By Gregg Bragg, The Island Eye News Staff Writer
Tom Steyer paid a visit to the Lowcountry on Dec. 4 and spent a few minutes with the Island Eye News in the Mills House’ Best Friend Lounge.
The billionaire philanthropist got his start managing mergers and acquisitions for Morgan Stanley in 1979. He followed that career path until he was the one doing the acquiring, forming what would become Beneficial State Bank in 2007. Steyer formed at least a half dozen self-sustaining charities during that time. His most recent effort is the Need to Impeach petition drive, which has amassed 6,467,110 signatures.
“He has called me names,” said Steyer, when asked if he was afraid the escalating feud with Trump would fuel the president’s ire. “I love it. Every time he has insulted me it’s with things that have absolutely nothing to do with me, but are absolutely accurate about him. There are three things to think about Donald Trump; real estate, The Apprentice, and licensing his name.
“Owning real estate: He [Trump] is a totally failed real estate entrepreneur without exception.
“The Apprentice: He’s a very good reality TV star, and he’s still doing it. He proves it every day.
“Licensing his name: I don’t know [why] people are willing to pay for his name, but he clearly makes money [from this]. Whether that’s to launder money [from] people overseas, hopefully that’s something Mr. Mueller will find out,” Steyer mused. “In terms of being a business person with sensible thoughts, that’s ridiculous. He’s burned through hundreds of millions of other people’s money. What he is, is a snake-oil salesman, and he’s very good at it,” stated Steyer.
Steyer said he chose bright red SC to begin a tour promoting ‘The right to an equal vote,’ the first of five ‘Rights for the 21st century,’ because of the state’s history. Yes, he said he wants to call out and eliminate all forms of voter suppression; voter purges, polling site closures, voter intimidation, as well as corporate ownership of elections. However, SC’s position among the first primaries also loomed large in Steyer’s choice.
“It’s a fact, the American political conversation happens in the presidential election, and it happens disproportionately in the early primary states. That’s where people go to talk about ideas, the future, and what we can be. So actually SC is the perfect place to begin a conversation about the right to an equal vote for every American citizen.”
Asked if Nancy Pelosi’s draft ‘HB-1’ (automatic voter registration, increased early voting, mechanisms for on-line voting, and etc.) for the next session of congress was the agenda for 2020, Steyer remained on message.
“We’re talking about five rights, a framework for American citizens to be protected, and therefore free to pursue their lives,” he said.
Steyer respects the constitution but thinks it needs an upgrade. For example, he doesn’t feel freedom from garrisoning troops in peacetime is as germane today as the right to vote.
“What Nancy’s doing has two parts. One of them is Republicans have decided the way they can stay in power is by cheating; putting the polls in places people can’t get to, striking people off the rolls, changing the rules so young people can’t vote, [instituting] voter ID laws, gerrymandering… cheating, the thing up in NC – straight up cheating, but that’s a partisan issue. The other part of this is the corporate purchase of our democracy.”
Steyer went on to confirm his support of public funding for elections, emphasizing that his ‘framework’ addressed both components.
“Take healthcare, for example. We pay more for it than anywhere in the world, and have poorer outcomes than those paying less. And drugs, you can’t get them any cheaper because there’s a law in place that prevents you from getting the same thing outside the U.S. cheaper. It’s that way because somebody wants it that way,” Steyer said to emphasize the need for change in the way campaigns are funded.
Steyer thinks grass-root actions yield more success than funding large think tanks like the Heritage Foundation. “My old roommate used to be the head of research at the Heritage Foundation. He said ‘we don’t do research. We’re a political organization.’ They’re a lobbying organization,” Steyer insisted. However, he says the other half of success is ideas. “America is begging, in my humble opinion, for some direction. A common understanding of what we’re trying to do as a society, that gets us moving forward again, looking to the future, and creating again… instead of destroying and moving backwards,” he added.
It didn’t take long for Steyer to respond when asked if there was something in particular that ‘set him off’ about Trump. “I watched Trump in the private sector for decades. I held 40 Town Halls this year, and I would say the vast majority of the people I was talking to were passionately trying to defend the American system, as they believe it. He is just an absolute threat to basic American values.”
Steyer then invoked a line reminiscent of the movie The American President, ‘he just wants to make you afraid of it, and tell you who’s to blame for it.’ “No one ever creates anything great in a fist fight. You break stuff. It’s expensive. You have to pay for lawyers. When you cooperate with people, you both do better, but Trump doesn’t do that. He starts by punching somebody.”
Steyer wrapped up the interview by saying he is not a fan of charter schools and thinks it further dilutes the public coffers. He applauded the Lowcountry’s efforts to ban plastics, but isn’t sure bans can continue to spread. “That’s a pretty big lobby. There’s a struggle in the United States… between logic/human interest, and straight up [financial] interest. Does money get its way, or do we do the right thing,” posited Steyer.
Responding to the real question he artfully ducked so far, would have to wait for his Town Hall later in the evening.
Steyer booked The Schoolhouse at 720 Middleton Rd. for a 7 p.m. Town Hall meeting. Attendance was estimated at 120, and eclipsed the 25-50 Steyer anticipated. He invited local leaders including Derrick Johnson, NAACP President and CEO; Dot Scott, President of the NAACP Charleston Branch; Susan Smith, resident of the SC Democratic Women’s Council and Chairwoman of SC Working Families Party; Abe Jenkins Jr., former Political Director of the South Carolina Democratic Party to join him for a panel style discussion, in another interesting move.
“People vote against something in a midterm, but they’re voting for something in a presidential election,” he said, invoking former President Barack Obama.
That ‘something’ is his Five Rights for the 21st century.
- The Right to an Equal Vote – so everyone has an equal voice to demand justice from our government and can vote with no discrimination and no barriers.
- The Right to Clean Air & Clean Water – so everyone can breathe fresh air and drink clean water, free from industrial poisons.
- The Right to Learn – so everyone has the right to a free, quality, public education from preschool through college.
- The Right to a Living Wage – so no one needs to work more than one full-time job.
- The Right to Health – so everyone has a chance to live a healthy life, with universal healthcare.
The panel discussion and the purpose of visiting the Lowcountry was to discuss the first ‘right,’ and they did for a while. However, attendees seemed more interested in what Steyer had to say, and eventually said so, and still no answer to the real question, whether or not he is considering a run in the 2020 presidential election.
Steyer told Vice News he was “willing” to run for president, and told Reuters he wanted to do whatever would make the “most impact,” during the press gaggle following the meeting. To summarize, Steyer is definitely not committed to not running for president in 2020, though it sure looks like SC has witnessed the first battle of the next presidential election.
For more information visit TomSteyer.com/5-rights.