Tom Steyer

Iowa Press | Episode
Jan 10, 2020 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, billionaire and Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer discusses the 2020 race as he campaigns ahead of the Iowa caucuses. 



If you're an American TV viewer or an Iowan with an Internet connection you have probably seen an ad starring Tom Steyer. Once campaigning for President Trump's impeachment, Steyer is now waging his own presidential run. We sit down with democratic presidential hopeful billionaire businessman Tom Steyer on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. 


For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, January 10 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.  


Yepsen: Businessman Tom Steyer has been campaigning across Iowa in his own bus this month. But chances are you were first introduced to him in an advertising barrage over the past few years. Mr. Steyer starred in his own television ad campaign to impeach President Trump long before he officially jumped into his own presidential race. The former California hedge fund manager has been an active donor in previous election cycles, but this is his first run for President and he joins us for the first time here at the Iowa Press table. Mr. Steyer, thank you for being here, it's good to have you.

Steyer: David, it's my pleasure.

Yepsen: And I want our viewers to know that to accommodate your schedule and ours we are taping this program on January 6th.

Steyer: Right.

Yepsen: Journalists across the table are David Pitt of the Associated Press and Kay Henderson, News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Mr. Steyer, let's begin with the world stage. What is your reaction to what is going on between the U.S. and Iran?

Steyer: Look, I think that this is a clear continuation of Mr. Trump's unstrategic pattern of foreign policy where he gets into a situation and escalates it in a very, as I said unstrategic, but without any real process or any consultation within the American government. And so I look at this as his originally going back to he withdrew from the treaty that President Obama negotiated with Iran along with six other countries to stop Iran from pursuing their nuclear ambitions, the first thing he did was withdraw from that treaty. And then there has been a series of escalations back and forth between Iran and Mr. Trump culminating in his ordering the killing of a high level government official from Iran and then Iran withdrawing from the treaty and a continuing of escalating threats on the Internet back and forth.

Henderson: In visiting with Iowa voters after this circumstance, many of them are now examining the foreign policy expertise of their respective candidates. How do you compare your experience with others such as Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg who have military experience or experience with foreign governments?

Steyer: Well, I don't have military experience, Kay, but I have spent decades working around the world as a businessperson so I have worked with foreign governments, I have worked with foreign businesses and I am very familiar with what the interests of America abroad and how to think about them. I think this is a clear instance where in fact we have a President who is not strategic. What is the purpose of the series of steps that he has taken? What are we trying to get to? And how does each of these steps lead to a strategy that it makes Americans safer and more prosperous? And in particular you look at this in the Middle East right now and one of the big questions is the silence we're hearing from our allies. Of course there are people who are angry at us about this and you've heard people in the region hitting the United States and talking about how illegal and against UN law this action has been. But what we have really heard is the silence of our traditional allies coming in to stand with us, to understand what we've done, to support us and to show that in fact we're part of a coalition of democracy and freedom loving countries. We haven't, you know the old Sherlock Holmes story, the clue was the dog did not bark. The dog is not barking from Europe, from Japan, from the people who we have traditionally worked with and been in coalition and allied with. I just think that is a huge point.

Pitt: A lot of voters might ask the question, what would qualify you as the CEO of an investment company to be a wartime President if that were necessary?

Steyer: Well, let me say this, I have been making long-term strategic judgments for decades. I have been building organizations for decades. In fact, when I look at the last 20 years of American foreign policy and American military policy, if what we have is people who are good enough to follow that, then I think it's time for a change. If you take a look at how we have conducted military affairs over the last 20 years and if you have followed the stories that we have read in the press from the Washington Post last month about what went on in Afghanistan, I'm sure you guys read that, a series of basically a failed policy where people went out in public when they knew it was failing and said it wasn't, asked for more money. A war in Iraq which was started on the basis of information that was false and has continued, if you're asking me do I believe that we need a better foreign policy going forward the answer is yes. If you tell me that actually we have people who are skilled at the same foreign policy that we followed in the Middle East for the last 20 years I'd say it's time for a change honestly and I've worked around the world for decades understanding and I have a completely different sense of how the United States should be relating to different countries and honestly what we're seeing right now in Iran and Iraq is in my mind an example of what we shouldn't be doing.

Pitt: One of the questions raised now is congressional power and the President's power to declare war. Congress perhaps may be stepping in, I think in the House Speaker Pelosi is proposing something now to step forward and limit the powers of the President. What is your take on that?

