2020 Forum: Democratic Presidential Candidate Tom Steyer

Oct 25, 2019

Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer on The Exchange Candidate Forum, a collaboration between NHPR and New Hampshire PBS.
Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR

Democratic presidential candidate and former hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer sits down for an hour-long candidate forum in front of a live audience at New Hampshire Public Radio.

Air date: Monday, October 28, 2019. 

Watch a video of the forum:

Tom Steyer casts himself as a political outsider with a record of success as a businessman. He founded the investment firm, Farrallon Capital, in the 1980s and left in 2012. The billionaire has been a major Democratic donor and founded the political groups Need to Impeach and NextGen America.  Among his top issues:  Climate change and undoing what he has called the "corporate stranglehold on democracy." 

More on the candidate:

The San Francisco Chronicle reports  on the launch of Tom Steyer's campaign. Steyer, who was born in New York City, now lives in San Francisco. 

The New York Times answers three questions about Tom Steyer, including just how wealthy he is. 

In this exchange of texts with BuzzFeed News, Steyer explains the meaning behind a symbol he writes on his hand every day. 

Business Insider sums up Steyer's views on numerous issues, including campain finance, foreign policy, gun laws, and the environment; he has pledged to declare climate change a national emergency on his first day in office, if elected president. 

Watch Steyer's response to Senator Bernie Sanders's call for the end of the "billionaire class" during the recent CNN-New York Times Democratic debate. 

Transcript.

  This is a computer-generated transcript and may contain errors.

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Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy and this is the Exchange.

Laura Knoy:
It's a special broadcast of the exchange as we continue our series of presidential primary 2020 candidate forums. Today, we're talking with Democrat Tom Steyer. He's a businessman, philanthropist and climate activist. And he joins us before a live audience in NHPR Studio D. We received many questions in advance from our listeners and we'll be including those throughout the hour, so thank you for your contributions. I'm joined by NHPR reporter Casey McDermott. She and I will both question Mr. Styer. And so let's jump right in. Tom Styer, welcome.

Laura Knoy:
Nice to meet you. Thank you for being here.

Tom Steyer:
Thank you so much for having me.

Laura Knoy:
Well, let's start with foreign policy. First off, your reaction to the announcement that the leader of the Islamic State died in a raid by U.S. forces.

Tom Steyer:
Look, this is obviously good news for the safety of Americans. And I think we have the best armed forces in the history of the world. I think they deserve a ton of credit. So I also believe that this is a step forward after a big step backward when Mr. Trump basically took us out of Syria. So that was all about ISIS, too. And this is very good news for Americans and I think we should be happy about.

Laura Knoy:
So to that point, the Kurds in Syria, as I'm sure you know, assisted with the intelligence that led the U.S. to this operation. If you were elected president, Mr. Steyer, what would your policy toward the Kurds be?

Tom Steyer:
Look, I think that when you think about foreign policy, you have to remember that we're value driven, that there has to be a mission that we're pursuing, which in this case was the control of ISIS. There has to be a process within the government in terms of making decisions. And then we need partners around the world, including specifically the Kurds. So they are people who we've worked with for years who in fact, have been very valued partners, providing on-the-ground firepower. They've been good partners. And so my attitude would be when you have good partners, if you want to be a trusted country around the world, you need to be transparent and you need to support your partners through thick and thin, which obviously Mr. Trump didn't do.

Laura Knoy:
I'll definitely ask you about that policy in a moment of withdrawing support from the Kurds, but about the Kurds themselves, as you know. It's complicated. They want a homeland. And in Iraq, they are a force in Turkey. They've wanted their own homeland for a long time. If you were president, would you assist them toward that goal?

Tom Steyer:
Look, our relationship with the Kurds was not about providing them a homeland. It was about our working together in Syria to control ISIS. And I think that the Middle East is a very complicated place. But we had a relationship there where they were helping us and we were helping them. And so that was something we should have continued. I think when you're thinking about foreign policy, I would think about it exactly the opposite from Mr. Trump. He doesn't believe in values. He doesn't believe in missions. And he certainly doesn't believe in coalitions, allies or partners. So, in fact, he doesn't care whether people trust us. And he doesn't care whether we are good for our word. That is something that I would completely change for us to be successful around the world. We need to be trusted. We need to be transparent about what we're trying to do. And we need to build coalitions of people that we share values with and goals with.

Laura Knoy:
So sharing some of these military operations with the Kurds but it doesn't sound like you want to go so far as to say the Kurds are really our friends and we should support their efforts for a homeland.

Tom Steyer:
They are our friends. They are our allies. But that doesn't mean that, in fact, we do everything together. It means that we work together on the issues where our interests and values overlap.

Laura Knoy:
There is still, as I'm sure you know, many thousands of ISIS forces in the region. What would the Styer administration policy be toward ISIS more broadly?

