Thomas Fahr “Tom” Steyer is an American hedge-fund billionaire turned climate-change activist, and major political donor to environmental causes and Democrats advocating an environmentalist agenda to fight global warming.
Steyer made his fortune as the co-founder and senior managing partner of Farallon Capital Management, a hedge fund worth $30 billion. He sold his stake in the fund in order to focus on political, environmental and philanthropic causes including NextGen Climate Action, Advanced Energy Economy and Beneficial State Bank. With his wife Kathryn Taylor, he controls the TomKat Charitable Trust, which he uses to fund his policy advocacy.
Since 2008, Steyer has spent millions of dollars to influence presidential elections, state candidate campaigns, and ballot initiatives. His $74 million in contributions and expenditures on the 2014 midterm elections made Steyer the top political donor during that cycle.
Steyer’s turn toward climate change activism has been criticized as opportunistic and hypocritical because Farallon Capital had invested in companies that operated coal mines and coal-fired power plants from Indonesia to China between 1999 and 2014.
Personal Life and Education
Thomas Fahr “Tom” Steyer was born in 1957 in New York City, New York and was the youngest of three boys. His parents were Marnie and Roy Henry Steyer. The elder Steyer worked as a corporate lawyer at Sullivan and Cromwell, which represented Goldman Sachs for decades.
Tom Steyer attended Buckley, a, elite private boys’ school in Manhattan, followed by Phillips Exeter Academy. After graduating at the top of his class at Phillips Exeter Academy, Steyer attended Yale where graduated summa cum laude and was captain of the soccer team at Yale, then earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business.
His brother Jim Steyer is a law professor and the founder and C.E.O. of Common Sense Media, which rates movies, books, apps, and video games to help parents find age-appropriate material for their kids.
After graduating from Yale in 1979, Steyer worked as an analyst at Morgan Stanley for two years as an analyst. Then, after receiving his MBA from Stanford, he spent two years working at Goldman Sachs specializing in risk arbitrage.
In 1986, Steyer moved to San Francisco and joined private equity firm Hellman & Friedman where he set up his own risk arbitrage fund, or hedge fund. That fund eventually became Farallon Capital Management, which he named after a group of islands 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge.
When Steyer sold his ownership stake in Farallon Capital Management in late 2012, the hedge fund was the fourth largest in the world, turning $8 million into $30 billion over 20 years. According to a 2014 report in the New York Times, Steyer continued as a “passive investor” in Farallon after selling his ownership stake. Forbes lists his net worth at $1.6 billion as of January 2019.
Steyer is a member of the Stanford Advisory Council and was appointed to the Stanford Board of Trustees in 2007.
Prior to working for Goldman Sachs in 1983, Steyer got a job working for former the 1984 Presidential campaign of former Vice President Walter Mondale (D) with the assistance of Robert Rubin, the future Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration.
During the 2006 midterm elections, Steyer and former Clinton White House operative Chris Lehane held a fundraiser in San Francisco for the reelection campaign of U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-California), attended by former President Bill Clinton. The following year, Steyer became a top donor to Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic Presidential primaries.
Steyer served as a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 2004 and 2008.
Steyer is believed to be considering a run for public office in 2018, giving a fiery speech to a large crowd at the NextGen Climate-sponsored Los Angeles March for Science on April 22, 2017.
According to emails released by Wikileaks, Center for American Progress (CAP) founder John Podesta pushed then-President-elect Barack Obama to name Tom Steyer as Energy Secretary in 2008, a post that eventually went to physicist Steven Chu. Podesta recommended Steyer for the Cabinet position again in 2013.
California Political Activity
Tom Steyer has played a significant role in California state politics.
Steyer’s 2010 effort to defeat Proposition 23 in California, a proposal to delay implementation of certain environmentalist policies, is widely considered to be the start of his public climate change activism. He spent $5 million to fight the ballot initiative which would have rolled back new limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The $5 million was the single largest sum donated toward the initiative. Steyer also solicited $700,000 from Bill Gates and $500,000 from billionaire hedge fund manager Julian Robertson in the successful effort to defeat the proposition.
While a Steyer-backed California ballot issue hiking tobacco taxes passed in 2016, and a few of his favored candidates won their elections, the 2016 election was seen as an overall disaster for Steyer’s environmental election agenda.
Coal Mine Controversy
As Steyer’s environmental and political activism grew in the public eye, so did scrutiny of his wealth generated by Farallon Capital’s investment in coal mines and power plants. In 2004, Steyer became the target of left-wing attacks by student activists at both of Steyer’s alma maters, first at Yale then Stanford, when they learned the universities had millions invested in Farallon.The activists started a website called unfarallon.info, and organized public protests and political theater events.
The students’ push spread to other campuses, reportedly embarrassing Steyer and his wife, Kathryn, who were major donors to Democratic causes. Steyer gave up his ownership of Farallon Capital Management in late 2012.
NextGen Climate PAC
Also see NextGen Climate Action Committee (PAC)
In 2013, Steyer created the NextGen Climate Action Committee, a PAC to support candidates who embraced climate change as a major issue. His $74 million spent during the 2014 midterm election cycle, including $67 million for NextGen Climate, made him the single biggest political donor that cycle. NextGen directed $25 million toward four Senate races and three gubernatorial races in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire and Illinois.Three of the seven NextGen Climate-supported candidates won in 2014, but Democrats suffered overall defeat, losing control of the Senate, and more seats in the House.