Steyer: I think that the President, because of the war on terror, the President got virtually unlimited power, unrestrained by the normal congressional oversight that has been in place since the Constitution was written and obviously Mr. Trump did not consult Congress, he does not intend to consult Congress. What I was saying to Kay is here is a guy who is not constrained by consultation or process within the American government between us and our allies. He is really acting individually like a dictator and he is not consulting the other branches of American government and he basically said he doesn't intend to.

Yepsen: But republicans say why should they cooperate with a Congress that is trying to impeach him?

Steyer: The impeachment process is part of the Constitution. The fact that the President has been impeached and they're going to hold a trial in the Senate does not absolve him from his responsibilities to the American people or to his oath of office. And so to say because something is going on which is absolutely legal and proper that therefore he has a right to in effect go rogue and to ignore Congress and to ignore the normal consultation powers, look, what I was saying to Kay is our allies weren't consulted and they're not saying a word in support of us, neither are the people in Congress. Think about how that, step back for a second and think about how unusual that is in the context of American foreign policy and American history.

Henderson: Let's talk about your resume. As David mentioned, you're a billionaire. There are many democrats who decided that the billionaire in the White House should not be elected to another four years. Billionaires are not that popular with supporters of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Is this a good year for a billionaire to run for President?

Steyer: It's funny, Kay, because I see myself, I don't view myself as someone based on my bank account, I actually view myself in a completely different context. First of all, I'm from a family that isn't a family that is money interested or a money driven family. My mom was a school teacher who tutored prisoners in New York City jails and my dad was the first generation in his family to go to college and he was a lawyer, prosecuted Nazis. They were both people who really were Depression era, World War II babies who basically thought give back to the United States during your life because the United States has given so much to you. And when I look at myself in the context of this race I view myself as somebody who built a business, walked away from it, took the giving pledge to give most of my money away to good causes and for ten years I have been an outsider in politics putting all my time and all my effort and money into trying to take on corporate, what I think of as unchecked and corrupt corporate power in our country, and I've been winning. So when people say you're a billionaire, I say actually that's not how I see myself. I see myself as a progressive outsider who has won big victories for the people of the United States against corporations and has built one of the largest grassroots organizations in the United States to organize young people to be registered, to engage in politics and to show up at the polls. And if you look at my record I think I've done a lot and I can point on almost every single issue to not months of work but to years of accomplishment.

Pitt: Perhaps you could tell us how you built your business, just for viewers who may not be familiar with your background. Where did you make your money? And I read recently that there was an issue with fossil fuels investments at one time in your portfolio when you were an investor and you regret that. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about that generally.

Steyer: So basically my business was to invest money for school endowments and foundations, also invested for some rich people. A big university or a big private foundation has endowments, which are savings, and they invest those savings and spend the income from those savings to pay teachers, to do research, to give scholarships to kids and foundations do the same thing to pursue whatever it is that they think, it can be opera, it can be opposing climate change, whatever. Basically I took the money and invested it and I invested it around the world. And what you're referring to, David, is that some of what we did was invest in fossil fuels. We invested in every part of the economy and we did invest in fossil fuels, less than the percentage of fossil fuels in the economy, but we did it. And then I realized oh my gosh, about 12 years ago, there is a huge unintended consequence of an economy driven by fossil fuels, which is climate change. So I devested, I left the business and I've spent 12 years working on climate change. So in fact, did I figure something out? Yes. Do I wish I had figured it out sooner? Of course I do. But what I'm saying right now to everyone else in the United States is what I said to myself 12 years ago, which is oh gosh, there is this unintended consequence and we need to make a change.

Henderson: You mentioned climate change. How would a carbon tax work? It's not terribly popular.

Steyer: If you read my website that David referred to, my climate plan doesn't include a carbon tax. I don't oppose it. I'm going to answer your question, Kay, but I want to say something. I'm the only person in this race who will say that climate is my number one priority and it is my number one priority because I believe it has to be because of where we are scientifically. Basically what a carbon tax is, a tax on pollution. And basically the idea is when you tax something people do less of it. And so the point of a carbon tax is to get people to emit fewer greenhouse gases because when you emit them you have to pay a fee and people don't like to pay fees so they do less of whatever it is. The reason I'm not really for it, I'm not against it but I wouldn’t make it the centerpiece of any climate plan because I believe it's hard to get it right. I think it takes a long time to put into effect and can be a huge economic shock to the system, which I don't think we need. What I've talked about in terms of my climate plan, the things that you should know are one, I would declare a state of emergency on day one with the emergency powers of the presidency because I believe we're in an emergency. Two, my climate plan is called a justice-based climate plan because it starts with leadership from the communities where if you breathe, you get asthma, if you drink the water out of the tap you get sick and so I go to those communities, a lot of them are African-American and Latino communities, but some of them are rural Iowa communities too. So I have as an absolute starting point we're going to clean up the air and water in the United States. And three, we're going to create millions and millions of good paying jobs in American, union jobs, because we have to rebuild America in a new sustainable fashion.

