Washington Governor Finds Wealthy Partner In Fight Against Climate Change

May 7, 2014

Washington Governor Jay Inslee says he and Steyer spoke about a special state Senate election in 2013.
Credit Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network

There’s a lot of debate these days about unlimited money in politics - and whether it corrupts the process. But does it matter who’s giving the money? And what their motivation is? In Washington state, Governor Jay Inslee has found a wealthy partner in his fight to combat global climate change. He’s California hedge fund founder Tom Steyer – a man the L.A. Times says may be the “liberals’ answer” to the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. Olympia Correspondent Austin Jenkins reports on Inslee’s connection to this out-of-state billionaire.

For some Democrats, Tom Steyer is like a real life Bruce Wayne - aka Batman.

He’s a billionaire businessman-turned-philanthropist who wants to save not just Gotham City, but the entire planet – from global climate change. Here’s Steyer speaking with NPR's David Greene earlier this year.

Steyer: “I think the way we define our mission is to act politically to prevent climate disaster and preserve American prosperity.”

If Steyer is Batman in this Democratic narrative, then think of Governor Jay Inslee as police commissioner James Gordon.

Batman and the police commissioner are united in their desire to rid Gotham City of crime. And they have a back channel working relationship. Similarly, Steyer and Governor Inslee share a passion for combating global climate change. And in 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 last May at a climate change fundraiser in Seattle. Steyer was the keynote speaker and used the opportunity to declare a West Coast climate strategy.

Steyer: “We’re going to have the most comprehensive energy and climate policies in the world, we’re going to join together to cooperate in a program to control CO2 emissions.”

Afterwards, Steyer and Inslee met privately for about 30 minutes. Governor Inslee recently recalled that meeting.

Inslee: “And had a good chat and I was just really impressed with his obvious really deep personal interest in defeating this problem.”

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. The election was key in the Democrats’ effort to re-take control of the Washington Senate.

Inslee: “I do recall talking to him about that particular race. We had a great candidate, I really liked that candidate and told him what I knew about the candidate, so he said he was interested In being involved.”

Over the next few months, Steyer pumped more than half a million dollars into Washington state. One of the key beneficiaries of his money was a PAC called “She’s Changed.” It ran negative ads against Republican Jan Angel.

"She’s Changed" Ad: “After 13 years in politics Representative Angel just isn’t who I thought she was…”

Republicans quickly took note of the fact a liberal billionaire from California was playing in Washington’s political sandbox. Randy Pepple is a Republican operative who dug into Steyer’s spending last fall.

Pepple: “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 serves up the same sort of indignation you hear from liberals who are incensed about the Koch brothers. They’re the billionaire industrialists who work to elect conservative candidates. As far as Pepple is concerned, Tom Steyer deserves the same sort of scrutiny. But it’s a tougher sell.

Austin Jenkins: “Do you agree that you have a harder job trying to get people concerned about Tom Steyer when he says he’s trying to combat global climate change as opposed to somebody’s who just trying to protect their own business interest?

Pepple: “Well, it’s harder just because in this state it’s accepted that someone like Steyer is wearing a white hat.”

Steyer’s critics question whether he’s totally altruistic and point to his previous investments in fossil fuels. Of course, Washington Democrats were delighted when Steyer decided to put his money into defeating Republican Jan Angel.

Laurent: “We knew it was going to be an uphill battle.”

Democratic operative Dana Laurent.

Laurent: “We knew it was going to take everything that we had.”

Laurent says she helped Tom Steyer’s PAC target its spending in Washington state. I asked her how important Steyer’s money was last year.

Laurent: “It was very significant. It was a very significant development and a much appreciated one.”

In the end though, it didn’t stop Republican Angel from winning that key seat in the Washington Senate. Records show Inslee called Steyer about a month after the election. Inslee says they discussed the defeat. Inslee makes no apologies about talking or working with Steyer.

Inslee: “If you had a hundred Mr. Steyers, it wouldn’t make up for the dollars on the other side of this controversy, so I don’t think we should have any worry about overwhelming the public with information that doesn’t get a fair shake in this. I’m confident the oil-and-gas and the coal industry will be able to get their story told here.”

According to reports, Steyer has pledged this year to raise and spend $100 million to elect climate-friendly governors and members of Congress.  What we don't know yet is if Steyer’s 2014 crusade will include Washington state. In January, Steyer’s staff met with Inslee’s staff to discuss the “2014 landscape.” Through a spokeswoman Steyer turned down an interview request for this story. His staff told me they may have more to say about a Washington state strategy for 2014 in the coming weeks.

Copyright 2013 Northwest News Network