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Billionaire Steyer Puts Money Toward Climate, Energy Issues


OK. So in the words of that political scientist in Peter's piece, wealthy donors like Tom Steyer are putting a pistol to someone's head, forcing their pet issues on candidates. Steyer himself sees things very differently. He quit his hedge fund with $1.5 billion and now in his view he's fighting as hard as he can with money and passion to do something very noble - save the planet. When he sat down to speak with us he said his goal is to use his money to limit carbon emissions.

TOM STEYER: We really strongly believe that we are answering a challenge for our generation of Americans and for all Americans.

GREENE: With plans to pour $100 million into key elections this year, Steyer joins this elite group of wealthy individuals trying to influence politicians and voters. Steyer says he doesn't agree with the growing influence of money in politics but he's willing to play the game in order to accomplish his goals.

STEYER: We believe in democracy, we believe in the American system. And this is where it is right now, so we're going to play by the rules that are set up for us.

GREENE: Some people are calling you the liberal response to the Koch brothers. Those are the billionaire libertarians who have been spending a lot of money supporting conservative candidates on the Republican side. How do you feel about that comparison?

STEYER: I want to draw some very, very big distinctions between me and the Koch brothers. The Koch brothers are pushing ideas that directly benefit them. They're pushing things where it is going to result in their pocketbooks being a lot fatter.

GREENE: We should say though that people who support the Koch brothers - and believe they're spending money on issues that, you know, they support - I mean would not characterize the Koch brothers that way.

STEYER: That's true. But I think that it is also true that if you just simply look at what they are supporting and what the imitation is for their businesses, that they are aligned. And that's not true of me.

GREENE: I wonder, as you're looking at 2014, you're thinking a lot about the issue that is very near and dear to you, climate change and energy. Could there be cases that if you're picking and choosing your battles based on a single issue, it might not ultimately help the party as a whole.

For example, if there is a race that is really crucial to the Democratic Party holding onto control of the Senate, but climate change, you know, is not that big a deal in that race, and your money is not there, it could in a way hurt the party.

STEYER: Well, I don't see it that way, actually. I see it that we're trying to participate in places where there is a big differential on something that we think is the generational challenge of our times And that's the mission that we've set for ourselves.

I think your question implies that we have a different mission that, in fact, the ones that we think we have. So it is true that we might not participate in every campaign. That's 100 percent for sure. But the fact of the matter is we're going to participate in the campaigns which we think are strategic and important.

So, in the instance where you're talking, you know, if that's not true, I'm not sure I'd understand why that would be consistent with the mission we set for ourselves, honestly.

GREENE: Well, then tell me what the mission is, just so I understand it correctly.

STEYER: I think the way we define our mission is to act politically to prevent climate disaster and preserve American prosperity.

GREENE: So your mission is not to help the Democratic Party. I mean we should make that clear here.

STEYER: Well, I am a Democrat. I spoke at the Democratic Convention in 2012. We believe that the Democrats are leading the way on this issue. So it is true that, by and large, we're supporting Democrats. And it is true that when there's a big disparity it tends to be the Democrat who is, in fact, thinking about advanced energy and the need for us to have new and progressive policies.

But it isn't true that therefore we are going to go wherever there's a race and support the Democrat. We're going to choose specific races that need our mission.

GREENE: And what do you tell people in the party who say that if there's a lot of money there from someone who considers himself a democrat that they would prefer you carrying out the mission of helping the party and not necessarily carrying out the mission of promoting your views on climate change?

STEYER: I mean, I think that we have a mission. And so, if someone is saying to us why don't you adopt our mission and give up your mission? I would say, well, that's not why I quit my job. We think that actually what we're doing is the generational challenge for Americans. We think it's the thing that our generation will be measured by in years and decades to come. And that it is the issue which is going to swamp other issues.

So we're not going to give up on that because someone explains to us that they have a different mission, and they want us to adopt that.

GREENE: Tom Steyer, thank you for your time. I appreciate it.

STEYER: Thank you, David.

GREENE: Tom Steyer is the founder of the political organization Next Gen Climate Action.


GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.