Henderson: Does the country have to think about paying people to relocate to areas that are safer to live in rather than living in coastal areas that are prone to flooding?

Steyer: Kay, if it comes to that we're in a lot of trouble. We aren't there yet. Kay is referring to something, for people who are listening, that is described sometimes as managed retreat where you basically say to people living in some of the largest cities in the world may I point out, that happen to be on the ocean, which is not a coincidence since a lot of cities were started because they were ports and trade centers, and so we have 180 huge cities around the world, London, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Miami, I can keep going if you want, which are threatened and so the question is do people have to move out of San Diego and move to New Mexico.

Yepsen: We're already talking about moving the capital of Indonesia because of this problem.

Steyer: Look, you guys, I'm not teasing, I am the only person who has said this is priority one. I'm saying I declare a state of emergency. That is where we are. But if we get to the point where we're losing 180 of the biggest cities in the whole world, by the way, Jakarta, Indonesia is like 25 million people. Let's be clear, we're not moving a little hamlet of two families and a goat. We're moving 25 million people. This is a huge issue and what I'm saying is we have to do it, we can do it, we can do it and clean up the air and water, we can do it and be better paid, better employed and richer. But it isn't a question about whether we have to do it because we do.

Yepsen: We have too many questions and not enough time. David?

Pitt: Let's move onto health care, how about that? So that's another issue obviously that concerns voters and Americans are kind of focused on how do they pay for health care? And Medicare for all has been an issue in this campaign. Where are you? I've heard your position is maybe a more moderate position? Maybe you can explain to us the health care insurance issue.

Steyer: I look at health care very simply which there are two things that have to happen. Health care is a right in America in the 21st century for everyone, affordable health care. Two, it's way too expensive and the U.S. government has got to drive down the costs. And let me say this, I'm running because I think corporations have bought our government and our government has failed and it is very clear that in the health care area, the drug companies, the insurance companies and the private hospitals are charging us an arm and a leg and it's completely wrong and the government has got to push back and hasn't.

Pitt: What is the cost of your plan?

Steyer: But let me say, in the democratic primary I have listened to this debate, it is one of the reasons I got into the race about do we want Medicare for all or do we want a public option as part of the Affordable Care Act where you can choose Medicare? That's really that it comes down to. And I told you what the two goals are, which are health care is a right for every American and drive down the cost. From my standpoint it's much simpler, cleaner and provides a lot more choice if we just have an affordable care option, public option, where you can choose Medicare. And the reason I like it is provides choice for the people who get their health care through their employer. If the public option is so great and the government drives down the cost the way I'm saying we can and should they can choose it, they can go to their employer and say, give me the money you're paying on my health care, I'll buy the public option and get a raise. But we let them choose. And I believe in choice. It's a free country. I don't like people from the government coming and telling me I know you better than you know you, I know your family better than you know your family, I know your life better than you do, you do it my way or you're breaking the law.

Henderson: Housing and homelessness is a huge issue in your home state of California. What should be the federal response? Tax credits for renters?

Steyer: Money. Look, we have 7 million too few units of affordable housing in the United States at least. That's the truth, Kay. The federal government has gotten out of the affordable housing business for decades. They have relied on the market that it will provide and it hasn't provided. So the truth is the federal government is going to have to put hundreds of billions of dollars into building affordable housing units around the country. And the good news is, you know what, it's part of my climate plan because we're going to have to rebuild this country and we're going to have to do it in a sustainable fashion. And I have said, this is the biggest job program in American history. We don't just have to build affordable housing units in a sustainable way, there's a lot we need to do. But the good news is this is millions of good paying union jobs and the housing is necessary. My plan more than doubles the amount of money that the federal government puts into homelessness and California is the epicenter of homelessness in the United States of America for a whole bunch of reasons. Homelessness is not just a housing problem, obviously there are services that homeless people need to get back on their feet in a real effective way in society including mental health support. But to a large extent we need many more affordable housing units in this country and the government is going to have to step in.

Pitt: Can we jump to trade issues? We're jumping quickly here.

Steyer: This is like the lightning round.

Pitt: Exactly. So the issues that President Trump has chosen to use as a method to get other companies to comply with international trade is the tariffs. And obviously we'd like to hear what you think about that and what you would do differently or what you think is wrong with his policy.