Steyer also mobilized his campaign contributions and his SuperPAC to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. On April 3, 2013, he held a fundraiser at his home attended by President Barack Obama, where he and 15 top donors discussed their opposition to the proposed pipeline from Canada. Steyer backed U.S. Representative Ed Markey (D) in a special election for the U.S. Senate to succeed Sen. Mo Cowan (D-Massachusetts). Steyer had threatened to spend big money on Markey’s campaign, if his opponent, Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Massachusetts), did not renounce his support for Keystone XL. Markey rejected Steyer’s support, saying the tactics have “no place in our political discourse and should be repudiated” and that “Mr. Steyer should immediately withdraw his threats and ultimatum, and stay out of this Senate race.”
2016 General Election
During the 2016 election cycle, Steyer again topped all other political donors by spending $89,794,744. His NextGen Climate Action SuperPAC spent $33,119,385, leading all organizations funding outside spending groups. The Center for Responsive Politics classified all of the contributions as funding liberals.
Steyer’s major goal in 2016 was to advance climate change as a top issue. The widespread promotion of climate change as a major issue for the 2016 election was not reflected in polls, however, ranking near or at the bottom among issues that were most important to voters. Progressive magazine The New Republic reported climate change was discussed for “a scant 325 seconds” during the presidential debates.
A 2016 report by the Energy and Environment Legal Institute showed that Steyer funded the Democratic National Committee and in turn, the DNC adopted Steyer’s agenda on climate change and renewable energy nearly word for word. Steyer also donated millions to candidates on the condition they accept his global warming agenda, and encouraged state Attorneys General to silence those who disagree with his environmental views.
Steyer and his NextGen Climate SuperPAC also joined forces with several outside groups in 2016 to influence the elections, including those listed here:
- The Latino Victory Fund, a Democratic-leaning group associated with the New Venture Fund aimed at influencing Hispanic voters seen as a key demographic for Democrats and who Latino Victory officials say are disproportionately affected by environmental problems.
- The AFL-CIO, with funding by Steyer for the For Our Future PAC, pledged to raise $50 million to elect a Democratic president. Seven member unions of the AFL-CIO which represent 1.5 million workers in the U.S. demanded that the labor federation cut ties with Steyer for his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.
- The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) received Steyer’s assistance for a $10 million effort to turn out voters for Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates in Colorado, Ohio and Pennsylvania through door knocking and phone banking in working-class communities, targeting African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latinos. Steyer said of this partnership, “Stopping the Party of Trump is our number one priority this year.”
Impeach President Trump
In October 2017, Steyer called on Democratic lawmakers to impeach President Donald Trump if Democrats take control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections.
2017 Virginia Gubernatorial Election
Steyer announced in 2017 that NextGen America would make Democrat Ralph Northam’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign the top priority of his organization. It expressed a plan to spend upwards of $2 million on the election. Steyer said he supported Northam chiefly as an opposition to Republican candidate Ed Gillespie, who supported the Mountain Valley pipeline projects, despite the largely neutral stance that Northam himself took regarding the projects.
Steyer’s primary personal philanthropic vehicle is his TomKat Charitable Trust, located in San Francisco, formed with his wife, Kathryn “Kat” Taylor. In 2008, the trust reported just over $153 million in net assets. In 2009, the value of its net assets exceeded $186 million; and in 2010, the value exceeded $203 million. In 2012, the trust had fallen back to $156 million in net assets, per its IRS disclosures.
Highlights of its 2012 grants include:
- $250,000 to environmentalist activist group 350.org in “general support”
- $250,000 to the Aspen Global Change Institute (based in Basalt, Colorado) in support for its Energy Policy Project; this tax-exempt group organizes workshops for scientists and produces a variety of publications as part of its mission to further “the scientific understanding of Earth systems and global environmental change”
- $392,000 for the Center for Ecoliteracy (based in Berkeley, Calif.; more on the Center appears below)
- $2.5 million for the Clean Economy Network Educational Fund in “general support” (CENEF is the 501 (c)(3) arm of the Advanced Energy Economy, “a national association of business leaders who are making the global energy system more secure, clean, and affordable.”)
- $200,000 in “program priorities” funding for the Energy Foundation; EF is “a partnership of philanthropic investors promoting clean energy technology [with the goal of building] a new energy future by advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy.”
Steyer founded two environmentalist energy research institutions at Stanford University, the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy and the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance.
In 2007, Steyer founded the Beneficial State Bank and Foundation, to benefit community development and underserved communities along the west coast.
Steyer and his wife intend to give much of their fortune away rather than leave it to their four children. In August, 2010 the couple signed on to Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffett’s “Giving Pledge,” which is a promise to donate the majority of their wealth to charitable and nonprofit activities during their lifetimes
Steyer co-founded Advanced Energy Economy (AEE) in 2011 to raise awareness of the public benefits and opportunities of advanced energy. The AEE board of directors includes former Obama Administration Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.
In January, 2016, the Washington Free Beacon reported that AEE and the EPA coordinated to undermine agency critics over a regulation on the U.S. power grid. Emails obtained by the Energy and Environmental Legal Institute revealed that Arvin Ganesan, AEE vice president for federal policy and a former EPA executive emailed EPA and White House staffers in January 2015, about rebutting a study from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). The study questioned the impact of EPA regulations on electrical grid reliability and suggested the rule’s implementation be delayed.