In the world of Democratic politics, Tom Steyer, a former California hedge-fund manager, is like a real-life Bruce Wayne, aka Batman.
Steyer is a billionaire philanthropist who wants to save not just Gotham City, but the entire planet, from global climate change.
“I think the way we define our mission is to act politically to prevent climate disaster and preserve American prosperity,” said Steyer in a February interview with NPR’s David Greene.
If Steyer is Batman in this Democratic narrative, then think of Washington Governor Jay Inslee as police commissioner James Gordon.
Inslee and Steyer forge working relationship
In the movies, Batman and the police commissioner have a back-channel relationship and are united in their desire to rid Gotham City of crime.
Similarly, Steyer and Inslee, both Democrats, share a passion for combating global climate change and, over the last year, they’ve developed a working relationship that’s not well-known to outsiders.
According to public records and interviews, the two men first met in May 2013 at a climate change fundraiser breakfast in Seattle. Steyer was the keynote speaker and used the opportunity to declare a West Coast climate strategy.
“We’re going to have the most comprehensive energy and climate policies in the world," Steyer proclaimed. "We’re going to join together to cooperate in a program to control CO2 emissions.”
After the breakfast, Steyer and Inslee met privately in a room off the ballroom in the Seattle Westin for about 30 minutes.
"[We] had a good chat and I was just really impressed with his obvious really deep personal interest in defeating this problem," Inslee recalled during a recent interview.
Inslee has made reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fostering a clean energy sector in Washington top priorities of his administration.
Inslee says at that meeting last May, he and Steyer discussed a special state Senate election between incumbent Democrat Nathan Schlicher and Republican challenger Jan Angel. Schlicher had been appointed to the seat to replace Derek Kilmer who was elected to Congress. If Angel won, it would further solidify Republican control of the Washington Senate and make it harder for Inslee to get his climate change agenda through the legislature.
“I do recall talking to him about that particular race," says Inslee. "We had a great candidate, I really liked that candidate and told [Steyer] what I knew about the candidate, so he said he was interested in being involved.”
Steyer money flows into Washington state
Between August and October of last year, Steyer's NextGen Climate political action committee pumped $525,000 into Washington state. The money was almost evenly split between two local PACs: the Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund and She's Changed, a PAC dedicated to defeating Angel.
The She's Changed PAC ran ads against Angel. One was called "Surprised" and featured a registered nurse who said, “After 13 years in politics Representative Angel just isn’t who I thought she was.”
Washington state Republicans quickly took note of the fact a liberal billionaire from California was playing in Washington’s political sandbox.
In October of last year, the Washington State Republican Party (WSRP) filed a complaint with the state's Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) alleging violations of Washington campaign finance law on the part of Steyer's NextGen PAC. [The PDC recently sent the WSRP a letter that says there would no enforcement action taken against NextGen.]
At the same time, Republican operative Randy Pepple started digging into where Steyer's money was going.
Pepple says his goal was to, "Let the public know you’ve got this out-of-state billionaire who wants to tell you how to vote because he thinks that’s good for you.”
Pepple, who founded a 501(c)4 political non-profit called the Reform Alliance in January of 2013, serves up the same sort of indignation you hear from liberals who are incensed about the Koch brothers, the billionaire industrialists who work to elect conservative candidates.
As far as Pepple is concerned, Steyer deserves the same sort of scrutiny. But he acknowledges it's a tougher sell.
“It’s harder just because in this state it’s accepted that someone like Steyer is wearing a white hat,” says Pepple, who managed Republican Rob McKenna's unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2012.
Pepple, like a lot of Steyer critics, question whether Steyer is truly altruistic and point to his previous investments in fossil fuels. Pepple will not reveal the donors to his 501(c)4, but says the Reform Alliance is not funded by oil-and-gas or coal interests.
Democrats welcome Steyer money
By contrast, Washington Democrats, not surprisingly, were delighted when Steyer decided to put his money into defeating Republican Jan Angel.
“It was a very significant development and a much appreciated one," says Dana Laurent, executive director of the progressive Win/Win Network and its political counterpart Win/Win Action.
Laurent helped Steyer’s PAC target its spending in Washington state. “We knew it was going to be an uphill battle [to defeat Angel]," says Laurent, who ran unsuccessfully this year to become chair of the Washington State Democrats.
Despite the Steyer money, Angel won the special election giving the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus in the Washington Senate a 26 to 23 advantage.
About a month after the election, records show Inslee called Steyer. The governor says they discussed the defeat. Inslee makes no apologies about talking to or working with Steyer.
"If you had a hundred Mr. Steyers, it wouldn’t make up for the dollars on the other side of this controversy," says Inslee. "I’m confident the oil-and-gas and the coal industry will be able to get their story told here.”
A $100 million campaign
This year, Steyer, who recently challenged the Koch brothers to a debate on climate change and has emerged as a leading opponent of the Keystone XL Pipeline, reportedly plans to raise and spend $100 million to elect climate-friendly governors and members of Congress.
By comparison, the Koch brothers and their network of political non-profits spent upwards of $170 million in 2012 to elect conservative candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
What is not yet known is whether Steyer’s 2014 crusade will include Washington state legislative races. Records show that in January, Steyer’s staff met with Inslee’s staff to discuss the “2014 landscape.” An advisor to Inslee who attended that meeting says the focus was on the status of climate policies in Washington state and how the fall elections might affect them, but campaign donations and specific 2014 races were not discussed.
Steyer's political advisor, Chris Lehane, suggests the billionaire will continue to invest in Washington races. "This is designed to be a sustained effort to work with our friends in states like Washington, consistent with what they think is in the best interests of their state," says Lehane.
Through a spokeswoman Steyer turned down an interview request. His staff says they may have more to say about a Washington state strategy for 2014 in the coming weeks.
Jordan Schrader with The News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington contributed to this story