Steyer: Everything.

Pitt: Okay.

Steyer: Look, his trade war is a failure. It's not as if we don't have real issues on intellectual property with China or the closing of their markets to American companies. Of course we do. I've done business in China for decades. The trade war is a failure. I'd end it on day one. I'd rescind the tariffs. It's a mistake. It has hurt American consumers, it has hurt American workers, it's killing American farmers. We're in Iowa. He has effectively taken out the largest overseas customer for Iowa farmers for corn and soybeans in the world.

Henderson: So how do you get China to capitulate?

Steyer: In terms of intellectual property. Okay, and this is the original question we were talking about Iran. How do you think about this way of doing foreign policy? No allies, no values, no strategy, just escalate, pick a fight and escalate until the other side gives in and the other side hasn't given in, in the trade war. So how would I do it differently? Because I know that China in an organized fashion tries to steal intellectual property and close its markets to American companies. How would I do it? I would do it actually the way that President Obama dealt with Iran in terms of their nuclear ambitions. I would do it in concert with our traditional allies. It's not like China only steals intellectual property from American companies, it's not like they don't close their markets to other companies from other countries. What they are doing is breaking the rules of the World Trade Organization and we should in coalition with other countries use the diplomatic channels in the existing institutions to fight back on the specific issues and go through the granular work of diplomacy and negotiation and sticking up for ourselves hard that is the job of the American President and the State Department.

Henderson: Another lightning round question.

Steyer: I thought you were coming back on me.

Henderson: On the wealth tax. How are you differing from Elizabeth Warren?

Steyer: First of all, I came out for a wealth tax at this point well over a year ago, long before I was running for President, because the gross inequity in income across the United States is even worse for wealth. I'm different from Elizabeth Warren because I start at a lower place and my rates are different. I think her rates, if I read them correctly, get up to 6% and mine start at a lower number than hers does at 1% and then it goes to 1.5% and then it goes to 2% at a billion dollars. So I believe there is something that is wrong that has happened. I believe what I'm doing is something that will raise significant amounts of money that we need. I think I tried to come up with something that is appropriate. But it starts at a lower level and it doesn't use as high numbers going forward.

Pitt: In the last couple of minutes, immigration, just one more issue. So immigration issues, it has become complicated obviously in the United States. What would be some of your solutions perhaps to immigration and the issue of the fact that we need workers in this country and I think in Iowa in meat packing plants and in farming and agriculture around the country? What is your solution there?

Steyer: Just so you know I don't see it as that complicated. I think the thing we do in immigration is we tend to conflate several issues into one. So if I can I'd like to sort of break those down a little. One of the issues is how we treat people coming to our southern border and seeking asylum from violence, persecution or extreme poverty. They have a legal right internationally to do that. We have an obligation to treat them decently and adjudicate those cases. We need a lot more judges to do that so they don't have to wait two years. But Mr. Trump is using immigration as a proxy for race and so he has treated, I think he has broken the international law in the way he has treated these people, he has certainly broken the laws of humanity and tortured children. So when I think about how to do this there is a much more humane and efficient way to handle this. And I certainly would stop breaking the laws against humanity as well as international law in doing it. I went down to the border to see what was happening, to try and do some work with Catholic Relief Services, and I can tell you Americans around the country were sending money, clothing, food and supplies. So that's the first part. Secondly, we have 12 million people, approximately, who have lived here an average of 15 years who are undocumented, who have no path to citizenship. We need comprehensive immigration reform. The last person who did it was Ronald Reagan in 1985. Those people have been here a long time. They do a lot of jobs, everybody knows they're here, it's 12 million people. I say we have a broken government. Those people need legal status and a path to citizenship. I'm for the dreamers. And the last thing, let me say this David if you don't mind, look, we need immigrants. This is a country that is overwhelmingly, immigrants are the descendants are immigrants who came here for the exact same reasons that people still want to come here, they are being persecuted, they are poor, they have absolutely no future where they are and this is a great place to make their future. We can control our borders. It's our country. We can control our borders. But we need immigrants to have the kind of vibrant growing society we need and I don't think it's complicated. The President is using the immigration issue as a proxy for race. And if you look at the 2018 election, do you remember the cavalcade of women invading the country? Have you heard much about that recently?

Yepsen: Mr. Steyer, we're out of time.

Steyer: Oh good grief, we were just getting going.

Yepsen: Thank you for being with us today, we appreciate it.

Steyer: It's such a pleasure, thank you too.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and again at Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.



Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.