Tom Steyer:
Look, the first thing that the commander in chief has to do is to protect the health and safety of every American. This is a group of people who are determined actually to attack Americans and kill them. So that my attitude towards ISIS would be simple. We have to oppose them. We have to eradicate them. And we have to go around the world to make sure that Americans are safe.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and that gets to the role of American forces around the world, especially right now with attention on Syria. So what would be the bar, Mr. Styer, or the 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. And I think a perfect example was the coalition that President Obama put together in Iran, where we have a regime that's antithetical to American values in many ways, but where he put together a coalition to work to make Iran abandon their nuclear ambitions and worked for something that was better for Iran and also better for the rest of the world, including specifically the United States of America. I think that's the model, not the bilateral confrontational competitive model that Mr. Trump always moved to.

Laura Knoy:
And surveys show some fatigue among Americans towards foreign engagement and so forth. But at the same time, Americans, many of them did not support President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. support for the Kurds in Syria, withdraw our involvement there. So I'm trying to get a sense of which type of foreign involvement of U.S. military forces you would support and which type you would say that's not for us.

Well, look, 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.

Laura Knoy:
So Syria, Sounds like you would have gotten engaged there if you were president.

Tom Steyer:
Look, I think that the thousand American troops that were in there were in there to protect American lives, to control ISIS and to work with our allies to do so. That makes a ton of sense to me. I think we had a very specific mission. It was limited. It was successful. And we were working in coalition with people around the world.

What about Afghanistan, Mr. Steyer? A you know, there's been a lot of attention to Afghanistan. You referenced long wars and people call Afghanistan war..

Tom Steyer:
The longest war in American history.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah the forever war. So several candidates in this race are saying they'd have American troops out within their first year of office. What would you do?

Tom Steyer:
I would too. What I said Laura was what is the mission? How are we going to accomplish it? How do we measure it and how do we end it? And I think in the case of Afghanistan, it's very hard to answer those questions unless you're willing to stay in there forever.

Laura Knoy:
There have been some analysts who say if we pull out of Afghanistan, we might see the same results in Afghanistan that we've seen in Syria, lots of chaos, lots of killings, then that is not good for American interests. I wonder what you think.

Tom Steyer:
Look, I think that there is going to be difficult to withdraw, which is why we're still there. I think it will always be difficult to withdraw. So I think the question here is how do you do it in the best way? But everyone who wants to stay in wants to, you know, they never have a point at which it's going to be good. And I'm not sure there ever is going to be a point when it's good.

Laura Knoy:
So just to be clear, you'd like to get forces out of Afghanistan within your first year in office.

Tom Steyer:
Yes, I would.

Laura Knoy:
I also want to ask you about election meddling. And this has become an issue of foreign policy while we're on this topic. In addition to concerns about Russian meddling in our elections, which we've been talking about for a long time, we now have reports of Iran and China interfering as well. Mr. Steyer, what specific steps would you take as president to reduce this threat or even eliminate it?

Tom Steyer:
Look, when we talk about the Russian meddling in our election in 2016, I think we have to define it as a lot like an electronic attack on our democracy, that seriously. And therefore, I think when you get a hostile foreign country attacking our democracy, then you're asking for a specific answer. But I don't think that's actually appropriate. I think we now have a different relationship with a country that's attacking our democracy. And the fact that it's electronic in a 21st century attack doesn't make it any less of an attack. That is something that absolutely has to be off the table. So I think it's a much broader response than a limited response. That to me goes to the very core of who we are. It goes to the very core of our relationship with that country.

Laura Knoy:
Can you be specific about what you would do to reduce or eliminate these threats, these attacks, as you put it, from Russia, China, Iran and perhaps others in our elections.

Tom Steyer:
I think the first question is how strongly we react just in terms of protecting our system online. That's a simple question. In fact, Congress has allocated money to that, that the Trump administration hasn't actually put into force to protect our democracy. But I think beyond that, that changes our relationship with those countries. The country is attacking your democracy. It's not like you can just shrug it off.

Laura Knoy:
So sanctions?

Tom Steyer:
Absolutely. But look, it's not like Russia's only attacked our democracy. They've been meddling with democracy around the world. What I originally said, Laura, is I would try and build coalitions of people with shared values and shared interests. And that would certainly be the case with Russia. We cannot have a country around the world trying to take over other countries, governments, whether they do it electronically or physically. It's absolutely wrong. And there should be a very strong response and it should be, you know, for all the people involved, because that is a threat to the world order.

Laura Knoy:
Well, we could talk about foreign policy for a whole hour, but I want to turn over to my colleague, Casey McDermott Casey. Go ahead.

Casey McDermott:
So let's talk a little about you and your background and what you're bringing to this race. You've said that the government is broken and that you're running for president to fix it. You have a business background. You ran a successful investment firm. But the corporate world is a lot different than government. What in your background prepares you to be that person to fix what's broken?

