Green Energy Billionaire Tom Steyer Maxes Out for Ted Strickland

Democratic candidate claims to support coal miners, rails against rich buying political influence

Ted Strickland
Ted Strickland / AP
August 9, 2016

Democrat Ted Strickland accepted a maximum contribution from billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer earlier this summer, the latest development that could hurt the candidate among Ohio’s coal country voters in the U.S. Senate race there.

Steyer and his wife, Kathryn Taylor, each donated the maximum $2,700 to Strickland’s campaign in June, recent Federal Election Commission records show. The revelation comes as Strickland fights to convince the state’s coal workers of his commitment to them, after his opponent, incumbent Sen. Rob Portman (R.), received an unusual and significant endorsement from a prominent coal miners labor union.

Steyer founded NextGen Climate, a San Francisco-based environmental advocacy organization that pushes for a 100 percent transition to "clean energy" and a shift away from coal and other fossil fuels. The group’s accompanying Super PAC, NextGen Climate Action, spends money to elect candidates who will take "bold action" on climate change.

Steyer is also the co-founder of a trade association for green energy firms called Advanced Energy Economy. He and his wife helped establish the TomKat Charitable Trust, a nonprofit that is invested in green energy and energy efficiency companies.

Strickland has made his roots in coal-rich Appalachia a focal point of his campaign and pledged to support the state’s coal workers. Still, the candidate has come under question for his work for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that advocates for a shift away from coal. Strickland headed the group’s lobbying arm before launching his bid for the Senate, working alongside a former Environmental Protection Agency official and architect of President Obama’s climate change agenda.

"By accepting a maximum donation from an anti-coal billionaire like Tom Steyer, Ted Strickland has once again given coal miners the cold shoulder and proven that his loyalties lie with radical California environmentalists, not the people of Ohio," said Christian Palich, president of the Ohio Coal Association.

The political arm of United Mine Workers of America formally backed Portman in June despite having endorsed Strickland in his successful gubernatorial campaign in 2006 and his failed reelection bid four years later. Strickland criticized the labor union and others for endorsing Portman at the Democratic National Convention last month, telling reporters, "The coal miners in Ohio are going to be voting for me."

But Strickland has received support from groups advocating against coal. The political arm of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group that lobbies against coal-fired power plants, has bundled over $48,000 in lobbyist contributions for Strickland’s campaign. The group has also spent $400,000 on canvassing against his opponent.

Strickland spoke at a renewable energy forum sponsored by NextGen Climate, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund during the convention in Philadelphia.

Steyer’s contributions could also undermine Strickland’s criticism of the involvement of billionaire donors and Super PACs in federal elections. His campaign has sent numerous fundraising emails to supporters knocking Portman for relying on the "billionaire class" and highlighting Strickland’s commitment to campaign finance reform and running a grassroots campaign.

"As though the billionaire class didn’t have enough power already, the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision has allowed the ultra-wealthy to spend millions of dollars of unlimited and undisclosed corporate cash, manipulating our political system," Strickland wrote in a June email.

Steyer and his wife are the top individual contributors thus far this cycle, donating more than $30 million to NextGen Climate, according to Open Secrets. They were also the single largest individual donors during the 2014 election cycle.

Strickland has also received contributions from other Democratic megadonors, including George Soros and Donald Sussman. Outside groups and Super PACs have already spent millions to help Strickland defeat Portman in November.

NextGen Climate and the Strickland campaign did not respond to requests for comment by press time.