By Michael Finnegan and Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
LOS ANGELES — Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer announced Thursday that he has decided not to run for the U.S. Senate, saying he believes he should stay focused on his work fighting climate change in California and across the nation.
“This was a very hard decision,” Steyer wrote on the Huffington Post website. ” … Given the imperative of electing a Democratic president, along with my passion for our state, I believe my work right now should not be in our nation’s capital but here — at home in California, and in states around the country where change is on the move.”
His decision leaves state Attorney General Kamala D. Harris as the only major candidate in the June 2016 primary for the seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara Boxer — at least for now. Those seriously exploring a run include former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and several members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Steyer, who spent more than $74 million of his own money on Senate and gubernatorial contests in 2014, pledged to remain involved in politics.
“Going forward, I intend to redouble my efforts working with partners and fellow citizens to push for change,” Steyer wrote. “The road we take may be less traveled and less well-marked, but I am very determined. The journey is far from over — in fact, it has just begun.”
A source close to the former hedge fund manager said that President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this week was a “tipping point,” and that Steyer compared it with Gov. Jerry Brown’s State of the State speech earlier this month.
Steyer came away from those two speeches believing that the ability to fight climate change is challenging given the makeup of Congress, the source said. Additionally, the source said, he believes that there is great opportunity to effect change in California given the political climate in the state.
Steyer still plans to focus on the other problems he highlighted as part of a potential platform — economic inequality and education access — potentially through ballot propositions, expansion of community development banks and other initiatives.
Steyer is almost certain to run for elected office in the future, possibly for governor in 2018, the source said.
Steyer would have been the latest in a long line of wealthy Californians who tried to enter public office at a top level, skipping the typical upward progression from lower-ranking jobs.
History suggests his risk of failing would have been high: business executives Meg Whitman, Bill Simon and Al Checchi lost gubernatorial races, and Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive at Hewlett-Packard, was trounced by Boxer in 2010.
A Yale University graduate with an MBA from Stanford University, Steyer was the founder of Farallon Capital Management, the San Francisco hedge fund that made him a billionaire.
In politics, Steyer’s main focus has been the environment. His political organization, NextGen Climate Action, is a key player in Democratic politics on the issue climate change.
In 2012, Steyer spent more than $21 million to help pass a ballot measure that closed a corporate tax loophole and provided hundreds of millions of dollars for environmental programs. Last year, Steyer spent $74 million on campaigns across the nation for candidates who vowed to work against global warming.
That spending made Steyer a political target for oil and gas companies, and for the Republican Party at large. In effect, he became a Democratic version of the Koch brothers, the billionaire industrialists who serve as top Republican benefactors.
A large chunk of Steyer’s wealth stems from investments in fossil fuels, which has led critics to accuse him of hypocrisy. His oil, gas and coal holdings, which he has been gradually shedding, could have caused him trouble in the Senate primary.
People close to Steyer told reporters that his campaign agenda would have focused on climate change, education and an overhaul of the tax system, with a pledge to serve only one term if he failed to achieve his goals.
Photo: Fortune Live Media via Flickr