Tom Steyer:
Well, actually, Casey, for the last decade, I've been organizing coalitions of Americans to take on that unchecked corporate power. So, you know, I've been doing that in a variety of ways, but I actually walked away from my business seven years ago and I've done this Full-Time for the last seven years. So that is taken it's been a series of in 26 states you're allowed to put laws on the ballot. And then if enough people vote for them, they actually become law propositions or referendums. And so I've taken on the oil companies in that and beaten them with something that no one thought could ever happen. I've taken on the tobacco companies directly who'd won 17 times a row and beaten them. I've taken on monopoly utilities, drug companies around the country. I've also built one of the biggest grassroots organizations in the United States, Next Gen America, which in twenty eighteen last year the largest youth voter mobilization in American history. And probably if people know me before this run, I also started the Need to Impeach campaign over two years ago, saying the American people, we need to raise our voice to hold the most corrupt president in American history to account. 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. The very specific thing that I'm saying needs to happen in Washington, D.C.

Casey McDermott:
We're definitely going to follow up and talk a little bit more about your involvement in Next Gen and Need to Impeach. But I'm just curious. Those are different than working within a governmental bureaucracy, working with Congress, all of the other things that go into actually leading the country as president. What about that experience or your experience and business has prepared you to do that?

Well, actually. I think it's called the executive branch of government. So in fact, I have built large organizations, including in the private sector but also in the public sector, to organize people and to get things done. In the public sector, I've done it as an outsider. But if you think about what an executive actually does, it's actually to run organizations, to staff them and to make things happen. If you look at my actual background, it actually reflects an executive experience that's different from everyone else who's running, which is, I believe, part of the legislative branch, which is actually about writing legislation and working to get it happen. But it is not about running big organizations, staffing them and make and making them effective. And last thing I'll say is this I think there's an overwhelming chance that when it comes down to it, what's really this election is going to come down to the economy. That, in fact, Americans are going to want to make sure that whoever the next president is knows a lot about the economy, is safe hands and can not only make our country keep our country prosperous, but can actually share that prosperity much more broadly than it is now. And 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.

Casey McDermott:
You mentioned your need to impeach campaign. You launched that multimillion dollar effort a few years ago in October 2017. That was well before the kind of growing consensus that we've seen now calling for an impeachment inquiry among other members of your party. At that time, what were the specific actions or issues that you felt warranted the need to to stand up and call so publicly for impeachment?

Tom Steyer:
I think there was no question that Mr. Trump had obstructed justice very clearly in public view at that point. And in fact, if you're so unlucky as to have to read the 448 page Mueller report, you'll see that actually Mr. Mueller concluded the exact same thing. I think in addition, Mr. Trump was putting his personal interests ahead of the interests of the United States on a daily basis by taking payments both from the American government, but from foreign governments as well through his real estate interests. Its fees came out, I think, within the last month and described that part of the constitution as the phony emoluments clause. He was clearly corrupt from his first day in office. He clearly obstructed justice, including in the firing of Mr. Comey. And if you read the Mueller report, that was true. What I was trying to do was to get the voice of the American people to be heard, which is what I'm still trying to do, because what I believe is that the wisdom on this, that sense of right and wrong, is with the American people, and that it's our voice that should be determinative and actually will be determinative in whether this president is removed from office.

Casey McDermott:
And actually, just on that note. I'm curious, could you just clarify your relationship right now with Next Gen and Need to Impeach,those campaigns that you mentioned?

Tom Steyer:
I'm not running them, but I'm still supporting them. And so I don't make the determination at all about what NexGen does right now or what Need to Impeach does. They're separate. They're run by different people. And I actually don't have conversations with them. But I do continue to support them because I believe in their missions. And I want to make sure, regardless of what happens to my campaign, that that kind of grassroots activism continues.

Casey McDermott:
On that note as well, you've you've only been in the race for a few months, but you've already poured about $47 million of your own money into your campaign. We got a question from a listener, Joe, about this. He says, "Given that you're you're pulling in the single digits. Wouldn't it be a better use of your wealth to support voter rights and registration efforts?" As you said, you already have a track record of doing that. Why put all of that resources and investment into your own campaign vs. something that may have a wider effect?

Tom Steyer:
Well, I am doing that wider effect. That's what I was just saying. In fact, I did start and I continue to support one of the largest grassroots organizations in the United States that did the largest youth voter mobilization in history last year in which we're continuing to support. I am continuing to support Need to Impeach. And I was continuing to support several other broad based grassroots organizations that I either started or helped or co-founded. So as a result, it's not a question of either or in fact, I'm doing both. And let me say one other thing, which is this if you look at my record, what I've done is when I've seen something that I thought wasn't being done in American politics to represent the American people, then I'd put all my time and money and effort into trying to deal with it. That's what I'm doing with my presidential run.

Laura Knoy:
Coming up, a lot more with businessman and philanthropist Tom Styer, a Democratic presidential candidate. We'll talk about climate change. We'll talk about health care and many other issues. So stay with us. This is the Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.

Laura Knoy:
This is the Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. Today, it's the latest in our primary 2020 candidate forms. And we're talking with Democratic presidential hopeful Tom Styer. He's a billionaire businessman, philanthropist and climate activist. NHPR's Casey McDermott is also with us asking questions of Mr. Styer. and Mr. Steyer, let's turn to climate change. You've said if elected, you'd declare climate change a national emergency using all the powers of the presidency. What would that mean specifically? Give us two or three specific actions that you would take.

Tom Steyer:
Well, I think as president, you can determine, for starters, how electricity is generated, that, in fact, the first thing that has to happen is to clean up electricity generation. And that is something that can be regulated in the emergency powers. The presidency can set goals on that, nationwide. I think you can set building codes in terms of building efficiency and you can set miles per gallon goals as well and goals for electric vehicles. So, in fact, there's a lot you can do through the regulatory powers of the presidency to determine how energy is generated and used in the United States right off the bat. And I would.

Laura Knoy:
So none of those would have to get through Congress. Those moves now talked about.

Tom Steyer:
No, I would I would call on Congress in the first hundred days to pass some version of the Green New Deal. But to be fair, Congress has gone 28 years without passing any real climate legislation. And that's why I would declare a state of emergency on day one, because this is a time bound crisis. It's one that gets worse every single day. And we need to get on it. The two things I know are we have to do this and we can do this. We have the technology and the ability to do this in a way that will make us richer and healthier.

Laura Knoy:
So electrification, building efficiency, automobiles, standards. What about a carbon tax? Mr. Styer?

Tom Steyer:
Ok, a carbon tax, which people have talked about for a long time, is not part of our plan, although I'm not opposed to it. In California, we have a cap and trade system which is put just a version, a complicated version of a carbon tax. And let me say that we've had that in place since 2007, along with a lot of rules. So we've had a chance to see what is actually caused change in the way that energy is generated and used. A carbon tax, it turns out, is not the central important thing driving change. Other people talk about it. They theorize about it. But we have data for over a decade to show what really drives change. And the first things I was talking about are really what drive the change.

Laura Knoy:
That's interesting. And I'm sure you're aware the International Monetary Fund just recently said, look, if you want to reduce carbon, this is the easiest, simplest, quickest and most market-based way to do it. So you're saying that's not the case?

Tom Steyer:
No, it isn't. I mean, and we have data. In fact, I'd say one other thing about carbon taxes and cap and trade, and that's this: Our goal is to do this first of all state of emergency, but also to work from the community up and specifically to make sure that we have leadership and input from those communities where America has chosen to concentrate its air and water pollution, which means low income communities and communities of color, and specifically the way that a carbon tax and a cap and trade work disadvantages those communities. So I understand the advantages of a carbon tax. I really do. I spent 30 years in the private sector. No one needs to explain markets to me. But in fact, what we've seen actually drives change in a way that's fair to people in society is regulation.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and your plan does include some, for lack of a better word, reparations to coal miners, to people who work in the fossil fuels industry, cognizant of the displacement that this might cause.

Tom Steyer:
Look, the one thing we want to make sure we don't do is to solve this problem on the backs of working people who are just doing their jobs. So we want to make sure that not only do we talk to the communities where air and water pollution is concentrated. We want to make sure that the communities where working people may be displaced, to make sure that, in fact, they're covered and they're part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Laura Knoy:
Part of your plan, correct me if I'm wrong, includes rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. Why is this so important, Mr. Steyer, given that the carbon reduction targets of that are all voluntary?

Tom Steyer:
Look, I think it's symbolic. I think you make a good point, Laura. Joining Paris is a symbol that we care about climate, but it's not nearly enough. Look, I was in Paris for the accord in 2015 and it was a glorious time. But if you actually look at the facts, you can see that what people agreed to in Paris is not enough to solve this crisis and that, in fact, no country in the world is living up to its Paris promise.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and some of them are building new coal plants rather rapidly, even though they signed onto this accord. So it makes you wonder, why is this Paris Accord even worth the paper its written on?

Tom Steyer:
It's a symbol. I started by saying it's a symbol. It's a symbol that we care about alliances, but in fact, I've also said I would make this the number one priority not just of domestic policy, but also of our foreign policy, that if you think we're going to change the world, as you said, people are talking about building not just some coal plants, but 1200 new coal plants around the world, which will last at least 40 years. If that happens, there's no way we can come close to meeting our common climate agenda. So, in fact, 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.

Laura Knoy:
One more question about this, if I could, Mr. Steyer, and then I'll hand it back over to Casey. We received a question from a listener about climate. Carissa in Penacook and Carissa, thank you. Chris says, As you say, you're interested in improving our environment. You're invested in improving our environment. She wants to know what specific steps have you taken in your campaign to ensure that your own campaign's environmental impact is as limited as possible? It's a good question, Chrissa. Thank you.

Tom Steyer:
I think it's a very fair question. Look, I think the first most obvious thing that we've done in this campaign is we said we will never take a private plane. In fact, if you look at carbon footprint for these campaigns, it's all about flying and a friend of mine once said to me that one takeoff in a private plane produces carbon dioxide than you'd save in a lifetime of driving a Prius. So one of the things we said, you know, we've said we'll never take a private plane. And in terms of a campaign, you know, important is to get around to different places? 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. That's probably the single biggest way. And if you look at the campaigns, I don't know if we're unique, but I think we're close to unique.

Laura Knoy:
Carissa also wants to know -- she asked about planes; so there you go -- she asked about virtual meetings, printed materials. Here's a question that would resonate with a lot people in Hampshire -- your plan for doing something with all those campaign signs when it's over. That's always an issue here.

