By Spencer Feingold & Justin Chermol
Greedy corporations and their unyielding control over politicians in Washington is the most urgent issue facing the country, according to Tom Steyer, the billionaire progressive activist and the latest Democratic hopeful to join the 2020 race.
Steyer told Cheddar Thursday that breaking the "corporate stranglehold on our government and our politics" should be a top priority. "Until we get that right, we are not getting any Green New Deal, we're not getting any major change to health policy."
Steyer, 62, joined the crowded field of candidates earlier this week with an announcement video that focused heavily on the avarice of big business and its undue influence.
"If you look over the past 40 years, you've seen this corporate takeover of democracy," Steyer told Cheddar Thursday. "And one measure of that is how much the very top of America has profited."
Steyer has a rare perspective on the power wealth can yield. He made his fortune as the head of an investment firm and is worth roughly $1.6 billion, according to Forbes. He is a signatory to the Giving Pledge, a coalition of ultra-wealthy individuals that have promised to give away at least half of their wealth to charitable causes.
Yet Steyer wants structural changes to shift the fiscal norms in American society. He called for "a living wage as a constitutional right in American society" to help curb growing income inequality, noting that the U.S. is "rich enough to do this."
In recent years, Steyer has also championed several progessive causes, most notably confronting the climate crisis, and has been heavily involved in California politics and nationwide issues through his liberal advocacy group NextGen America. He has also been a leading voice in the impeachment movement against President Trump through his Need to Impeach organization, which lobbies members of Congress and has since gained over 8.2 million supporters.
Steyer's entrance into the race, however, has been met with some backlash, most notably from the more progressive contenders.
"The Democratic primary should not be decided by billionaires, whether they're funding Super PACs or funding themselves. The strongest Democratic nominee in the general will have a coalition that's powered by a grassroots movement," Massachuetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said on Twitter.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — a longtime skeptic of the ultra-wealthy — told MSNBC that while he liked Steyer personally, he is "tired of seeing billionaires trying to buy political power."
Steyer, nonetheless, pitched himself as an outsider to the political system with a better understanding of the concerns of the public.
"For the last 10 years, I've been working as an outsider trying to get things done according to the will of the people," he said.
Combating the climate crisis, Steyer said, is one of his key priorities.
"Imagine we broke the corporation stranglehold … Imagine that we had a stable natural environment," he said. "We could be in the best position of any people in the history of the world."