Billionaire Tom Steyer on fixing ‘broken government’ as the next potential president

Tom Steyer amassed than $1 billion by running a hedge fund before turning to philanthropy and liberal activism. He’s spent the last two years running the “Need to Impeach” PAC, lobbying lawmakers to remove President Trump from office.

Steyer tells Press Play why he’s running for president: “I listened to the first few debates, and I got in really late because I felt like no one was leveling with the American people. And the true story is: It's not a question about which Green New Deal we want, it's not a question about which health care change we want, it's not a question of which anti-gun violence program we want. The problem is we have a broken government.” 

What caused our government to break? Steyer says corporations bought it. He uses gun violence as an example: “Why do we have gun violence at a level that no other country in the world has? And that's whether you're talking about mass shootings, domestic violence, unsafe streets or suicide. And the basics, the kind of thing that 90% of Americans want, which is mandatory background checks on every gun purchase … We don't get it because actually the gun manufacturers control the NRA.” 

Steyer suggests voters should trust him to “unbreak” government. “I’ve spent over a decade doing just that. I started co-chairing the No on 23 campaign taking on oil companies when they tried to roll back our environmental laws. You probably remember Prop 56, which I led in 2016, which was a $2 a pack cigarette tax. The cigarette companies had won 17 times in a row. They never lost. We won. The money went to fund MediCal,  the health care system for the lowest income Californians.”

Does Steyer believe he can fix the political process because, as a billionaire, he doesn’t need to take money from corporations or PACs? 

“I think I have a special history of succeeding, partially if you listen to what I'm talking about doing. It's different,” he responds. “I'm saying I would put in term limits for Congress people and senators of 12 years. No one else in this race will even say they're against that … I’m also for a federal referendum.” 

Addressing wealth inequality

One issue that Steyer’s campaign hasn’t talked much about is homelessness -- a high priority for Angelenos. 

Steyer says he sees the problem in his hometown of San Francisco, and on visits to LA’s Skid Row. “What I see is a dramatic shortage in housing across the board … I look at a state where inequality is inseparable from housing. And this is the most toxic aspect of at least 2 million too few units as a result of policies that have been in place for over 40 years,” he says.

However, some of those policies involve the tax code, which has benefited Steyer personally. He replies: “I built a business. I took the Giving Pledge. I walked away from my business. I said I'll give more than half my money away for good causes while I'm alive ... Do I understand how lucky I am, and am I pushing to undo every Republican tax break for rich people and big corporations? Yes. Did I propose a wealth tax over a year ago? Yes.”

Steyer says he would make tax rules more progressive. “I believe there's been a 40 year war on working people … You can see that in terms of where the money hsa gone, it's been dramatically unfair. But if you said to me that we should put a ceiling on what people get for creating, I would say no. I would say we should have a much more progressive tax code.”

What about his vision for health care?

Steyer says he believes affordable health care is a right for every American, and he would choose a public option instead of “Medicare for All.” 

“I think there are 160 million Americans who get their health care through their employer. A lot of them are union workers who've negotiated for it. If we can make the public option so cheap and good that they go to their employers and say to them, ‘You give us the money you're spending on our health care, we'll go by the public option,’ great. But it's a choice,” he explains. “It means everybody gets health care. You're automatically signed up. But we’re not trashing the existing system that's been there for 75 years, but everybody has a choice.” 

Why not take his wealth, organizing ability and enthusiasm, and put it behind another candidate who has a better chance of winning? 

“Because I think I have a great chance to win,” he answers. “But it's more than that. I think I'm the only candidate in this race who will say that priority one is climate. I'm the person who says I would declare a state of emergency on day one … I would do it from the standpoint of environmental justice …  If we're going to actually make this happen, it has to be with our leadership around the world.”

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy