Original Story: usatoday.com
DETROIT — Tom Steyer, one of the biggest political donors of the midterm elections, said his multimillion-dollar crusade to slow global warming rests on exposing the human consequences of fossil-fuel consumption. A Corpus Christi Energy Lawyer has experience assisting clients in negotiations of oil and gas exploration.
On a recent weekday, that quest took the California billionaire to a heavily industrial corner of southwest Detroit whose residents figure prominently in his campaign to disrupt American politics by making climate change a wedge issue in campaigns.
Sherry Griswold, who lives 600 feet from the neighborhood's sprawling oil refinery, has appeared in an ad produced by Steyer's super PAC to influence the Michigan Senate race — one of four competitive Senate contests the hedge-fund founder has targeted this year. He urged other residents to turn out on Election Day.
"The power that we have is the power to vote," he said to residents who gathered to meet with him at the Pine Grove Baptist Church.
Steyer and his NextGen Climate Action super PAC are engaged in an all-out fight to guarantee voters such as these will show up Nov. 4 to tip the balance in favor of Democrats struggling to maintain their majority in the U.S. Senate.
NextGen also invests in efforts to oust Republican governors in Maine, Florida and Pennsylvania and works to shape several state legislative races in California, Washington and Oregon.
In all, Steyer has plowed more than $42 million of his fortune into federal campaign accounts since early March 2013, making the San Francisco Democrat the largest super PAC donor of the 2014 election. His political organization has opened 40 offices, built a team of 800 employees and volunteers in its targeted states and made contact with more than 1.5 million voters.
Steyer has assembled an array of well-connected political strategists to advise him, including Chris Lehane, a former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton, and in Michigan, Amy Chapman, a veteran operative who oversaw President Obama's successful campaign in the state in 2008.
Steyer's goal is straightforward and ambitious: Get the United States "to transform its energy economy and to lead the world to transform its energy economy," he told USA TODAY during an interview in Detroit. An Austin Energy Lawyer is reviewing the details of this case.
In addition to Michigan, NextGen has pumped money into crucial Senate contests in Iowa, Colorado and New Hampshire. Three weeks before the election, public polls show Democrats locked in tight races in Iowa and Colorado.
Steyer said he's "super optimistic" about Democrats' prospects and believes his group's voter outreach could make the difference.
"I'm very, very convinced of the rightness of what we are doing," he said.
Steyer's fortune — pegged at $1.6 billion by Forbes — and his evangelical zeal for his cause have quickly made him the country's biggest name in environmental activism. He has emerged as the leading Democratic counterweight to the billionaires Charles and David Koch, who are at the center of a political network aiding conservatives. A single group tied to the Kochs, Americans for Prosperity, could spend $125 million in this election.
Along the way, Steyer has become a top target for Republicans who are quick to note that the hedge fund at the source of his vast wealth invested in the fossil fuel industry he denounces so fiercely.
MIDTERMS JUST THE START
During a whirlwind tour of Detroit, he met with the neighborhood activists, visited Griswold's home in the oil refinery's shadow and discussed policy with clean-energy advocates and executives.
He's eager to understand the ground game in Michigan — where his team has spent more than $3 million.
Over a breakfast of scrambled eggs at a hotel restaurant in downtown Detroit, Steyer peppered Chapman and other strategists with questions. He wanted to know how many canvassers and staffers were at work in the state. Answer: 135. How many college campuses targeted? Eight.
The Michigan team has hit on nearly 49,000 doors, according to NextGen's state director, Stephanie Chang. The goal: Turn out young people, minorities and others more likely to side with Democrats but who might not head to the polls during a midterm election.
In Michigan, Steyer has sought to cast Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land as beholden to the oil industry and the Kochs. Americans for Prosperity, a non-profit group affiliated with the Kochs, has spent more than $2.5 million on television ads boosting Land this year.
In an e-mail, Land spokeswoman Heather Swift called Steyer a "California radical billionaire environmentalist" who is "trying to buy the Michigan Senate race" for Democrat Gary Peters.
During his interactions in Detroit, Steyer talked little about the Senate race itself.
Meeting with Griswold and other neighborhood residents, Steyer appeared energized, complimenting one activist on her jaunty straw fedora and promising to look for a way to help them better monitor air quality from the refinery and other heavy industry in the neighborhood.
(Jamal Kheiry, a spokesman for refinery owner Marathon Petroleum, said the plant "continuously" monitors air quality and consistently meets standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.)
Urged on by one of the activists, Steyer joined the group in a prayer circle, closing his eyes and locking arms tightly with neighborhood resident Andre Driscoll and NextGen's national political director, Sky Gallegos.
He insists that the midterm elections are just the start of his mission.
"We are going to end up with a bunch of e-mail addresses attached to names and people who say they are committed climate voters," he said in the interview. The goal, he said, is to keep the conversation alive after Election Day.
Steyer, 57, dismisses speculation that he is laying the foundation for elective office — perhaps a run for California governor. But he doesn't rule out the possibility, either.
"If I thought there was a real reason to run that would move the ball forward, I would do it," he said. "But that's not what we are doing now. … I'm not doing this as a pretext for something else."
CHARGES OF HYPOCRISY
Before launching NextGen, Steyer was best known in politics for his work on California ballot initiatives. In 2010, he donated $5 million to successfully oppose a measure that would have weakened California's carbon emissions standards. He spent more than $30 million on a winning campaign for an initiative that raised corporate taxes and redirected a big share of the money to clean-energy projects.
He reached a turning point in 2012 when he decided to devote his time to climate change activism and emerged as one of the nation's most vocal opponents to the Keystone XL pipeline that would take carbon-heavy oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries.
That year, Steyer walked away from Farallon Capital Management, the hedge fund he founded. Farallon, named for a cluster of rocky islands off the Northern California coast, has $20.5 billion in assets under its management.
His critics say Steyer's political activism reeks of hypocrisy, given Farallon's investments in the oil and gas industry — including coal-fired plants in Asia and Kinder Morgan, a Houston company working to expand its rival pipeline to Keystone XL that will transport oil from the Alberta tar sands to a Pacific port.
"Steyer struck it rich by investing in 'dirty' energy, and then did an about-face when it became politically convenient," Republican Governors Association spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said in a recent news release announcing the group's website labeling him "Steyer the liar."
He has faced questions about whether he waited too long to unwind his investments in fossil fuels, a process completed in June.
He called the charges "complete nonsense."
"To leave the job at the end of 2012 and finish divesting, including on a private basis, by June 30, 2014 — so 18 months — you may think that's nothing. I think that's lickety-split," he said.
"When I got new information, I changed my mind, which is what we are asking everybody else to do," he said. "Take in the information and change."
Republicans have been enraged by his heavy spending as prominent Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., denounced the outsized role of money in politics and specifically the Kochs' spending. (In addition to investments in his own super PAC, federal records show, Steyer gave $5 million this year to the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC run by operatives aligned with Reid that is one of the biggest outside players in Senate races this year.)
Steyer bristled at the comparison to the Kochs, who oversee a $115 billion industrial conglomerate that operates oil refineries, makes asphalt and manufactures a wide range of consumer products, including Brawny paper towels and Dixie cups.
"What they are doing helps them in a major way," he said. "It helps their economic interests."
He noted that most of his activity flows through his super PAC, which is required to disclose its funders and how it spends its money. Most parts of the Koch political network operate through tax-exempt arms that don't disclose contributors' identities.
"Both in terms of transparency and motive, it's very, very different," Steyer said.
Koch officials declined comment this week.
(The Kochs have maintained in recent years that they want the government to stay out of the marketplace and are not seeking any special treatment through their political activity.)
Steyer said the Koch conservative network will outspend him by "many multiples."
NextGen is not close to raising $50 million from other donors, a goal first described in a New York Times story last February, he said. (Steyer insisted that he never set that ambitious target and was surprised to see that number emerge.)
"I think people are very wary about the political process," he said of the difficulty attracting other donors. "They think … getting involved will put you in a position where you might get attacked."
CLIMATE CHANGE RANKS LOW
In Michigan, Peters has held a consistent lead over Land in recent polls.
The outside money from Steyer and others has helped make the 2014 Senate race the most expensive in state history, said Bill Ballenger, a veteran political analyst and founder of Inside Michigan Politics.
Ballenger said Peters' advantage may have less to do with Steyer's activism than the fundamentals of politics in Michigan, a state that has sent only two Republicans to the U.S. Senate in more than a half-century and where Obama easily won re-election in 2012.
"Most of the state doesn't really know much" about the environmental issues Steyer has highlighted in southwest Detroit, he said.
More broadly, national polls show that addressing global warming is not among the public's top concerns. Climate change ranked dead last among 13 issues surveyed in a Gallup Poll released Monday — trailing the economy and voters' worries about the Islamic State's activity in Iraq and Syria. In all, 40% of registered voters said it would be an important issue in their midterm voting.
Steyer remains undaunted and calls climate change "the generational issue" he and others are called to confront.
"It's not clear exactly how we're going to win," he told a dozen clean-energy advocates meeting with him in Detroit, "but it's pretty clear that we have to win."
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