Tom Steyer, Climate-Change Batman

Photograph by 20th Century Fox/Getty Images

In last week’s issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, I wrote a short profile of Tom Steyer, the billionaire co-founder of Farallon Capital Management who left the hedge fund last year to devote his time and fortune to protecting earth’s climate. Steyer’s first big move into politics came in March, when he got involved in the Democratic primary for the Massachusetts special Senate election to replace John Kerry. Steyer, who backed Representative Ed Markey, publicly demanded that Markey’s opponent, Representative Steve Lynch, disavow his support for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline or face the wrath of Steyer’s checkbook.

Lynch didn’t back down, but he didn’t win the primary race, either. Steyer—who, an aide told me, spent $630,000 on the race—probably wasn’t much of a factor because Markey won handily. But he could still play a big role in determining the next senator from Massachusetts. That’s because a race that Democrats once expected to win easily looks as if it could be much closer than anyone anticipated. A survey by Public Policy Polling taken just after Markey won last week shows him leading the Republican nominee, Gabriel Gomez, by only a 44-40 margin.

Gomez, who worked in private equity, has emerged as a serious candidate with potential to raise lots of money. (He won the GOP primary by vastly outspending his opponents, having loaned his campaign $600,000 of his own money.)

As a result, Steyer could become a significant factor if he decides to devote his money and energy to backing Markey in the general election. Will he once again get involved? I asked for an interview and instead was given this statement from his spokesman. “[T]he short answer is: It depends,” reads the statement. “When climate is on the ballot through a significant difference between candidates, and local citizens want us to help them, we’ll thoroughly consider their request. In Massachusetts, a key will be whether Mr. Gomez stands with many cold-eyed realists in the military on the growing national security threat posed by climate change and fossil fuel dependence.”

The noteworthy thing about this statement is the phrase about Steyer’s support being contingent on local citizens requesting his help. In my Bloomberg Businessweek piece, I characterized Steyer’s entrance into the Markey-Lynch race as “clumsy” because many Massachusetts Democrats were annoyed that an out-of-state billionaire presumed to issue threats in a local race. Steyer also alienated the Boston Globe, which called him a “bully.”

Steyer seems to have taken this criticism to heart. He’s advertising his willingness to swoop in and help Massachusetts Democrats defeat a foe—but only if they ask him to. This will short-circuit any further talk of him as a pushy out-of-stater meddling in others’ affairs. In fact, it positions him as a sort of Batman for friends of a healthy planet. He is standing vigilantly by, ready to help, but only if the local citizenry sends up the Bat Signal.

Given the tight race, I imagine some of them will, if they haven’t done so already. Steyer has made clear that he is committed to getting involved in national politics in a major way, so his role in Massachusetts will bear watching—and not just because of the effect it could have on this contest. In politics these days, the people often regarded as superheroes don’t wear a cape and tights. Instead, they have steroidally large bank accounts and no compunction about deploying truckloads of money against the enemy.

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