Who's Afraid of Tom Steyer? Billionaire Targeted in Arizona Energy Policy War

A screenshot from an attack ad by the group Reliable Energy Policy, which opposes a clean energy ballot initiative. Billionaire donor Tom Steyer, a vocal Trump opponent, has recently become a target in Arizona because of his organization's ballot initiative.
A screenshot from an attack ad by the group Reliable Energy Policy, which opposes a clean energy ballot initiative. Billionaire donor Tom Steyer, a vocal Trump opponent, has recently become a target in Arizona because of his organization's ballot initiative. Reliable Energy Policy/screenshot
Tom Steyer is best known as a liberal mega-donor, Wall Street executive, and the man holding the megaphone in a controversial campaign to impeach President Trump.

But these days in Arizona, Steyer is famous — or infamous — for another reason.

He's behind a hotly contested ballot measure on renewable energy. And as a result, Steyer is now public enemy number one in an aggressive PR campaign to push back on an initiative to amend Arizona's constitution.

On one side: a mysterious new opposition group that says the clean energy ballot measure will hike electricity prices. On the other: clean energy advocates who contend that the state's largest utility company is fueling the opposition campaign with ratepayer money. Both sides are less than transparent.

The initiative campaign, Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, would enshrine mandatory renewable energy goals for utility companies in the state constitution, mandating that utilities achieve 50 percent of their power from renewable sources like solar and wind, but not nuclear energy, by 2030.

The ballot measure has the financial backing of Steyer's political organizing group, NextGen America. Opponents of the clean energy initiative have seized on the involvement of Steyer and NextGen, arguing that the billionaire is trying to import a failed energy scheme from neighboring California.

Recently, a shadowy new group entered the clean-energy melee: a political action committee called Reliable Energy Policy, which incorporated earlier this month.

The organization quickly unveiled a sleek website, "He's Got a Secret." The site purports to expose Steyer's background to discredit his role in the clean energy campaign. The organization behind the site, however, has a few secrets of its own.

Readers who click around can find an aerial shot of Steyer's San Francisco mansion and a link to a 2014 New York Times article that describes how Steyer's hedge fund invested heavily in fossil fuels like coal before he stepped down from the firm in 2012 to create a political action group, NextGen Climate. The organization later broadened its focus from climate change and changed its name to NextGen America.

Steyer is "keeping these secrets to mislead us and millions of other Arizonans to make all of us pay for his personal agenda by doubling your utility bill," the site says.

A baroque attack ad produced by Reliable Energy Policy shows Steyer's visage alongside a copy of the Arizona Constitution as a red "X" slashes through the document.

"Tom Steyer wants you to fund his latest scheme by doubling your utility bills," the narrator intones. "Protect Arizona and say no to the California billionaire."

The site urges Arizonans to decline to sign the petition for the clean energy campaign, which needs nearly 226,000 signatures by July 5 to qualify for the November ballot.

Reliable Energy Policy registered with the state of Arizona on May 1, and lists Tom Hall as the director. Beyond that, the group is extremely unwilling to divulge who is backing the campaign against the renewable energy measure and Steyer.

Barrett Marson, a local public affairs consultant and Reliable Energy Policy's spokesperson, said that it is a grassroots group hoping to educate the public about Steyer and the potential effects of the constitutional amendment.

Tom Hall, Marson said, is a lifelong Phoenix resident "who was concerned about this initiative and decided to chair a committee to help take action against getting it onto the ballot."

What is Hall's political affiliation? Marson said that he didn't know. What is Hall's occupation, and who is paying Marson to shill for the group? Marson wouldn't say.

"His concern is electricity costs and the potential for a drastic increase in all of our electricity rates," Marson said of Hall.

For an address, Reliable Energy Policy lists the Phoenix law firm Coppersmith Brockelman. Marson said the firm serves as Reliable Energy Policy's legal counsel.

In the race to use Steyer as a bogeyman, Reliable Energy Policy has competition. Another political action committee, Arizonans for Affordable Electricity — funded by the parent company of Arizona's largest public utility, Arizona Public Service, which opposes the ballot measure — is also running ads that portray Steyer as a billionaire meddling in Arizona.

Marson said that Reliable Energy Policy has no connection to Arizonans for Affordable Electricity.

Republican National Committee
The Republican National Committee has even gotten into the Steyer-bashing game. When the billionaire investor visited Tucson on Saturday to give the keynote speech at an awards banquet, he was met with protesters, as well as a Snapchat filter paid for by the RNC, which showed Steyer's Bitmoji avatar dumping out cartoonish bags of cash.
The RNC's Arizona communications director, Renae Eze, issued a statement calling Steyer "just another coastal elitist sticking his fingers into the wallets of Arizonans."

The scorched-earth campaign against Steyer raises questions: Do Arizonans know, or care, who Steyer is? And how far does Steyer's influence really extend to the clean energy campaign?

Marson defended the heavy-handed use of Steyer in the Reliable Energy Policy materials, citing the billionaire's public campaign to impeach Trump as an example.

"We didn’t make him the public face," Marson said. "He is the person who created this and who brought it to Arizona and wants to implement it. This is his initiative. It is no one else’s. He is the man behind this entire plan."

Steyer has poured millions of dollars into the impeach-Trump campaign, which includes a petition that has garnered over 5 million signatures. The billionaire's efforts have stoked rumors that Steyer may run for president. When asked about a presidential bid in December, Steyer said that he has not ruled it out.

A spokesperson for Steyer did not respond to a request for comment.

When reading the promotional materials of the Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona ballot campaign, you would never know that NextGen or Steyer is behind the effort.

"We are not trying to fool anybody," said clean energy campaign spokesperson Rodd McLeod, an Arizona political consultant with Radar Strategies.

"NextGen America is a significant funder of the campaign. Tom Steyer was here in-state arguing on behalf of clean energy," McLeod said. "We’re not trying to hide anything."

The clean energy campaign's most recent financial disclosure from April shows that NextGen Climate Action has bankrolled the campaign committee with more than $950,000 to date.

"I don’t find this to be a particularly mysterious thing," McLeod said. "We work very closely with NextGen, but we’re running this campaign here in Arizona with Arizonans like myself."

McLeod pointed to the list of organizations that are public supporters of the initiative, including the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club, Chispa Arizona, and Physicians for Social Responsibility. The campaign is managed by Jessica Grennan — an employee of the Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona committee, as opposed to NextGen, McLeod said.

Grennan is a longtime political consultant from Montana who is the board chair of the progressive youth engagement organization Forward Montana; she previously worked for Democratic Senator Jon Tester's campaign.

When asked about Grennan's out-of-state background, McLeod again mentioned the diverse list of organizations that have endorsed the campaign. He said that campaign's co-chairs, Alejandra Gomez and Sue Gerard, are both Arizonans.

“There are many Arizonans working on the campaign and volunteering for the campaign," he said. McLeod contrasted the clean energy campaign to the opposition groups that have formed to defeat it.

"Who knows who Reliable Energy Policy is?" he said. "We don’t know who those folks are."
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty