SAN FRANCISCO -- Hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer staked millions of his own money to take on big oil and then to close a corporate-tax loophole costing California $1 billion a year -- and won both times.
Ever heard of him? Don't worry, you will.
With his latest behind-the-scenes win at the polls as the man who stared down big business by standing up for Proposition 39, this Stanford MBA and top Obama fundraiser has become an out-of-nowhere, big-time political player in California.
So what does Tom Steyer want now?
"I am an enormous lover of California, and to the extent that I see something wrong, I will be involved in trying to fix it," Steyer, 55, said Monday. "What form that takes, I don't have a fixed idea."
That hasn't stopped his name from coming up in recent weeks as a likely candidate for statewide office or an appointment to the Obama administration. And the man who amassed a $1.3 billion fortune by co-founding Farallon Capital is stepping down at year's end -- so he'll have plenty of time and money to spend on public policy.
Indeed, Steyer seemed very much like a man of fixed ideas Monday as he strode into a conference room in his office 20 floors above the Financial District with postcard views of the city and bay¿, taking questions with the confidence of someone accustomed to finding a practical route to whatever he wants.
He has begun building name recognition in ways grand -- speaking at the Democratic National Convention -- and small, earning cheers at a get-out-the-vote labor rally in Oakland just before Election Day. Wonks at the Public Policy Institute of California invited him to speak Tuesday on climate change and energy policy.
Add it up and he starts sounding like a nightmare for California Republicans, or even for fellow Democrats with aspirations that might conflict with his. Yet even some potential rivals speak of Steyer in the most admiring tones.
"He's a doer -- he's stepping in where there's a void, he's filling that gap between some of the work that's being done in Sacramento and where we're falling short," said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. "He's the real deal. ... I'm just happy to have him in California, regardless of him being a Democrat. He's pulled off two impressive and significant wins that are both legacies."
Steyer founded Farallon Capital in 1986 with $15 million in seed money. As of late 2011, it was the world's 17th largest hedge fund firm, with $20 billion in assets, and was one of the first firms to raise money from university endowments, starting with Steyer's own alma mater, Yale. The firm has invested in everything from an Argentine shoe company to an Indonesian bank to Research in Motion, the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry.
Steyer made his first major foray into California politics in 2010, when he co-chaired and gave $5 million to the campaign against Proposition 23, oil companies' effort to roll back California's landmark greenhouse-gas emissions law.
This year, he chaired and gave $32.3 million to almost single-handedly bankroll Proposition 39, forcing out-of-state businesses to calculate tax liability based on the percentage of their sales in California; it will bring the state an estimated $1 billion a year, of which half for the first five years will pay for energy-efficiency and clean-energy projects at public buildings and schools.
Steyer frames his wins as triumphs of good ideas, not just money. "Big money didn't necessarily pay off" in this election cycle, he said, from Karl Rove's apocalyptically-failed super PAC to the deep-pocketed Munger siblings who bankrolled California's Propositions 32 and 38. His paid off because it was "completely in the spirit of the original proposition idea," letting Californians overcome coordinated corporate economic interests.
A week before Election Day, the California Republican Party launched a website attacking Steyer's measure as a dangerous tax increase that jeopardized the state's struggling economy. After the vote, state GOP chairman Tom Del Beccaro said California is the most taxed and regulated state in the nation and -- considering the cap-and-trade system being launched this week under the greenhouse-gas law Steyer successfully defended in 2010 -- perhaps in the world.
"If Mr. Steyer is intent on entering elective politics ... he and others are going to have to answer for the state of the economy," Del Beccaro said.
Steyer replied Monday that Del Beccaro must've been "paying zero attention," as Prop. 39 removed an incentive for businesses to put jobs outside of California. "That is not the way they're going to rebuild the party in California, by being delusional," he said, adding he'll match his Stanford MBA and business record against the state GOP's economic rhetoric any time. "There's a reason they're in disarray."
Yet Steyer said a well-organized, responsible, truthful and realistic GOP would be good for the state and nation; he cited his work with former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz in the No on Prop. 23 campaign as an example of bipartisan cooperation.
California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski said that pragmatism sets Steyer apart.
"He's able to bridge ideological divides ... and any problem that he confronts, he's going to solve," Pulaski said. "I don't know where that takes him, but it takes him on a journey that's different from other wealthy people who've run for office before."
Steyer might be unsure if he'll ever be a candidate, but he sounds like one already.
"At what point are we going back to a state that has good education, good services, reasonable taxes?" he asked rhetorically. "If you insist on effectiveness and competence, you will get it. We need to get back to the mode of expecting our government to do a good job."
Hometown: San Francisco
Political affiliation: Democrat
Career: Co-founder and managing member, Farallon Capital Management (but leaving at the end of the year)
Estimated net worth: $1.3 billion
Education: Bachelor's in economics and political science, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, Yale University (1979); MBA, Stanford Graduate School of Business (1983)
Political victories: co-chaired and helped bankroll 2010's successful No on Prop. 23 campaign, upholding California's greenhouse-gas emissions law; chaired and gave $32.3 million to 2012's successful Yes on Prop. 39 campaign, closing a corporate tax loophole in part to fund green-energy projects.
Steyer's examples of good political leaders: State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, "very smart, very capable''; California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, "he's smart and he's got his heart in the right place''; former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, "my 91-year-old hero."