Tom Steyer is unabashedly progressive.
And unabashedly wealthy.
The former billionaire hedge fund manager from California has been using his fortune to champion liberal and progressive causes in the last several years, thrusting him into the company of other wealthy political activists like George Soros and the Koch brothers.
He’s probably best known for spending millions on a petition drive to impeach President Donald Trump, but Steyer has also been bankrolling clean energy and youth voter registration initiatives both here in Michigan and nationwide.
Steyer stopped in Detroit last week to rally NextGen America, an organization that will be on college campuses in 11 states getting out the youth vote this election season. About 370 young, paid organizers were expected at the Crowne Plaza hotel downtown to receive training.
Steyer, 57, was at least three decades older than the folks in NextGen T-shirts filtering through the hotel waiting for various training sessions Thursday.Twenty-somethings lined the hallways on their laptops, either sprawled on the floor or in whimsical blow-up chairs.
Steyer had just arrived from Minneapolis, where he hosted an event about his Need to Impeach campaign, which he has sunk about $40 million into. Trump, according to the campaign’s Twitter page, has “taken money from foreign governments, obstructed justice at the FBI, and every brought us to the brink of nuclear war.”
Conversely, Trump has called Steyer, “Wacky & totally unhinged…” on Twitter.
Almost 5.4 million people have signed the petition to date.
In Steyer’s mind, impeaching Trump and mobilizing millennials to vote are connected to his vision of restoring morality and justice to American life, Steyer said in an interview Thursday with MLive.
“It’s not separate in my life. It’s a campaign. This is an organization,” he said. “I think it’s only sensible and moral to try and be on the side of justice. From my standpoint, everyone should want a meaningful life. I want a meaningful life. That means I want to be on the side of justice…”
Steyer is putting up the money to see his vision through. He has committed $32 million dollars to get out the youth vote in 11 battleground states this election cycle: Arizona, California, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Nevada, Virginia, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
In Michigan, the group has already been active at Wayne State University, U-M Dearborn, Oakland University, Oakland Community College, U-M Ann Arbor, Michigan State University, U-M Flint and Lansing Community College. They are expanding to Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Saginaw, and will get out to other areas of the state by fall, according to organizers.
On Saturday, fresh from the three-day training sessions, the new recruits hit the streets of Detroit to start registering new voters.
It’s not merely to make sure the next generation is civically engaged, but that they vote for Democrats or progressives, according to Steyer. He makes no bones about being partisan.
“We are progressives,” he said. “Our mission statement is: Act politically to prevent climate disaster, promote prosperity and protect the fundamental rights of every American.”
Steyer said he is in disbelief about the current state of the nation. He feels America’s democratic principles are in peril and that inequality and environmental disaster are growing threats.
But he sees a better future.
“There is no reason why the 21st Century should not be a glorious century for the United States of America if we do the right things, but we’re not doing the right things,” he said. “So we’re pushing real hard to try and get more progressive policies so the people of America can have a more healthy and just and prosperous future.”
While a lot of Steyer’s rhetoric sounds like a politician on a stump speech, he won’t commit to the idea of running for office himself – but doesn’t discount it either.
“We don’t know where the United States is going to be on Nov. 7,” he said when asked about a run for office. “I would have never predicted that we’d be doing this. I would have never predicted the United States would be in this position. What we’re doing is partially a reaction to the world. The world is going to change somehow on Nov. 6, we just don’t know how. It could be a reaffirmation for Mr. Trump, it could be a total rejection of Republicans…”
In the meantime, Steyer will continue funding the efforts of NextGen America, initially founded as a climate change advocacy group. (NextGen Rising is the youth voting initiative within the organization). Climate change is still a driving force is Steyer’s politics.
His efforts recently prompted DTE Energy and Consumers Energy to commit to using 25 percent of renewable energy by 2030. In return, Steyer will back off on a petition-driven ballot initiative that took the energy giants by surprise, according to a report in Crain’s.
NextGen is still focused on environmental issues, but that mission is now folded in with the voter registration drive. Since it started operations a few years ago, the organization has been on 360 college campus, knocked on 12.5 million doors and registered 1.3 million Americans to vote, according to Steyer.
“That’s the biggest grassroots organization in the United States,” he said.
Can an organization that is funded by a billionaire like himself be truly “grassroots,” though? When asked that, Steyer said he is merely helping facilitate the political dialogue.
“All we’re doing is enabling conversations between voters,” he said. “We’re hiring people and training them so they can go out and organize conversation so that people can get involved in the political system and participate. That is grassroots.”
NextGen America worker Eliza Webb was on hand Thursday to help train new recruits. The 24-year-old Ferndale native said she’s always been active in progressive causes.
“What we’re really hearing from young people is that they’re in debt,” she said. “We are experiencing a lot of crises of water. Lead in water. Water shut-offs in Detroit. A lot of struggles with health care. We’ve been talking to people about the issues they care about to turn out the youth vote in 2018 with the theory of fun and youth power.”
Ben Wessel, director for NextGen Rising, said many young people will work to get voters registered in their own backyards. For some of them, it’s their first time getting involved in politics.
“It’s been inspiring to see how they’re not waiting for permission,” he said. “I think a lot of young folks feel, ‘Hey, in order to be political, I have to wait till I know more, or I have to feel like I’ve been invited to an event.’ These are young people who are saying, ‘Hey, look, I’m not satisfied with the way the world is right now. I’ve got to do something now.'”
Steyer says millennials like Webb and Wessel are the largest, most diverse, most progressive generation in America – but that they vote at about half the rate as older voters. This is exactly what his organization’s push aims to change.
“A lot of people don’t understand that this is a really great generation,” he said. “Very passionate. Very knowledgeable. They don’t trust the system. They don’t like either party, and so their question is: ‘Why does my vote matter?’ This is a very idealistic, hardworking, American generation. They can change the world. They really can, if they participate.”