The wrong type of billionaire: Why Tom Steyer is a threat to status quo Democrats

Within the Democratic Party, the matter of an individual’s wealth seems to become a liability only when they decide to run for office.

10 mins read

When it comes to Tom Steyer, it seems like all I hear from establishment Democrats is that he is a billionaire, that he’s super-rich and, because of his wealth, he’s out of touch with the day-to-day issues facing average voters. They question him as a candidate and refuse to call him what he really is —a philanthropist and an advocate. 

Ever since Tom Steyer began rising in the polls, factions within the Democratic Party establishment have been quietly talking among themselves wondering if a billionaire like Tom Steyer can win the Democratic nomination and then go on to win the Presidency. On its face it may look like a legitimate question but, upon further inspection, the question appears to hide something deeper.

It’s curious that, within the Democratic Party, the matter of an individual’s wealth seems to become a liability only when they decide to run for office. When wealthy donors are operating behind the scenes giving generously to the party and candidates across the country, they’re considered friends of the party who are embraced with open arms.  However, should those donors decide to present themselves as candidates and invest in their own campaigns, suddenly party leaders aren’t sure if the ultra-wealthy are a good fit to represent the party. 

Such is the case with Tom Steyer who has long been known to be a philanthropic-activist and a prolific donor for the Democratic party. A man who has contributed to the campaigns of more than a few status quo democrats.

Steyer helped raise money for John Kerry in 2004. In 2008, he was an early supporter of Hillary Clinton but would soon become one of Barack Obama’s most ardent fundraisers. Steyer also supported and hosted fundraisers for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

Steyer supported Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s successful campaign for governor in 2013 by contributing funds for television ads and get-out-the-vote efforts. He also supported Gubernatorial races in Pennsylvania, Maine, and Florida. And he threw his support behind several democratic Senate races in Iowa, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Michigan.   

During the 2014 midterm elections, Steyer spent about $67 million of his personal fortune on seven Senate and gubernatorial races, his direct support helped win three of them. In 2016, he raised money for Hillary Clinton and hosted a fundraiser on her behalf; and contributed a whopping $87,057,853 to democratic candidates during the 2016 election cycle as a whole.

With Steyer being such an important democratic donor who has a long history of supporting establishment Democrats, a track record of winning, and a personal network of democratic activists throughout the country and in states vital to electoral politics, I dare ask the question, “why would establishment Democrats reject him now?”

That was more of a rhetorical question posed for my own entertainment and to, perhaps, hide my personal exasperation with the answer. An answer so obvious a blind man could see it but, for some reason, ultra-liberal white democrats pretend to be blind to it.   

The fact of the matter is that, by launching his own campaign, Tom Steyer became a billionaire donor who opted to take a personal stake in bridging the gap between black activists and wealthy white democratic donors.  

Steyer began developing his own personal relationships with communities of color and, in doing so, broke an unspoken rule within the Democratic Party.  Because of his wealth, Steyer could circumvent the standard protocol of status quo democrats who tend to appoint themselves the deciders of front-runner candidates and gatekeepers of the black vote. As such, there is a long-held belief that only candidates of their choosing can gain access to this coveted voting bloc and those chosen candidates must first kiss the ring.  

To be clear, Tom Steyer disrespected no one. He regarded party leadership with all of the esteem deserving of those in their positions. However, he also made the prescient decision to forego employing typical party operatives and, instead, hired a small army of grassroots activists with deep ties to their community.   

Activists who, as Johnnie Cordero, Chairman of the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina likes to say, “are true democrats who bleed blue but who also put their people before the party.” 

Cordero is also quick to point out that over 90% of Steyer’s 82-person staff in South Carolina is African American and that a large portion of those staffers are either members of the black caucus or allies of the caucus. Undoubtedly, this is a strategic coincidence but one that is giving Steyer far more of an edge with black voters than he would ever get with his money alone. 

Steyer’s growing support from African American democratic voters should be viewed as more than just a bump in the polls. It’s a clear referendum from black voters who feel that the Democratic Party has taken their vote for granted for far too long. And it is seen by the party establishment as a threat that could grow beyond their control. 

‘A billionaire who gives money to wealthy, status quo democrats is fine. There is nothing in the world wrong with that. In fact, that’s the way it has always been and that is how it should stay,’ or so goes the conventional way of thinking. 

But a billionaire who is accessible to black people, who is visiting communities of color and listening to them? A billionaire who is willing to treat black media the same as white media… that is a dangerous thing. That kind of billionaire could, among other things, help black people in America achieve actual wealth equality and this is where Steyer distinguishes himself from establishment democrats. Already we’ve seen that, throughout his campaign, he has made it a point to highlight the very real problems that prevent people of color, especially in black communities, from achieving wealth equality in America. And he has committed to doing his part to rectify that. 

I’d like to end by emphasizing that this op-ed in no way constitutes an endorsement of Steyer’s campaign for President but it is an unequivocal endorsement of his actions. It constitutes an endorsement of his character and, most importantly, it constitutes an endorsement of his heart. 

To the people who disagree with my sentiments and say that Steyer’s surge in the polls is due solely to his ability to self-finance his campaign, I can tell you that Steyer could spend his whole fortune on TV, radio, newspaper, and digital ads and fail to move his poll numbers 1% among black voters in South Carolina. 

The reality is that there are several reasons far beyond money that explain why Tom Steyer is doing so well among black voters in the state and I will list a few of them here: Brandon Upson, Jonathan Metcalf, Tiffany Vaughn, Jill Fletcher, SC State Rep. Jerry Govan, Craig Khanwell, Stephanie Denise, Nocola Hemphill, Jason Belton, Jazz Johnson, Lawrence Nathaniel, Kayin Jones, Bianca Chardei, Margaret Sumpter, Deanna Berry, Catherine Fleming Bruce, Brandon Stukes, Krystel Reid Heath, Alonzo Canzater, Ayana Crawford, Courtney Young, and the dozens of other South Carolina team members whom I have yet to have the pleasure to meet. 

Michael Bailey is the founder of The MinorityEye and serves as the Chief-Curator of Information. He leads the editorial staff and works as a multimedia journalist who specializes in producing news stories and personal profiles that highlight the cultural, social, economic, and political experiences of minorities living in South Carolina and beyond. His extensive media, business, and political background has made him a well-respected voice and an often sought-after commentator on issues impacting people of color.

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