Tom Steyer:
Yes, it is. We've tried to make sure that everything we do is biodegradable. And let me say one other thing. Our family has discovered scientifically a way to raise cattle in a way that will not harm the planet -- in fact, net sequester, massive amounts of carbon dioxide. We've been doing a huge science experiment to try and prove that's right. I understand what it's going to take, that we're in fact going to have to sequester carbon in a gigantic way. I think we've talked about massive amounts of tree planting, but we're going to have to be very deliberate in going about this and use some new ideas. And I think they're available. And I know we can solve this. But I also know for sure we can't solve this unless we try. And that we can't solve unless we prioritize it. And I believe I'm the only campaign who's saying this is priority one.

Laura Knoy:
Well, sequester means just basically sucking carbon out of the air.

Tom Steyer:
Yeah. I know it sounds complicated. But it's really just planting trees and having them grow.

Laura Knoy:
Go ahead Casey, I'll turn it over to you.

Tom Steyer:
Well, in the same spirit of inquiring about how maybe you're interacting with some of these big picture policy issues that we hear about on the campaign trail, we've got another question from another listener that was wondering what health care coverage do you have? Is it working for you? How does that coverage compare to maybe what the average American would have?

Tom Steyer:
I have a really good health care coverage that our whole family has. It is employment based. And do I think it's better than the average American? I think it would probably either come very close to or be a whatever they call that, gold-plated health care coverage. And so from my standpoint, the issue about health care is, it's a right for every American. We pay twice as much for it as every other country. Americans are drowning in health care costs. And it's absolutely the responsibility of the government to solve both those problems at the same time that it's an absolute right for every American-- and also that we need to get these costs under control. Look, the thesis of my campaign is that corporations have bought the government, that they own the government, that they write the laws. And health care is a perfect example. We are not going to get the health care plans that we need for Americans unless we take on the drug companies and the insurance companies and the monopoly hospitals. We're just not. And so it's really a question, how are we going to get in a position where we can pass any of these health care plans because we absolutely desperately need to.

Casey McDermott:
So just on that note, in terms of bringing costs into check within the health care system, there's not been that much discussion, at least in the debates or some of the kind of public forums that people might be tuning into about what exactly makes the healthcare system so expensive. And a new report says that waste in the U.S. health care system ranges from 760 billion to 935 billion per year or more than total annual federal defense spending. So what would you do to address waste in the health care system?

Tom Steyer:
So we are in a situation where the government does not try to control costs or waste, and as a result, we literally pay twice as much as we should. So, I mean, there's the question about costs of drugs. There's a question about too many tests being taken. There's a question about people padding the bills at every single level. So this seems to me you're asking what is my qualification for actually being president. This seems to me to be a specific, obvious executive question. How are you going to set up a system where the incentives change and where you have someone rigorously going through to try and cut the waste out of this system? It's very clear that people that it is at all levels of the system and it's very clear that the system does not police itself.

Casey McDermott:
So what is it that you might specifically do drawing on your experience in the private sector to rein in that waste?

Tom Steyer:
Look, I think that you have to say we specifically don't try. And I think the first thing is to try and change the incentives, but also to have something within the government going through and pushing back on that. And so that's why when we talk about a public option -- part of it's just the overhead of the insurance companies, part of it is pushing back on drug costs because we pay up to 10 times more than other countries for the exact same drugs. But part of it really is going through and trying to find -- it's not just waste, it's fraud, massive fraud in the system. We all know it's true. And I think that it's something that we'd have to go through. And one of the questions here will be how do you police it, but also how do you punish it? You know, when I look at the corporations buying our government, there has been a sense in the United States, in the mortgage crisis, in the drug crisis, that you can pay one hundred and thirty two billion dollars of fines, as banks did after the mortgage crisis. But no one's going to jail. I really think if you want to change the incentives of people in the system, people have to start getting criminally sanctioned as well as civilly sanction, because I think that will change things very, very fast.

Casey McDermott:
You alluded to some of the other costs that people might incur through their interactions with the health system. We talked to lots of patients in New Hampshire who are dealing with high bills for seemingly routine doctors and hospital visits. What would you do to deal with that cost side of health care policy, not just the insurance coverage side, not just talking about Medicare For All. How do you rein in that element of it?

Tom Steyer:
I don't think there's any question that that's a huge part of what's going on, that monopoly hospitals are able to charge at a level that's unconscionable. And I think that's something where we have to both make it easier for the doctors to do their business, make it easier for the hospitals, but also to make sure that we're not paying those kind of, you know, almost staggeringly high bills for what seem like very simple tasks.

Casey McDermott:
We also got a question from someone else in New Hampshire, a listener, Dr. Sarah WOLFBERG from Littleton, New Hampshire. She wanted to know when tackling health care, regardless of whether you're running on a platform of Medicare for All, single payer. fixing Obamacare -- this was a question of all the candidates that she hoped to know -- what are the ways that you intend to include the perspectives of health care providers in that conversation? How do you plan to ensure that cost cutting measures will not adversely affect those who serve on the front lines? And she's talking about physicians, mental health professionals, you know, not necessarily the executives of these health care companies but the people who are actually working with patients.

