Tom Steyer wants to be the guy to take on Donald Trump — and not just on climate.
The billionaire will expand the focus of his environmental political advocacy group, NextGen Climate Action, to fund initiatives and candidates with an eye to issues well beyond the realm of climate change, Steyer said in an interview on Tuesday.
The 59-year-old Steyer, a San Francisco hedge fund manager and possible contender for next year’s California governor’s race, said he made the decision to broaden his reach in response to Trump and to a legislative agenda he described as “deplorable” and “a barrage against the basic fabric of American society.”
The exact contours of NextGen’s transition, Steyer said, will be determined by what he hears in response to a video he released Tuesday to solicit ideas from activists like the millions who attended marches over inauguration weekend. “We want to know what matters most to you, and what should be done,” he says in the clip.
An aide described Steyer’s goal as “crowdsourcing the resistance.” After some time, the aide said, Steyer plans to unveil his plans for a reimagined NextGen.
Speaking by phone from California, Steyer outlined possible changes that could make NextGen a group with diverse aims: organizing a network of nationwide activists, registering voters, forming alliances with other liberal groups — while still investing millions in progressive candidates, as Steyer did in 2014 and 2016.
“The point of that video is to say look, we should be listening,” said Steyer, who attended marches after Trump’s inauguration in Oakland and San Francisco. “This isn’t just a talk-down speaking exercise. This is a bottom-up listening exercise.”
Asked if he has concerns about widening beyond climate — particularly when so few leaders in the party make it their top political priority — Steyer said that under the new Trump administration, progressives cannot consider causes in isolation.
“All of these issues are merging. There is a concerted attack from the administration and their allies against what we think of as basic American rights. It’s a barrage, honestly. It’s been a barrage against Americans and American rights."
“It would be a mistake to try to silo issues,” he said. “The response has to be much broader.”
The move comes amid a larger debate among Democrats over whether to pick battles strategically under Trump, or to "oppose everything" he puts forward — a posture advocated by much of the party's base. Steyer suggested that he falls in the latter category. “The way that Trump wins is not because we’re going to agree with him — we’re not," he said. "It’s when we acquiesce to him. That’s how we lose.”
NextGen's initiatives in the last election already signaled a possible move beyond climate. Over 2015 and 2016, aides said, Steyer's group led a multimillion-dollar effort to register 1 million voters and organize on 370 college campuses.
“Our mission statement has always included promoting prosperity,” Steyer said. “We’ve always felt that to separate climate — and to not put it in the context of American jobs, American wages, and American health — was a mistake.”
Steyer gave more than $87 million to liberal causes during the 2016 election, making him the largest individual contributor — Democrat or Republican — to fund federal candidates, parties, super PACs, and so-called 527 organizations.
He has said since there’s “no limit” to what he’s willing to spend to fight Trump.
Though he is the party’s single biggest donor, Steyer’s efforts to elevate candidates who embrace his views on climate have yet to yield sweeping victories. In 2014, a year of Democratic losses across the map, four of NextGen’s nine candidates failed. And in 2016, three of seven NextGen-backed candidates fell short to Republicans.
Steyer is still considering a bid to replace Jerry Brown as governor in 2018.
It was two years ago this month that Barbara Boxer announced her retirement from the U.S. Senate, setting off three days of intense deliberation among ambitious California Democrats over who would vie for the seat in 2016 and who would wait for a governor’s race in 2018. Steyer considered running, asking his team to commission polling and assess his viability, but bowed out of the competition. (The former state attorney general, Sen. Kamala Harris, now occupies Boxer’s seat.)
In recent interviews, Steyer has suggested that Trump's victory altered his calculations on the governor's race. On Tuesday, he indicated that while “circumstances have changed,” electoral politics is still on his mind.
"There is a very broad-based attack on fundamental American rights," he said. "Anything I decide to do personally has got to be made in that context. And it will be."