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Tom Steyer Defends Spending Millions Of His Own Money On Campaign, Touts 'Outsider' Status

Dan Tuohy | NHPR

Tom Steyer may want to get money out of politics, but the billionaire former hedge fund manager has spent about $47 million of his own money getting himself noticed in the 2020 primary. 

He’s run more than three quarters of all the presidential TV ads so far. And that’s not counting social media, where he also appears frequently.

At a New Hampshire Public Radio forum Monday, Steyer said it’s been necessary, despite grumblings from some fellow Democratic candidates.

“I'm not a famous person. I was the last person in this race. I think when people hear my message, they respond. Every single person in this race, it's a question of do you have something to say that is different, that is true, and that is important. And that's absolutely the case with me, too,” Steyer said.

(For the full conversation and video of the forum from NHPR's The Exchange, click here.)

“I felt like no one was calling out the biggest issue in American politics, which is that the government is broken. It's been purchased,” he said. 

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, both talk frequently about taking on corporate influence and getting big money out of politics.

Eventually, Steyer says, public funding of elections has to happen in order to help break what he calls the “corporate strangehold” on the political system.  

In the mean time, Steyer doesn’t appear to see any contradiction in using his own wealth to bolster his political prospects, pointing to his years of activism as evidence that he’s invested in causes beyond his own pursuit of the presidency. Steyer has funded organizations such as NextGen America and Need to Impeach.

'I felt like no one was calling out the biggest issue in American politics, which is that the government is broken. It's been purchased.'

“So actually, for the last decade, I've been working specifically as an outsider to bring corporations and elites under control and to push power back to the American people," he said. "The very specific thing that I'm saying needs to happen in Washington, D.C.”

That, he added, has also prepared him to take on the apparatus of government if elected president.

Though he said he no longer runs NextGen America and Need to Impeach, Steyer asid he continues to support them. He denied that Next Gen has been running negative ads against Republicans.

“We haven't been running ads. What we do with Next Gen is actually grassroots organizing - that in fact, what we do is we go to campuses and set up tables and register students and talk to them about the issues. We started something with seven national labor unions that knocked on 15 million doors in 2016 and over 10 million doors last year.”

But according to Open Secrets, which tracks money in politics, NextGen spent more than $600,000 on “communication costs and coordinated expenses” against GOP candidates in 2018, more than $5 million in 2016, and more than $18 million in 2014.  

NextGen’s own press releases also touted $10.6 million in “spend[ing] on digital ads” during the 2018 midterms, including a “30-second ad” critiquing Gov. Chris Sununu’s positions on voting, gun policy, and more.

Steyer said Americans would benefit from his extensive knowledge of how the economy works.   

“I think that my 30 years starting a business and building it from nothing into a big international business actually puts me in a completely different position from everybody else in this race in terms of understanding what actually brings prosperity to a country and exactly how to actually share that in a way that keeps things going and actually benefits the citizens.”

Another top issue for Steyer is climate change, which he has called a “national emergency.”   As president, he said he would immediately address electricity generation, building codes, and mileage standards for electric vehicles.

“The United States is the only country in the world with the moral authority, the financial clout, the technology and the commercial capability to make this happen. There is no second choice. And if we choose not to lead on this, it won't happen.”

Steyer said a carbon tax is not part of his plan, though he is not opposed to it.

In response to a listener question on what steps his campaign has taken to reduce its impact on carbon emissions, Steyer said:

“A friend of mine once said to me that one takeoff in a private plane produces more carbon dioxide than you'd save in a lifetime of driving a Prius. So one of the things we said is that we'll never take a private plane,” he said. “That means a lot of time sitting in airports and, you know, staying up late at night and getting up early in the morning. And we're more than willing to do it because there's got to be a statement here that you've got to walk the walk.”

See below for more excerpts from the interview, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

NHPR: What would be the bar or threshold for you as president for sending American forces into harm’s way?

The bar would be extremely high. I think that Mr. Trump has clearly walked away from diplomacy. He's hollowed out the State Department. He doesn't believe in working with allies together to produce positive outcomes. And I think that sending American forces into harm's way is something that I think we have done too frequently and without taking into account all the costs. So my first goal would be to use diplomacy and to build coalitions around the world of people with shared goals and shared values to get the positive result.

I think there's a very simple question here. Do we have a definable mission going in that we understand to protect American vital interests and lives? Do we understand how we're going to accomplish it, and do we understand where it ends? And I think that if you're going to use force, all of those questions have to be asked on the way in. And I think if you don't, then I think you can get into the kind of really, really long wars that have bedeviled us virtually this whole century.

On Steyer's plan for curbing gun violence and “breaking the corporate stranglehold” on government:

The plan we put forward included mandatory background checks, voluntary buybacks, banning ARs and high-capacity magazines. It is really a comprehensive change. I believe, in this case, what we're going to have to do is change the way Washington works.

To me, this what the people want in terms of gun violence is very straightforward and consistent. And it hasn't been happening because of the NRA and the gun manufacturers' control of the NRA.

I've been talking about the need for structural change in Washington, D.C., to break this corporate stranglehold on our government. And that structural change includes at least four elements. One of them is term limits in Congress, 12 years for every congress person and senator, because this is not supposed to be a lifetime appointment. We need new blood and we need to prevent people from getting too cozy. The second thing is I would have a national referendum where you could put a law on the ballot nationwide and then if enough people voted for it, it would become law – that would be particularly pertinent to gun violence.

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