Tom Steyer:
Look, I think that it's absolutely critical. I mean, what I was talking about climate, I was saying we need to make sure that we have leadership and input from people in the most affected communities because they have the most information about what's going on on the ground. This is the exact same question as far as I'm concerned. When you're dealing with an issue, if you're dealing it with it without input and leadership from people who have the most information, and that would be people in the mental health community, that would be, physicians, that would be nurses, you know, then you're going to make the wrong decisions. So I think it's absolutely critical in this to have leadership and input from them. Otherwise, you're going to design something that misses critical points. Obviously, it's not working well now, but if we're going to fix it, let's fix it with the best possible information and the best possible leaders.

Laura Knoy:
Well, from health policy to gun policy, Mr. Steyer, and I'm sure you know, this weekend there was yet another public mass shooting, an event in Texas, two people killed, more injured. Your web site promises if Congress doesn't act to pass the "commonsense gun reforms" Americans want. I will do so. How do you go about doing that?

Tom Steyer:
You have to ask why, after decades of mass shootings and really decades of gun violence at a level that's incomparable to other societies, why it hasn't changed. And the answer is, believe it or not, it is the gun manufacturers.The gun manufacturers control the NRA. And the NRA won't allow changes to happen, even changes that over 90 percent of Americans have wanted for a long time. When you look at mandatory background checks on every gun purchase, more Republicans and Democrats have wanted that for a long time. Over 90 percent of Americans. And it hasn't happened.

Laura Knoy:
So what specifically would you do if you were in the Oval Office?

Tom Steyer:
Well, I think when we look at it, the things if you look at the plan that we put forward, it included mandatory background checks. It included voluntary buybacks, included banning ARs and high-capacity magazines. It is really a comprehensive change. I really believe, in this case, what we're going to have to do is change the way Washington works. Look, when I've talked about what can happen in Washington, I've said we need structural change. And I've talked about going to the people. To me, this is a very straightforward question where 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.

Laura Knoy:
So after the Newtown shooting, a lot of the proposals that you just mentioned were put on the table, were put forward in Congress. President Obama was big behind this. Nothing really changed so how would it be different with you?

That's not just the Newtown shooting. This has been going on. Look, we've had over 330 mass shootings this year. We have this literally more than once a day in the United States of America. And we have also unconscionable levels of domestic violence, violence on our streets. And 60 percent of gun related deaths have to do with suicides. So we're seeing this on a very broad basis across our society.

Laura Knoy:
So after a short break, Mr. Steyer, I am going to get you to talk about how you would be more successful than past politicians if you were in the Oval Office.

Laura Knoy:
This is the Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. Joining me today NHPR's Casey McDermott with a special broadcast the next in our primary 2020 candidate forums, this time with Democrat Tom Steyer. He's a businessman, philanthropist, climate activist. And Mr. Steyer, just for the break, we were talking about gun policy. You expressed what you would like to see happen. I'd like to know how you would make that happen when so many others, including President Obama, before you have not been successful.

Tom Steyer:
Well, Laura, as part of my campaign, 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. And actually, that idea of a national referendum, a vote where Americans could actually pass a law would be particularly pertinent to the issue we were just discussing, which was gun violence, because the overwhelming number of Americans have supported mandatory background checks on every gun purchase, for instance, for a very long time, literally over 90 percent more Republicans than Democrats. So it's the kind of thing that absolutely lends itself to when Congress won't act to support the wishes of the people of the United States, then the people can take the power for themselves. That's really been the thrust of what I've been doing for a decade, which is to say push the power to the people when things are wrong. Who do you trust to solve it? Do you trust the politicians or do you trust the people?

Laura Knoy:
So I want to ask you about referenda, because that I know that's been a big part of your platform, putting no more than two key issues annually before the national electorate. So this gun issue sounds like that would be one issue that you would like to put before the electorate. But as you know, Mr. Steyer, your home state of California is a long history of this. And some in your state are saying this has gotten out of control. There are too many questions. It's too confusing. And that any -- I'm quoting the San Francisco Chronicle here -- any corporation, advocacy group, wealthy individual with sufficient means can get anything on the ballot. We've all seen these referendum questions, you know, being heavily financed by one side or the other. So in practice, it doesn't seem as to roll out as purely as you're presenting it. It seems polluted by money.

Tom Steyer:
Actually, what we found out in California is that when there are really tough questions in front of the legislature, they prefer that they go to the people, that in fact the tough questions of the kind we're talking about, where corporations are strongly against something happening, sometimes can only go to the people. And that's my point. If you look at California, we were bankrupt as a state. I mean, you guys remember reading those headlines. We couldn't pay our bills, we paid with script to actually change the way we took in revenues. It did not get passed by the legislature. It went directly to the people. The legislature was unwilling to act for a long time. It was put on the ballot. And that's actually how that changed. In fact, if you look at the changes that have come in terms of money, they've almost all come through the ballot. So, in fact, what we've seen in California is that those kinds of issues have exclusively at this point pretty much gone to the people. And so I think it's a little different story than the San Francisco Chronicle is describing.

