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Tom Steyer, a political force, ponders his options

Environmental activist Tom Steyer at a conference of the Center for American Progress. (Photo: File/Associated Press)

While media reports keep predicting that billionaire Tom Steyer will run for California governor in 2018, Steyer says he has not made a decision yet.

There are a lot of factors to consider first, including the coming election, said the 59-year-old former hedge fund manager.

“I’m going to keep working on the issues. I’m passionate about it,” he said. “I don’t know the best format to do that yet.”

Steyer is president and founder of NextGen Climate, an environmental advocacy organization that is trying to prevent disaster from climate change.

The San Francisco resident made his wealth as founder of Farallon Capital. He sold his stake in the company in 2012, switching his energies to focusing on climate change and politics. Steyer gave $74 million supporting Democrats in campaigns in 2014, making him the biggest individual donor in the country.

Born in New York City, he graduated summa cum laude from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science. He earned his masters of business administration degree from Stanford University.

“He’s a quintessential California example of someone who has done well in life but is even more dedicated to doing good,” said his friend state Senate Leader Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, in a statement.

In 2010, Steyer and his wife Kat Taylor signed the Giving Pledge to donate half of their wealth to charitable causes during their lifetime.

Steyer said he was going to give away lots of money to charity anyway but signed the pledge to support Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet. Steyer said everyone who signed the pledge has gotten enormous breaks from society along the way and realizes that they have a responsibility to help others.

“I think it’s really important that everybody realizes we’re in the same rowboat and we will sink or swim together,” he said.

Steyer is president and founder of NextGen Climate, an environmental advocacy organization that is trying to prevent disaster from climate change.

“The bad news is this is a race with nature,” he said, pointing to global record-breaking temperatures in the first half of 2016.

He said he got involved in that issue because it is an overwhelming issue with no political force behind solving it.

“Climate change is a problem that could dramatically affect everyone in the country in a bad way and for some reason the political system wasn’t addressing it,” he said.

Over the last three years since he founded NextGen, he’s seen improvement in American attitudes about the problem. ‘There’s been dramatic progress, more progress than we had any right to expect,” he said. “The bad news is this is a race with nature,” he said, pointing to global record-breaking temperatures in the first half of 2016. “We’re running faster but nature’s running much faster too. It isn’t a question of doing a good job, we have to do the job.”

Steyer endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in part because of her views on the environment.  He said he asked both candidates for their solutions on energy and climate. “One of them has more than met our criteria, the other has not even approached anything reasonable and is completely stuck in the mud from our standpoint.”

He thinks a key factor in overcoming climate change is engaging millennial voters. In that vein, NextGen is focusing this year on getting voters under 30 to the polls. “The broadest democracy is the best democracy,” Steyer said. “If everybody participates not only is it fairer but we get better decisions.”

Millennial voter turnout was abysmally low in 2014, with voters under 30 accounting for just 12 percent of the total vote. “It’s important that their voices be heard and votes be counted,” Steyer said.

He wants to prevent young people from the fate of his mother, who smoked three packs a day of unfiltered cigarettes and died of lung cancer.

He thinks some of the problem for the low turnout comes from young people moving and then not re-registering to vote in their new location. The father of four adult children, Steyer said he has talked to his own kids about this issue.

He stresses that he is generally impressed by the millennial generation. “They’re extremely knowledgeable on the issues,” he said. “They very much care about energy and climate. They really are civic-minded.”

It’s young people who were a big motivation for him to support Proposition 56, a state ballot initiative on the November ballot that would raise California’s cigarette tax by $2 a pack.

“We know that if the price goes up, that’s the biggest deterrent for young people starting,” he said.

He wants to prevent young people from the fate of his mother, who smoked three packs a day of unfiltered cigarettes and died of lung cancer.

The measure faces a fight from tobacco companies. There have been 17 previous failed attempts to raise the California tobacco tax, Steyer said.

California Medical Association President Steve Larson, M.D., said in a statement that Steyer plays a key role in the coalition in support of Prop. 56. “His passion to save lives and improve public health is both undeniable and admirable,” he said. “Our campaign is lucky to have him on its side.”

When he isn’t fighting for political causes, Steyer likes spending time in nature. He is trying to climb all the mountains in California that are over 14,000 elevation. His next conquest will be Polemonium Peak.

“It’s really beautiful and you get away from everything,” he said.

 

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