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Handicapping Enviro-Superman Tom Steyer's Next Move

Scott Lucas | September 16, 2013 | Story Politics

Last December we wrote about Tom Steyer, the billionaire investor who has embarked on a second career as a kind of liberal version of the Koch Brothers, bankrolling the opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and a host of other environmental causes.

In the most recent issue of the New Yorker, reporter Ryan Lizza caught up with Steyer, who was "relentless" in pressing President Obama on the pipeline at a fundraiser in Sea Cliff last April. We also learn that Steyer has been raising his political profile in several ways, having given money to candidates for Senate in Massachusetts and Governor in Virginia. More: "This month, he is appearing in a series of ninety-second, self-financed television ads in which he argues against Keystone." Lizza also drops in the now-common assertion that Steyer "is considering running for office in California."

As of now, Steyer has had more ink spilled (See: here, here, here, here, and here) on him than most anyone else in the environmental movement. We know that he has made climate change—and the Keystone pipeline in particular—his cause. But where is he personally going? Let's handicap his options:

Gunning for a cabinet post. ODDS: 10:1
That was our guess last December, when we wrote that he had a "a small but legitimate chance for a cabinet post," like Energy or Treasury. That possibility seems more doubtful now, especially given that Obama hasn't shown much indication that he favors Steyer's position on the Keystone pipeline.

Just casually raising his profile. ODDS: 7:1
Obviously, that's what Steyer is already doing. Why participate in all these magazine stories—and retain campaign advisers like Chris Lehane and John Podesta—if you don't want people to know who you are? It's possible that Steyer doesn't even know what he wants to do next, but it can't hurt him to become more of a household name.

Kicking the tires on a local office. ODDS: 100:1
Steyer could throw his hat into the ring to be mayor after Ed Lee or in the state Assembly after Tom Ammiano. We doubt it, though. It's hard to see Steyer downshifting into an elected role with a smaller footprint.

Dreaming of the governor's mansion. ODDS: EVEN
This starts to make more sense. California has a reputation for being a leader on environmental policy. Steyer has some pretty good statewide credibility, thanks to his bankrolling of Proposition 39. All in all, this is where the smart money should be. But there are two roadblocks. First of all, Brown is expected to run—and win—a second four year term in 2014. That means Steyer would have done all the work to raise his profile five years before the actual election. On top of that, heavyweight Democrats like Gavin Newsom, Kamla Harris, and Antonio Villaraigosa all could run in 2018. Steyer might be a strong candidate, but Al Checchi, Meg Whitman, and Phil Angelides can all tell him that just being rich isn't enough to capture the Governor's seat.

Disrupting Congress. ODDS: 3:1
Now things get really interesting. In our story last December, Steyer said "I couldn't imagine" running for Congress. But that's not a no, and our Congressional delegation can't last for too much longer without some turnover (DiFi is 80, Boxer 72, and Pelosi 73). At some point—sooner than you might think—age will catch up with one of them. Don't be shocked if Steyer were to jump on that opportunity—running a Senate campaign isn't much different than running a gubernatorial one.

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