Laura Knoy:
Well, we've seen these questions in Maine and other states. And it does seem like heavily moneyed interests come in to states and promote their point of view on one side or the other. So I'm just wondering how you would keep this referendum process clean the way you envision it.

Tom Steyer:
Look, I think what we've seen in California, and I've done it in other states than California, too, but what ends up happening is if you have transparency of who's putting up the money, then people become very smart, very fast,thinking about those advertisements on TV, which is what you're referring to in terms of money. And so, in fact, we've seen corporations spend $25 million on a proposition and lose to advocacy groups that have a quarter of a million dollars. So they have one one hundredth as much money. But in fact, the public understands that when the people putting up the money are talking in their own interests, they discount it dramatically. So, in fact, it is not a question of dollars. It is a question of do you have a message that is credible and can you be heard?

Laura Knoy:
Casey, back to you.

Casey McDermott:
Sure. So when we asked our audience what they wanted us to ask presidential candidates about, one of the biggest themes that we heard from people was they wanted to know how they're going to get people to work together. And that's both in government and I think outside of government. So we have two questions on that. One comes from a listener, Megan Coleman in Charlestown. She wants to know, how do you plan to work with the other party when both parties seem unwilling to listen or work with each other to be effective? And on that note, I just want to note, you know, how do you plan to do that when you yourself, through the campaigns that we were talking about earlier, have in some cases kind of been an antagonist of Republican incumbents across the country. So how do you come into office then and work with the people that you've been running all of those ads against?

Tom Steyer:
What ads have I been running against them?

Casey McDermott:
With Next Gen, with some of these other campaigns that you've been involved in, they've campaigned against.

Tom Steyer:
Actually, just to be clear, Casey, 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 in all of those cases, what we're doing is talking to citizens about what about the issues they care about trying to make sure that they're registered to vote, trying to make sure that they understand the differences and then trying to make sure they have a plan to vote, because, in fact, what we're pushing is for more people to show up at the polls. So actually, we haven't been running a bunch of antagonistic TV ads. Really, what we're trying to accomplish and we do this online as well, is to interact with citizens and get them involved more broadly in the system. So my thesis on American politics is different from the political parties thesis, including the Democratic parties. I look at American politics and I say 50 percent of Americans roughly don't vote. What's most important to me is to try and make sure that they're involved so their voices are heard. And so politicians have to take them into account. So if you actually look at what NexGen has done, it's been all about registration, engagement and turnout. And we've worked with partners across the country to try and make sure specifically for the parts of the electorate that are underrepresented. And that tends to be young people who vote at half the rate of other Americans, low income people and people of color. We've pushed really hard to try and make sure that they are included, that they participate at a different level. So we have a more perfect and a fair democracy. So actually, when I look at what I'm talking about -- the right to health care for every American, the right to quality public education from Pre-K through college, the right to a living wage, the right not to be poisoned -- the right to have clean air and clean water. That is something that I believe should appeal to every Republican voter as well. And you will never hear me say something disrespectful to those voters because I don't feel it.

Casey McDermott:
So just to just to clarify, you know, you've certainly been tough on Trump. You've been tough on our home Governor here, Governor Chris Sununu, in your messaging and your kind of advocacy. There's also been digital messaging around both of those Republican individuals. How do you plan to work with either, you know, let's say Governor Chris Sununu remains in office, you become president. How do you bridge that divide?

Tom Steyer:
Well, let me step back for a second. I started Need to Impeach because Mr. Trump is the most corrupt president in American history. And I said on day one, this is not about partisanship. He will be replaced by a Republican. This is about patriotism that the American people need need to raise our voices to say the system must be protected from a corrupt president who thinks he's above the law. That is not partisanship. I was attacking Mr. Trump not for his policies, which, frankly, you know, I disagree with. But you can't be impeached for a disagreement about policy. You can be impeached because you're corrupt and you break the law, which he has clearly done pretty much from his first day in office. If you look at Governor Sununu, the issue I have with Governor Sununu is that he vetoed a bill that would allow young people in the state of New Hampshire to vote, that, in fact, there was something pushed through where young college students who vote in New Hampshire and live in New Hampshire but have an out-of-state driver's license, are not allowed to vote unless they get a New Hampshire driver's license, which costs several hundred dollars. And that was a clear attempt in my mind to to basically prevent American citizens from exercising their franchise in the state where they live. And it was deliberate. And and it had to do with the idea that young people, many of whom we organized. Next Gen is on 19 campuses in the state of New Hampshire. We've been working to try and make sure that young people do participate. That was an attempt to limit democracy. And that was that was not about him. It was not about a Republican. There was something wrong there. And to say that we shouldn't criticize people when they try and take away American citizens' right to vote and they try and really restrict the franchise is something that's been going on and it's wrong. I don't care who you are. That's wrong. And you should be criticized for that.

