The Riggs Report: Governor’s race could get more crowded

May 18th, 2017

Former hedge fund executive Tom Steyer is reportedly polling voters

When billionaire Democratic activist Tom Steyer, the founder of Farallon Capital Management, started showing up in TV ads across California last year, it was widely seen as the tactic of someone laying the groundwork for a campaign for governor.

So it was anything but a surprise when The Hill newspaper reported this week what many expected all along. Quoting multiple Democratic sources, the paper reported that Steyer had commissioned a pollster to survey what voters know about him; a traditional step to setting up a statewide campaign.

Steyer wasn’t running for anything, at least officially, in 2016. But he did appear on camera as a candidate would, introducing himself by name to voters, in an expensive wave of television commercials promoting passage of Proposition 56, the $2 a pack tobacco tax.

Steyer was also active in supporting other initiatives on last year’s crowded November ballot, including a ban on plastic bags, a repeal of the death penalty and the granting of parole for those convicted of non-violent crimes.

Even further, Steyer bankrolled a multimillion-dollar campaign, including TV ads, to encourage more millennial voters to join the registration rolls across the state. The enormous amount of exposure Steyer gained through these campaigns was a classic playbook tactic for raising public recognition.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made a similar move in 2002 by sponsoring Proposition 49, a measure to establish after-school programs. Name recognition wasn’t Schwarzenegger’s problem, given his many action hero movie roles, but the campaign did allow him to establish a record of political involvement, foreshadowing his successful run for governor in the 2003 recall election.

Steyer’s vast wealth may not be the advantage it seems. California voters have repeatedly rejected political candidates with deep pockets, including former eBay executive Meg Whitman in the 2010 governor’s race.

In the 1998 governor’s race, airline executive Al Checchi and Jane Harman, wife of a stereo components tycoon, both spent heavily from their personal fortunes but lost in the Democratic primary election.

Money can buy name recognition, but not voter loyalty.

If Steyer jumps in the race to replace Gov. Jerry Brown, it will be a very crowded Democratic field.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Treasurer John Chiang and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are all in. Speculation continues about current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s interest in the race.

There is also active discussion about Senate President pro Tem Kevin de Leon’s ambitions. De Leon released a campaign-style video this week with the tag line, “Join the Fight for California’s Future,” which portrays him as a prime leader of the state’s resistance to the Trump White House.

California Democrats will gather in Sacramento this weekend for their statewide convention, where they’ll be served up a preview of who’s in, and who might be in, in the upcoming race for the open governor’s seat in 2018.