vision 2020

In South Carolina (and Only South Carolina) Tom Steyer Is a Front-runner

’A billionaire with heart’ — according to many South Carolinians, anyway. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

“I’m gonna introduce to you the nominee for the Democratic Party and the next real president of the United States,” the man onstage said.


Tom — as in, Tom Steyer.

He emerged, dressed in his customary tartan tie and rolled-up shirtsleeves, taunting Democrats who would urge him to drop out of the race with the sound of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Casually, he asked, “How’s it going?”

The answer, for Tom, is quite well in this immediate area.

In the previously alternate and currently principal political universe of South Carolina, the hedge-fund billionaire and political activist who barely registers in most national polling and who virtually nobody has voted for in the early nominating contests can be simply referred to this way. Tom. 

Here, as in other states where he’s invested his millions of ad dollars for over a year, Tom’s everywhere: on billboards and TVs and along the side of the highway. But in South Carolina, unlike Iowa or New Hampshire or Nevada, people don’t just look right past him.

Here, Tom’s so competitive that, on Sunday, as CBS released a poll that confirmed his third-place status (18 percent) just behind Bernie Sanders (23 percent) and Joe Biden (28 percent), the former vice-president (and former front-runner) took time out of his day to attack him.

Before church in North Charleston, Biden appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation, where he blamed Steyer for his shrinking numbers in the state. “What’s happening is you have Steyer spending millions of dollars out campaigning there, so I think a lot’s happening in terms of the amount of money being spent by billionaires to try to cut into the African-American vote,” he said.

Later, he told reporters, “I’m not saying Tom Steyer’s a bad guy, but Tom Steyer was one of the largest investors in private prisons in the United States of America while I was trying to get rid of private prisons and Barack was trying to get rid of private prisons.”

(Barack — as in, Barack Obama.)

The Steyer campaign claimed Biden was “exaggerating once again,” that Farallon Capital Management, the candidate’s hedge fund, had only “made a small investment” in the country’s largest private prison firm, Corrections Corporation of America, and “when Tom looked into it, he ended it.” The small investment was $34 million, and Steyer defended it to critics at the time. (At a campaign stop in Hampton on Sunday, Steyer told the crowd, “I know people describe me in the press as being a rich person, but I don’t think that’s who I am.”)

Asked about Biden’s remarks at the Family Worship Center in Yemassee, a rural town about an hour’s drive from Charleston, Steyer said what he’s said any time the issue has emerged since the presidency has been in his sights: “Was it a mistake? Yes. At the time it was very new and I thought they could provide better service. And I decided it’s not something anyone should make money from and I sold it 15 years ago.”

Dr. Janice Ryan-Bohac and her husband, Dr. Paul Bohac, both 66, were not swayed by Biden’s anti-Tom talking points. It was a long time ago, Janice said, and besides, it’s a national emergency — the state of the government and the planet — and there are more pressing things at hand. Janice has been a Steyer supporter since he just had the anti-Trump political action committee, while Paul only came around two or three weeks ago.

“I like all of them, really. It’s a hard choice,” Paul said. “Today sealed the deal. I could feel the sincerity.”

Janice, so persuasive that she recounted convincing more than one voter to go with Tom, was pleased. “He’s a billionaire with a heart and I think we need a different kind of president,” she said.

With Steyer ahead of more legit-seeming candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, and creeping up on Bernie and Biden, he’s about to experience real scrutiny for the first time. As Alex Seitz-Wald of NBC News put it: “Tom Steyer is going to receive more incoming fire in the next six days than he’s received in the past six months combined.”

Lucky for Steyer, he is a gifted campaigner, and at least anecdotally, black voters seem to respond to the way he discusses racial injustice and his plans for reparations.

But Thomas Jenkins, 67, still considered himself undecided. Jenkins said he hadn’t heard of Steyer until Wednesday, when, out of the blue, he received a text message from the campaign advertising Sunday’s event. “I think he’s smart. I think he’s honest. I think he spoke to us honestly and told us the truth and God bless him if he makes it,” Jenkins said. “Because I think he’d be good for the United States of America and for South Carolina and for Jasper County.”

Jenkins said he planned to decide between the three candidates he was considering (he wouldn’t say who the other two were) by the 28th — the day before the primary. “I promise you, on the 29th, I’ll have my mind made up. If you see me about 12, I’ll let you know!”

Michael Howard, 53, felt similarly. “I see a lot of people with this on,” he said, raising his hand to show me a square, white TOM 2020 sticker. “And I’m not ready to put that on yet.”

In S.C. (and Only S.C.) Tom Steyer Is a Front-runner