Opinion

LOMAX: Billionaire poised to bankroll another round of green politics in Colorado

Author: Simon Lomax - January 31, 2018 - Updated: February 1, 2018

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Simon Lomax

Tom Steyer is back in Colorado politics. Well, actually, he never really left.

Anyone who follows politics in our state should know Steyer well. He’s the environmental activist and California hedge-fund billionaire who spent more than $7 million on a failed campaign against U.S. Senator Cory Gardner (R) in 2014. He poured at least $2 million more into Colorado politics in 2016, spending big on the presidential election and another failed campaign to seize control of the Colorado state legislature.

Last year, national environmental groups funded by Steyer and his political action committee, NextGen Climate, moved into municipal elections in Colorado. For example, California-based Sierra Club tried and failed to unseat an oil and gas engineer who serves on the Thornton City Council, and the League of Conservation Voters in Washington, D.C. used its local chapter – Conservation Colorado – to successfully push two candidates for the Aurora City Council.

For the record, I work for a pro-business group that went head-to-head with Sierra Club, LCV and other activist groups in last year’s local elections. I have also followed Steyer’s political operation in Colorado and other Western states for years, even before he was the biggest political donor in the country and a high-profile ally of the fringe “keep it in the ground” environmental campaign.

So it was no surprise to see a fresh series of contributions from the anti-oil and gas billionaire in state legislative races recently. As first published by Western Wire, Steyer and his wife, Kathryn Taylor, made a series of contributions in key state House and Senate races. These contributions were also made significantly earlier in the election cycle than the couple’s contributions to Colorado candidates in 2016.

According to data held by the Secretary of State’s Office, the Steyers made maximum allowable contributions in the following contests: SD16SD24HD3HD17 and HD59. If the 2016 election was any guide, these small contributions – totaling $4,000 – will be supported with large sums of outside money by Steyer and other anti-business interests.

Tom Steyer, right, in 2015 with then-Executive Director of Conservation Colorado Pete Maysmith. (twitter.com)

For example, two years ago, Steyer’s NextGen Climate gave at least $280,000 to Conservation Colorado’s campaign in key state legislative seats. New York billionaire George Soros followed suit with personal contributions in the same contests and outside spending of his own.

The two billionaires failed, of course, and the balance of power in the Colorado state legislature stayed the same. But the new round of contributions show a new campaign is afoot, and Steyer’s environmental allies are as motivated as they’ve ever been.

“This time we are coming for every level of government – from county commissioners and state legislators, to gubernatorial candidates, and, yes, to U.S. Representatives and Senators,” Pete Kolbenschlag, an organizer for the National Wildlife Federation and a board member of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, recently wrote in a column for Colorado Pols.

Steyer and his allies have a First Amendment right to campaign as they wish and spend as they like in local, state and national politics. But the economic consequences of the “keep it in the ground” agenda have fueled serious concerns on both sides of the political aisle.

The blue-collar wing of the Democratic Party, for example, had some harsh words for Steyer and fringe environmental groups in the months before the 2016 election.

“Tom Steyer and his allies oppose an all-of-the-above energy policy that not only creates good union jobs, but offers to keep the lights on and meet our nation’s energy needs even as we transition to a cleaner, more sustainable future,” Laborers International Union of North America president Terry O’Sullivan wrote in a letter warning labor leaders against working with the California billionaire.

“His vision of leaving oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels in the ground kills jobs, drives up energy costs, and threatens to strangle our economy,” O’Sullivan continued in the letter, which was reported by the New York Times. “As a hedge-fund billionaire, he may not feel the pain of such self-righteous, patronizing and damaging policies, but our members, and all American families, do. ‘Leave it in the Ground’ is not a viable energy policy; it’s political bull—-.”

Going back further, long before the 2016 election, even some environmentalists feared the California billionaire’s political tactics would backfire. Steyer and his allies “may risk only deepening political polarization, dividing moderates and liberals, alienating labor unions and the private sector, and contributing to public disgust with government,” Matthew Nisbet, editor-in-chief of Environmental Communication and a professor at Northeastern University, wrote in a 2014 essay called “Climate of Extremes.”

Extreme, indeed. Steyer can’t even persuade his home state of California to adopt all-or-nothing energy proposals. He tried to ban fracking for oil and gas, but California remains a top oil and gas producing state. He wants to mandate 100 percent renewables – an effective ban on all other energy sources – but the proposal has fallen flat in Sacramento, with trade unions leading the opposition.

Steyer has even floated running for statewide office himself, but has never actually started a campaign due to his lack of support. In California.

Perhaps that explains why the famed anti-oil and gas billionaire spends so much time playing politics in Colorado and other states besides his own.

Simon Lomax

Simon Lomax

Simon Lomax is a research fellow with Vital for Colorado, a coalition of state business leaders, public officials and citizens focused on energy policy, and an adviser to pro-business groups. Before going into advocacy, he was a reporter for Bloomberg News and a congressional fellow with the American Political Science Association. The views expressed are his own. Find him on Twitter at @simonrlomax.