Casey McDermott:
Just as a point of clarification. There's actually a court challenge right now that's sorting out what exactly that law would do. It's not clear that someone would need to get an in-state driver's license in order to vote. I just want to make sure that that's on the record. Just to pivot really briefly to talk about civility outside of politics. We've heard from a lot of people in New Hampshire who are concerned about just the deterioration of how people talk to each other, how people relate to each other. What's something that you think the average person can do or should do to promote more decency in their everyday life?

Tom Steyer:
Look, my attitude about all this is that the most important thing I get to do and the most rewarding thing I get to do is to talk to Americans, and that includes Republicans. I did more than 50 town halls around impeachment. People came to those town halls from both sides of the aisle. My attitude on this is I believe that Americans are compassionate. I believe we're brave. I believe that as a group, we're very, very wise. And I sometimes do get very upset at elected officials. But I only get upset, Casey, about two things, not telling the truth and putting yourself ahead of the American people. As far as I'm concerned, any elected official -- I can disagree with them on every single policy there is -- but if they're telling the truth as they know it and not putting themselves ahead of the American people, that's what I call democracy. And I will never be angry at them personally, I promise. But if I do see people lying and if I do see people putting their interests ahead of Americans, that does upset me. And we're seeing it in spades. And I think we have to call that out, because I think that's the manifestation of this corporate takeover of our government, is people choosing to do what's in their personal interests and selling Americans down the river. And that gets me upset because it's really hurting people. You know, travel around this country, talk to people, New Hampshire, what they're doing is really hurting people. And it's not right.

Laura Knoy:
Mr. Steyer, I did want to ask you, since you mentioned corporate stranglehold on American politics, let's get money out of politics, some of your Democratic opponents have said, hey, hey, he's using his money to get into politics, get onto that debate stage, get on TV, get on social media. So how do you square that?

Tom Steyer:
Well, I think. What I'm trying to do is get more self-interested money out. And I would be for public funding of elections. I do think that has to happen. But I think in order for that to happen, we've got to break this corporate stranglehold. And I see this as an absolute clear problem. It's really why I'm running. I'm the last person in this race. And I got into this race because 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. And so if you say I've been using all my time and money and effort to try and deal with what I think is the biggest problem in America, you know, that's really what I did in climate. That's really what I did when I felt like the democracy wasn't reaching young people, low income people and people of color. That's really what I was doing with the Need to Impeach movement. I'm going after what I think is the biggest problem in America. And I'm putting everything into it. And if that's the worst thing I do, I'll accept that.

Laura Knoy:
So the criticism that your fellow Democrats have made, Tom Steyer is buying his way into this campaign. Bernie Sanders said, I'm kind of tired of billionaires trying to buy their way into politics. You're saying, I'm on the right side or what are you saying there?

Tom Steyer:
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. And so from my standpoint, if none of those things are true, nothing else matters. And if it is true that's what will carry the day.

Laura Knoy:
You've invested many millions in social media and traditional advertising. According to FiveThirtyEight, the political reporting house, you've run more than three quarters of all the presidential TV ads so far. I have teenagers. I hear a lot of complaints about your social media ads blocking their YouTube videos. You apparently got the high end ones that you have to watch. How would you describe your advertising strategy, Mr. Steyer? And since you put so much money into this, why don't you think you're a little bit higher in the polls?

Tom Steyer:
Look, what seems to me to be true in our analysis says is if people actually hear my message, they do respond. I'm coming from someone who people don't know anything about and trying to make a very specific point and introduce myself. And actually, if you look at the first four primary states, I'm either in fourth or fifth place. So actually, what's going on is I'm trying to play catch up because I was very late and people don't know me. And I believe that my message is very simple and clear and that people do respond to it, actually.

Laura Knoy:
You've put a lot of time and money into New Hampshire, as you just said, focusing on certain states. What do you think matters more here in the Granite State Mr. Steyer, in terms of getting ahead, money or time?

Tom Steyer:
I think contact. And let me say this. Look, NexGen has been on the ground in New Hampshire since the beginning of 2014. I've been coming to New Hampshire to go onto campuses and register kids. I've been going to door to door in New Hampshire for six or seven years. And what I can see, first of all, politically,the people of New Hampshire are incredibly sophisticated. You know, the fact that this is the first primary state means that people put in so much more time and effort into understanding the candidates and the issues. So to me, the real question here is contact, however you can do it. And, you know, the more personal, the better.

Laura Knoy:
So contact means either knocking on a door the old-fashioned Way or putting ads on YouTube and maybe you lose a couple of teenage teenagers in the process.

Tom Steyer:
Well, I think the question is: Do you have something important and true to say?

Laura Knoy:
All right. Mr. Steyer, we could've talked a lot more. Thank you very much for being here. Really appreciate it.

Tom Steyer:
Thank you guys so much for having me.

Laura Knoy:
I also want to give a big thanks to my colleague, Casey McDermott. Again, thank you to our candidate. Also to the staff who helped put together these events. It's a lot of work to put on a live event with a candidate. I really appreciate all my colleagues at NHPR and NHPBS. Thanks also to our wonderful audience for joining us. This is the Exchange on New Hampshire Public Radio.