Tom Steyer addresses staff and volunteers with his political action group, NextGen America, in Tempe on Friday.EXPAND
Tom Steyer addresses staff and volunteers with his political action group, NextGen America, in Tempe on Friday.
Joseph Flaherty

Tom Steyer Wants to Turn Arizona Blue, but First He Needs to Beat the Utility Company

Tom Steyer was sitting at a restaurant patio near Arizona State University on Friday as a group of protesters jeered him from the sidewalk.

Several yards away, they chanted, "Steyer stinks! Steyer stinks!"

The former Wall Street executive and billionaire liberal donor ignored them as he waited for his iced tea to arrive. "Honestly, they're more polite than my brothers are at the dinner table," Steyer said. "They get a right to say what they want to say."

Steyer, 61, is a Wall Street executive turned liberal activist and the founder of the progressive political action group NextGen America. Minutes earlier, Steyer had addressed NextGen team members and prospective volunteers from ASU at Original ChopShop, a salad bowl restaurant on University Drive.

He had to shout to be heard over the college-age protesters, who were there at the invitation of the Arizona Republican Party.

Earlier, the Arizona GOP had blasted out a #StayOutSteyer press release by the party chairman: "We need your help to stand up to these California liberals and show them that we will NOT allow them to California our Arizona." The demonstrators held up signs with Steyer's name, booed, and yelled, "Leave A-Z!"

These days, Steyer has plenty of enemies.

The parent company of Arizona's largest public utility, Arizona Public Service, has waged war on a clean energy ballot measure bankrolled by NextGen. Arizona Republicans have gleefully joined in a smear campaign against Steyer, plastering his face on ads against the ballot measure.

Even allies in the Democratic Party have balked at Steyer's controversial, multimillion dollar campaign to impeach President Trump – many view it as counterproductive.

NextGen's constitutional amendment in Arizona would require utility companies to generate 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2030. Last week, the measure secured a spot on the November ballot and should remain there barring an unexpected, negative outcome in this week's bench trial challenging petition signatures.

Yet in a conversation with reporters following his speech to the NextGen crowd, Steyer maintained that he's not the boogeyman from San Francisco that his critics say he is. The APS-funded opposition campaign argues that Steyer wants to transform Arizona into its more liberal neighbor to the west.

"I would say, which part of cheap, clean, job-producing energy are you against?" Steyer said.

He promised that NextGen's clean energy ballot measure will not jack up Arizonans' utility rates, as the well-funded opposition campaign argues. "It's not true," Steyer said. "Look, you can look at all of the costs of clean energy versus fossil fuel, and solar is cheaper."

Tom Steyer greets supporters in Tempe on Friday.EXPAND
Tom Steyer greets supporters in Tempe on Friday.
Joseph Flaherty

Solar and battery storage gets cheaper every year, Steyer said, raising Moore's Law, an idea in computer engineering that says that the processing power of computerized devices doubles once every two years, thanks to shrinking chip technology.

Moore's Law, however, is a phenomenon specific to computer chips. The same rapid technological improvement doesn't apply to solar cells or battery storage. And this presents an obstacle to achieving a future where Arizona gets most of its power from solar energy; the state will likely have to rely on some form of battery storage to bridge the gap after sundown.

Nevertheless, Steyer maintained that a similar phenomenon to Moore's Law is happening with solar power, albeit not as fast. The price of solar drops every year, he explained.

"The batteries are all getting better, and cheaper, and more efficient, and the solar's only getting better, and cheaper, and more efficient. Every year," Steyer said. "That's just a fact."

With his appearance in Arizona on Friday, Steyer was on the front lines of one of NextGen's most ambitious electoral targets. Across Arizona, NextGen organizers have fanned out to college campuses to register college students to vote and to recruit volunteers, all in the hopes of electing progressive candidates in November.

According to Belén Sisa, an Arizona spokesperson for NextGen, the organization recently registered more than 1,140 ASU freshmen to vote during the university's move-in weekend.

This is the first year NextGen has pushed into Arizona, according to Steyer. "We're trying to be in states that are swing states. Arizona's a swing state – didn't use to be, but it is now," he said.

Steyer said that Arizona has the potential to turn blue during the 2018 election at all levels of government, with a significant disclaimer: "Doesn't mean it will, but it certainly can," he said. The biggest factor, like every year, is whether voters show up, Steyer said.

With his impeachment campaign and NextGen's organizing efforts, Steyer is rumored to be setting the stage for a 2020 presidential run.

When asked whether he wants to lead a progressive movement, the former hedge fund manager simply said that he wants to be on the right side of a political battle that he framed as justice versus injustice.

"I do think there is this very significant corporate takeover of our democracy," he said. "I think APS is a perfect example of it, and I think that the tradition in America is when there is injustice, Americans respond by pushing for justice."

That corporate takeover of politics is evident with the millions of dollars APS parent Pinnacle West has spent to kill the clean energy ballot measure, Steyer said.

"The question is, why in Arizona – which is a place where there's a gigantic natural resource called extreme sunniness – is the utility fighting it, when it's cheaper and cleaner and supplies a lot of jobs?" Steyer said. "It's hard to understand, to be honest. And honestly, if their reaction is to say, 'Don't turn Arizona into California,' I don't understand that argument."

As loud as they were, Steyer's detractors on the sidewalk weren't allowed to speak to the media. Renae Eze, the Arizona communications director for the Republican National Committee, blocked interviews and deferred all questions to the Arizona party chairman.

Steyer's spokesperson, Aleigha Cavalier, sparred with the clean energy opposition campaign on Twitter that evening.

She claimed that the utility paid demonstrators $15 an hour to shout down Steyer, and added that protesters apparently didn't know what they were protesting.

Cavalier never got a definitive answer as to whether the young demonstrators were paid during her Friday night quarrel with the clean energy opponents.

"I asked them multiple times on Twitter to deny it, and they never did," Cavalier told Phoenix New Times on Monday.

Arizona Republicans and an APS-sponsored opposition campaign have joined forces to oppose to Steyer's clean energy mandate. The chairman of the Arizona GOP and the clean energy opposition committee did not respond to requests for comment.

Even after Steyer's speech ended, around two dozen protesters remained on the sidewalk, waving at drivers. The occasional car honked as it sped by.

Steyer continued to ignore them. At one point, he suggested that they were there specifically because of APS, noting that he hasn't encountered protesters in other states. "There's a corporate takeover of the democracy, and this is as clear an example as I've ever seen," he said.

Of course, there's no small amount of irony to a billionaire ex-Wall Street heavyweight arguing that corporate money has taken over politics. But unlike other mega-donors, Steyer frames himself as someone who's fighting the good fight across the nation – or, at least on this particular evening, sweating in the Arizona heat.

"Let me ask you a question, are the Koch brothers out there making an argument?" Steyer said. "I rest my case," he added. "Is the president of APS here to debate?"

Does it bother Steyer to see his name on signs? Does a billionaire lose sleep after listening to people chant, "Steyer stinks?"

No, he said, shaking his head silently.

"This is a straight-up, right-wrong fight. We're on the side of right," Steyer said. "There are people on the other side who are gonna do a lot of dirty things. Yeah, so what?"

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