Tom Steyer's Older, Poorer Brother

Jim Steyer
Tom Steyer's older brother (Twitter)
February 26, 2014

Move over, Koch brothers. There’s a new dynamic duo in town, and they’re super serious about making a difference.

Liberal billionaire and reluctant democracy advocate Tom Steyer has pledged to spend at least $100 million backing candidates who support higher taxes and crippling regulations to combat the scientific theory known as "climate change." He also has a brother named Jim.

Jim Steyer is the Robin to Tom’s Batman. Tom is worth about $1.5 billion, while Jim "happens to know a lot" of billionaires. But what he lacks in financial assets, Jim makes up for in moxy, and a knack for old-school networking.

According to Politico, Jim is "relentless—in a friendly, hyperactive sort of way" when it comes to convincing other people to give him money. He boasts a "star-studded network of friends," and isn’t afraid to tell you all about it. A conversation with Jim "whirls like a carousel through the social register as he drops name after big name."

Jim isn’t shy about the duo’s ambitions. "We are trying to change the world." The Steyers are "fearless," according to one of them, and favor a generous reading of the Second Amendment as applied to metaphors: "You don’t bring a squirt gun to a fight where the other guys have AK-47s." (He was presumably referring to libertarian philanthropy barons Charles and David Koch, the latter of which Tom Steyer recently described as a "famously evil" person.)

But don’t expect the Steyer brothers to pursue identical agendas. Tom, for example, is more likely to spend his millions on environmentalist initiatives such as an actual squirt-gun ban (they’re made of plastic, they waste water, they don’t kill eagles efficiently, etc.).

Jim, meanwhile, wants to focus on mobilizing America’s youth. "Kids deserve a voice as powerful as the NRA is for gun owners, as powerful as the AARP is for seniors," he said, outlining what might be the first political movement inspired by a Blink 182 song: "Corporate leaders, politicians / Kids can't vote, adults elect them."

Jim Steyer has enjoyed a successful career as a children’s advocate. His legislative accomplishments include helping to enact a California law prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors. The U.S. Supreme Court struck it down.

Jim teaches political science at Stanford University, where his former students include "big names" such as Senator Cory Booker (D., N.J.), National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and Clinton associate Chelsea Clinton, who he "can’t stop raving about."  He later hired Clinton as teaching assistant and research aide.

In fact, Jim Steyer’s relationship with the Clintons dates back more than two decades. (He raves about Hillary, too.) His organization, Common Sense Media, has partnered with the Clinton Foundation, as well as Univision, the Spanish-language network owned by pro-Clinton billionaire Haim Saban. And yet he has sought to position himself as a nonpartisan actor, in order to "protect the integrity" of his numerous nonprofit organizations.

However, despite initially telling Politico that he has never donated to political campaigns, a five-second search reveals that Jim Steyer has given $5,300 to Democrat candidates since 2002, including $2,300 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. When these donations were brought to his attention, Steyer blamed his wife, before eventually conceding that he may have contributed to Hillary’s campaign "by mistake."

Perhaps the analysts who are skeptical about the ability of the Steyer brothers to match the political savvy of the Kochs are on to something.