The casually dressed man standing outside Modesto Junior College’s student center Wednesday didn’t much look like a billionaire. Didn’t sound like one, either.
Tom Steyer was in Modesto to talk to college students about his NextGen America organization. If you’re having trouble placing the name, Steyer is the guy in those “Impeach Trump” commercials. His “Need to Impeach” website has 4.7 million signatures.
Impeaching Trump wasn’t the first topic when he met with The Bee’s editorial board. He wanted to talk about Modesto, and how pretty it is this time of year – allergies notwithstanding.
As for the purpose of his visit: “We’re trying to do grassroots work for the 2018 elections,” he said. “We’re going to a bunch of college campuses, but especially here in California.”
Steyer has considered running for office. His name came up when Barbara Boxer retired, again as Dianne Feinstein considered leaving the Senate and he’s been mentioned as a possible governor. His Modesto visit felt like a campaign stop.
Steyer spoke of meeting MJC students whose families had suffered during the Great Recession, and others whose families were pushed to the brink by medical bills before being saved by the Affordable Care Act. His main mission – embraced with what he calls a “religious fervor” – is to encourage millennials to vote.
“They’re voting at much lower rates” than other age groups, Steyer said. “It’s 23 percent, which is shockingly low.”
But he’s getting help from another billionaire – Donald Trump. Steyer is counting on a Trump backlash to alter the face of Congress – starting with Jeff Denham.
He didn’t declare a preference for any of the six Democrats trying to win a spot against Denham – saying “it’s hard enough to fight the Republicans.” But winning the House is essential to impeaching Trump, and winning CA-10 is essential to winning the House.
“If we don’t have a very good 2018, and flip the House, it will be disastrous,” said Steyer. “What I’m saying to everybody is that unless you’re totally focused on Nov. 6, 2018 you’re going everybody a disservice.”
It won’t be easy. “I’m extremely unnerved by Democratic overconfidence,” he said. “It’s like we’re up by 6 with 2 minutes to go – ‘Let’s start celebrating!’ No!”
Before you write off Steyer as another Bay Area elitist parachuting in to rub elbows with the common folk, you need to know this wasn’t his first trip to Modesto. He was here in 2016 to open a branch of his Beneficial State Bank.
Having made a hedge-fund fortune estimated at $1.6 billion, he’s started Beneficial to put his money to work advancing his politics. His wife, Kat Taylor, runs the bank. And Steyer insists it’s not just about making more money. All of his branches are in “under-served” communities. Loans, he said, must advance the bank’s social missions – improving the environment or helping low-income residents. That means being in places like Modesto, Fresno, Oakland and Bakersfield.
“Look at the differences between coastal and inland California, at their different economies,” he said. “(Modesto) is America writ large. How can we connect the economy of Modesto and economy of Mountain View?”
As for Trump, Steyer insists it’s nothing personal.
“I have no feelings about him as a person,” Steyer said. “Just about what he does. He’s way over the line. He’s a danger to the health and safety of America, and the health and safety of democracy.”
For a man who says he’s not running for office, he doesn’t sound like he’s running away from it, either.