Tom Steyer: The hedge-fund tycoon squaring up to the Koch brothers

Tom Steyer can be just as ruthless as the Koch brothers

Billionaires get frustrated with Washington, just like everybody else, says Businessweek. “The difference is that they can afford to do something about it.” Falling squarely into this new camp of activist tycoons is Tom Steyer, founder of the Californian hedge fund Farallon Capital Management, who has committed to using his considerable fortune “to fight climate-change deniers”.

Steyer’s mission isn’t sexy politically – even supporters concede that green issues turn voters off. But with the heat on ahead of this year’s Congressional elections, Democrats see Steyer’s fat pockets as their best bet to counter the vast “dark money” networks being run by Republican opponents like the billionaire Koch brothers (see below).

Steyer, 56, who named his $30bn hedge fund after the Californian coastal waters teeming with great white sharks, has shown he can be just as ruthless as the Koch brothers in his business dealings. But he differs from them in one important respect: he also nurtures personal political ambitions.

Reportedly disappointed not to have been chosen by Obama as US Treasury Secretary in 2008 (in the footsteps of his friends Robert Rubin and Hank Paulson), he has long toyed with the idea of running for governor of California. And given his somewhat late and dramatic conversion to the green cause, some critics question what came first: the eco-stuff, or the political ambition?

Meeting Steyer, there seems no doubting his sincerity, says Men’s Health. He drives an old hybrid Honda, wears a cheap watch and eschews private jets to reduce his carbon footprint. His wife, Kat Taylor, is the driving force behind OneCalifornia Bank, an ethical grassroots lender. They live in easy, understated comfort.

Steyer jokes that “we’re the only people with hydroponic gardens in the state who don’t grow dope”. For Steyer, the consequences of climate change are so serious “it drowns out all other issues”.

His background is surprisingly conservative, says The Washington Post. The son of a top Wall Street lawyer, he “excelled” at Phillips Exeter Academy, Yale and Stanford Graduate School of Business – cutting his teeth in finance at Morgan Stanley, followed by the risk arbitrage department of Goldman Sachs. He stayed just two years before heading west to found Farallon in 1986.

The firm quickly earned a reputation for take-no-prisoners investing. Steyer was around 40 when he started questioning what it was all for. “I was on this very straightforward escalator” and started thinking “I’d like to take a broader view of my time on this planet”.

What eventually “set him on fire”, says Men’s Health, was a 2012 essay in Rolling Stone, “which described the critical science behind climate change, painting a dark picture of impending doom”.

Steyer – who has quit Farallon to pursue his agenda full time – “has the disposition of a pugilist”. This aggressive financier, “animated by a sporting esprit de combat”, is one to watch.

“You can’t be president if you don’t believe in gravity”

Tom Steyer offers “a much needed helping hand” to the Democrats, a party facing an uphill battle to hold the senate and avoid haemorrhaging seats in Congress this year, says Abby D Phillip on ABC News.com.

Steyer, who has put $50m into a fund to fight climate change and raised a similar figure from donations, has pledged “to play hard ball” against Republicans.

Steyer’s nascent network is certainly the best thing the Democrats have got to wage a “cage fight” with the Koch brothers, say Andrew Restuccia and Byron Tau on Politico.com.

In a recent interview Steyer described energy baron David Koch as “taking the most incredible risk that I’ve ever seen someone take, of going down in history as an evil – just a famously evil – person”! But given that the “top concern” of most Americans remains the economy, how receptive will voters really be to Steyer’s message?

Steyer is the first to admit that he faces a tough communication brief, says Joshua Green in Businessweek. Even in last year’s political campaigns, “climate change was like incest – something you couldn’t talk about in polite company”, he says.

But he has persuaded other Democrats that “only a smash-mouth confrontational style of politics can save the planet”.

His big idea, says Joe Hagan in Men’s Health, is to use the controversial proposed Keystone XL pipeline – which would pump tar sands oil from Canada to the US Gulf Coast – “as an inflection point in the larger struggle to bring climate change into the centre of the political conversation”.

He’s also teaming up with his old Goldman Sachs pals, Hank Paulson and Robert Rubin, along with former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, to finance a study on the costs of inaction. Steyer figures no candidate will be able to ignore the study. “You can’t be president of the United States if you don’t believe in gravity.”

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