’ve fought and won, the registration, engagement, participation that we’ve done through NextGen, registering millions of people, knocking on tens of millions of doors, doubling youth participation in the swing districts in 2018—and Need to Impeach, which is a populist movement with over 8 million signatures trying to engage the voice and the thoughts of the American people.

Dovere: Do you think you can run because you have a corporate background?

Steyer: I think that my years in the private sector give me an understanding of how businesses think, how they work. I think my years of fighting them and beating them give me a sense of what it takes.

We’ve organized people directly, on the ground, to change the electorate, so we could flip the House in 2018. We argue it was a complete turnout election, where it was about reengaging young people, low-income communities, communities of color to change the electorate. And to convince them, to engage them, that the system does work. I think the No. 1 political fact in the United States that drives all of this discussion is that eight out of 10 Americans think corporations have bought the democracy—and that’s Republicans, Democrats, and independents. They believe it. I believe it. The question is not, Is it true? The question is, How do we break the back of that stranglehold?

Dovere: You recorded your launch video from your ranch in California. Is it out of sync to be saying you’re running against wealth with a campaign launched from an exclusive property like that?

Steyer: Actually, what I’m talking about is slightly different than that. If you actually follow what goes on, on the ground, in terms of corporate corruption, you don’t have a lot of millionaires and billionaires walking the halls of Congress, or [the state capitol in] Sacramento. What you have is corporations who are fighting for their bottom lines in a consistent method: going door-to-door to every office, giving money to every candidate, hiring lobbyists to pursue their means, and controlling the conversation and the outcome. The people with money who are associated with the bottom lines of corporations are disproportionately and unfairly rewarded at the expense of working people across the country.

What’s really going on here is: Who has a vision of what is going on, how to correct it, and what that’s going to mean that will connect with the American people? That is the question, and that is the question for every single candidate.

Dovere: Warren and Bernie Sanders have said that they don’t think this election should be determined by billionaires who are self-funding. What do you say to that?

Steyer: I’d say exactly what I just said to you: Who has a vision to connect with the American people to describe how they can change this?

We’re going to run a broad-based grassroots campaign. And we’re going to continue doing all those [other] efforts [with Need to Impeach and NextGen America].

Dovere: You have enough money that it’s not an either/or? You can run and fund those groups at the same time?

Steyer: I always find that rather humorous, because all the people that say we should continue running the grassroots [and not run for president] choose not to do the grassroots. Tell them to call me and they can do the grassroots. If they want the keys to the car, I will hand them to them today. All the people who think we should engage the American people on impeachment, tell them to please give me a buzz. I’d be very happy to talk.

Dovere: You’re not going to qualify for the Democratic debates at the end of July. Are you going to campaign while they’re happening? Are you going to buy advertising during the commercial breaks?

Steyer: Haven’t thought about it.

Dovere: People have compared you to Donald Trump—another rich white man who talks about populism and is ready to take on members of his own party. Are you the Democrats’ Donald Trump?

Steyer: Any comparison of me to Donald Trump is incredibly superficial. First of all, I didn’t have a $400 million trust fund. I’m still bitter about that. He’s had a completely different career from me; he has completely different values; he wants completely different things than I want. I consider him to be the most corrupt president and one of the most important criminals in American history. I couldn’t imagine someone who I think is less like me.