Tom Steyer and the Ghosts of Self-Funders Past

Among the names being bandied about for a possible Democratic successor to Sen. Barbara Boxer, there are a lot of people who have been on a lot of ballots in the past. And then there’s one name who’s never been on any ballot, and is probably more or less unknown to actual California voters who are not political or business junkies: Tom Steyer. I won’t go into a whole bio of the guy, but he’s a billionaire retired hedge fund manager who has in recent years devoted his massive fortune to a variety of philanthropic, civic, and political causes, including a couple of California ballot initiatives and most recently an effort (mostly unsuccessful so far, but much appreciated by Democrats) to purge climate change deniers from high political office.

Now that he could become his own philanthropic project, he will very quickly try to improve his public profile; he’s already done a poll that shows that somebody like him with something like his public record and causes could be pretty popular among California Democrats.

But as Josh Richman of the Bay Area News Group notes, there’s a big obstacle Steyer needs to overcome, which is indirectly alluded to in his polling memo:

“What is clearly evident, however, is that unlike other wealthy and mainly self-funded candidates in the past, Tom Steyer possesses a very sound foundation among the voters in terms of the issues, and political and charitable activities that provide his motivation for running. That is a huge asset for him going forward.”

Read as: Voters won’t be quick to peg Steyer as a rich dilettante who’s trying to buy one of the state’s top political posts, like a certain someone whose name starts with “M” and ends with “eg Whitman.”

When you think about it, wealthy self-funders don’t have the most savory reputation in California, particularly among Democrats. Darrell Issa, after all, began as the funder of an anti-affirmative-action initiative before largely paying for his own Senate candidacy in 1998 (he lost in a primary to oppose Boxer). And in that same year, self-funding airline executive Al Checchi perpetrated the famous “murder-suicide” Democratic gubernatorial primary in which his attacks on Jane Harman helped put Gray Davis, later recalled, in the governor’s mansion. And yes, in 2010 there was eMeg, who managed to give rich self-promoting political novices a bad name (eclipsing what might have been remembered as another failed effort to buy an election, Carly Fiorina’s campaign against Boxer; Fiorina’s now apparently running for president).

Considering how much it costs to run for statewide office in California, it’s a little surprising that self-funders haven’t been more conspicuously successful. But maybe Steyer can run as a poor-little-rich-boy underdog.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.