Tom Steyer's unsavory history bankrolling pollution

Plus: why the Walmart news may not be as good as Democrats think.

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Today’s read: 7 minutes.

Walmart’s new gun rules and Tom Steyer’s backstory.

Wikimedia Commons

What D.C. is talking about.

Walmart. Yesterday, in response to the mass shooting that killed 22 people inside an El Paso Walmart last month, the store’s CEO Doug McMillon made a surprise announcement that the company would stop selling ammunition used for handguns and military-style weapons. He also ended the sale of handguns in Alaska’s Walmarts, effectively ending handgun sales in Walmart altogether. McMillon estimates this would bring Walmart’s market share of ammunition from 20 percent to around 6 to 9 percent and, eventually, even lower than that. In response to some customers “attempting to make a statement” by entering stores carrying weapons in a way that frightened customers, McMillon also said Walmart is “respectfully requesting that customers no longer openly carry firearms into our stores or Sam’s Clubs in states where ‘open carry’ is permitted.”

What Republicans are saying.

This is idiotic. A shooter goes into an El Paso Walmart, kills 22 people, and your response is to disarm all the people who could have stopped him? It was Walmart that failed to protect its customers, and now it’s making them even less safe. Some are already calling on conservatives to boycott Walmart and begin ordering ammunition from other stores like Target. Others are wondering aloud if Walmart will provide armed security in lieu of allowing people the right to carry. One popular talking point: when will you discontinue the sale of auto parts and cell phones? After all, driving cars probably causes more deaths than guns every year. Also, could we please get some people talking about gun issues that know something, anything about guns? The top gripe with the media’s coverage is that most cable pundits and journalists still think the “AR” in AR-15 stands for assault rifle (it stands for ArmaLite, the company who produces the guns). Gun owners continue to feel ostracized and misunderstood by the mainstream media.

What Democrats are saying.

Finally. If politicians continue to do nothing, maybe the private sector can. After years of silence from Walmart and other major retailers on gun violence, this news is a huge step in the right direction. Until now, executives just pointed to Washington D.C. to change the laws. But if Walmart’s executives are willing to stick their necks out, it could give cover for other major retailers to follow suit and limit their ammunition and gun sales as well. Some liberals, who are further left on the issue, think Walmart could have gone further. They want the store to stop selling guns altogether or, at the least, to endorse an all-out ban on assault rifles.

My take.

Anytime the private sector can self-regulate, without government interference, it has my support. But do I think these new rules will make Americans safer? I’m not so sure. On one hand, it’s pretty absurd to me that you can buy school supplies and kids toys right next to a stand for rifles and handgun ammunition. Even as someone who occasionally enjoys shooting guns, I’ll never get used to that. But Walmart already has some of the most stringent gun purchasing laws in the country. Years ago, it increased the age limit to 21 to buy a gun, improved background checks that went beyond federal law, and it videotapes all gun sales at the register (also not required by federal law). Until now, Walmart has had the respect and loyalty of gun owners, which gave it leverage and authority to spread best practices on gun sales. What happens now that it is going to lose that authority and loyalty? The stories of customers who have shown up to Walmart brandishing firearms since the mass shooting there are discouraging and sad, but I also think there’s a reasonable gripe from second amendment folks who don’t want to be disarmed. Imagine being a legal carrying, law-abiding citizen who shops regularly at Walmart and carries a handgun on you in a state that allows open carry. You see the news of the mass shooting and your first thought is probably, “Thank G-d I’m allowed to have my gun.” Then, just a few weeks later, you find out you’ll no longer be able to carry that protection with you. And there will be no added security in the store that will improve safety. I can understand the fear and anger news like that might evoke in someone. It’s precisely why this gun debate is so sticky, and why so many executives have steered clear of it. Until now.


Your questions, answered.

Remember: you can send in a question by simply replying to this email. Tangle is meant to be driven by its readers, who can cut through the noise and ask about exactly what they want to know.

Q: I'd like to know more about Tom Steyer since he's gaining more traction these days. What was he doing politically before the Impeachment Movement? 

- Barbara, Annapolis, Maryland

Tangle: For those of you who don’t know, Tom Steyer is — today — one of the most visible liberal activists in the country. He is an extraordinarily wealthy billionaire who has spent millions of dollars influencing elections and, most recently, running ads like this calling for the impeachment of Donald Trump:

Steyer was born in Manhattan. He is the youngest of three boys, went to private and boarding school, and was the son of a corporate lawyer who represented Goldman Sachs for decades. He went to Yale, graduated summa cum laude in economics and political science, and then got his MBA from Stanford. He did stints at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs before founding Farallon Capital, a hedge fund in San Francisco. In 2012, the hedge fund was worth $30 billion. That’s the year Steyer sold his stake in order to focus solely on political activism and philanthropy, but he had dipped his toes in politics long before that. Steyer worked for the 1984 presidential campaign of former Vice President Walter Mondale, he almost ran for governor of California in 2003 (that’s the year Arnold Schwarzenegger won) and in 2006 he helped run a fundraiser to re-elect Nancy Pelosi, the current Democratic leader of the House of Representatives. He also served as a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 2004 and 2008.

Which probably brings us to the time period you’re interested in.

Since 2008, Steyer has spent big on elections in America. That year, he was an early supporter of Hillary Clinton but eventually got behind Barack Obama and became one of his top fundraisers. After Obama won, Steyer was considered for an appointment as Secretary of Treasury. In 2014, he threw up $74 million on the midterm elections, making him the top donor of that cycle. He has put money behind state elections, presidential elections and even ballot measures. I can tell by your question, though, that you sense something is a bit amiss. And you’d be right.

It seems like a long forgotten story now, but Steyer was actually criticized heavily in 2014 for his political activism. A lot of people saw his environmentalism, which is the crux of much of his political work, as fraudulent. For instance, at the same time Steyer spent $100 million fighting candidates who wouldn’t address climate change, coal-related projects that Farallon Capital bankrolled were generating millions and millions of tons of carbon pollution. This 2014 New York Times piece details how many of the coal mines and coal-fired plants Steyer has funded will have a lifespan through 2030 in China and Indonesia. In fact, Steyer helped back projects that increased production of those mines by 70 million tons. That’s the same amount of coal consumed by all of Britain every year (read: a LOT of coal).

Despite “selling his ownership stake” in Farallon, Steyer and his aides conceded that he remains a “passive investor” in the company. He also runs the environmental action fund NextGen Climate Action and with his wife Kathryn controls TomKat Charitable Trust, which is what he uses to fund his political activism.

All of these murky and contradictory details, and Steyer’s general image as a big-money elitist, has kept him on the outside of mainstream liberalism. Steyer has been trying to enter the Democratic race for president this year, but despite spending $12 million on digital and television ads in six weeks (that’s more than any other Democratic candidate has spent all year), he didn’t qualify for the next debate on Sept. 12th. He did pull in 130,000 donors and is polling at around 2 percent, which makes it possible he could qualify for the October debates. His message is that he’s an “outside-the-establishment” candidate who wants to decriminalize the border, attack climate change head on, expand the Supreme Court and even impose a wealth tax on himself and other wealthy Americans. Still, the general reaction from the left to Steyer’s major ad buy was, “holy cow, imagine what you could have done with that money if you spent it on something useful!” Most Democrats, and certainly the far-left, would prefer to see Steyer spending money on Senate races or other candidates instead of trying to buy his way into a presidential run. While his money and impeachment calls are mostly welcome, there is no appetite from the left for a 62-year-old, white, billionaire hedge fund manager with a history of pouring money into destructive coal mining to enter the race. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes Steyer to figure that out, too.