Not too long ago, Tom Steyer, the billionaire Democrat who flooded the airwaves with an incessant push to impeach President Trump, was virtually everywhere.
Now, he’s hardly visible.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread rapidly, some of the nation’s wealthiest individuals are evaluating ways to help those most in need. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spent nearly $1 billion to self-fund his short presidential campaign, committed through his philanthropy to giving $40 million to a global response fund and was part of a $75 million impact fund for his city. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, another billionaire who briefly considered running for president in 2020, has given to help cover the salaries of arena workers during the stalled economy.
“The country would be a far better place if the entire country, starting with big money donors and PACs, committed to redirect any and all political donations to supporting those in this country that have suffered because of the virus,” Cuban told The Daily Beast.
But when it came to advice about what Steyer and other high-dollar political donors should do in the midst of the pandemic, Cuban demurred. “They should do what they think is right,” he said. “Not up to me to judge.”
Reached by The Daily Beast on Monday, an aide to Steyer simply said: “Tom [is] still assessing his role in this crisis and the campaign going forward.”
Steyer, a top Democratic Party donor, spent over $300 million on his presidential bid before abruptly ending it late last month. But as health concerns around COVID-19 deepen, some are wondering why the billionaire Democrat has been largely missing from the response. His organizations NextGen America and Need to Impeach have not run any advertising on coronavirus to date on Facebook, including warning the public about precautions, according to data from Democratic digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive shared with The Daily Beast. And his Twitter feed is sporadic, with only occasional tweets about coronavirus, in addition to an ongoing thread of book recommendations.
“With many of us stuck at home, I thought I'd share some of the books that shaped my thinking on our climate crisis. I hope they inspire you the way they've challenged me to tackle this crisis head on. I'll keep sharing here, so follow along!” Steyer tweeted on Friday.
To some, the lack of public spending has raised questions.
“People who have that kind of money to spend, it would be fantastic if they pitched in,” said Vincent Perrone, president of Teamsters Local 804, a union that represents UPS workers in New York. “They pick a cause because they want to be relevant, but it’s a national emergency.”
Perrone, whose union represents 7,300 people across Long Island, New York City, and into Westchester county, said he’s realistic about the lack of available essentials, like masks or gloves for his workers. “If a billionaire philanthropist would be able to pull 10,950 face masks out of his ass and hand it to my local it would be fantastic,” he said. “I know there’s no supply out there.”
But he said a contribution in any form from ultra-wealthy individuals could go a long way to help his members get their basic needs met. “Even putting pressure or shifting some of their wealth to this factory’s production because it’s closed right now,” he said, throwing out a hypothetical scenario of giving. “We’ll take any help.”
Other questions have already started to surface about the billionaire’s intention to give. When asked by anchor Christiane Amanpour in a recent interview on PBS about the Senate’s deadlock over the rescue package, and how he views his role in helping to alleviate the burden of the pandemic, Steyer pointed to his role in progressive politics.
“The money I’ve spent, for years, [is] to try and enable the broadest possible democracy to support progressive candidates,” Steyer said on Monday. “I did it right through my campaign, I continue to do it today, it will be bigger than it’s ever been in 2020. That’s the kind of effort I believe in.”
“Coronavirus is a perfect example. So is climate. So is health care. We need a sea change in American politics and American leadership,” he added.
Jacob Harold, the executive vice president of Candid, a non-profit research organization, said his group has “carefully” tracked over $2.2 billion in spending globally to fight COVID-19. But without a central place to write a large check, assessing where to spend money effectively can be a tricky process.
“It’s not like there’s the obvious place where you can write a $10 million check, he said. “Spending money well is not always easy.”
Harold noted there are four categories that giving can be sorted into in the midst of a crisis, including relief, support, medical research, and future resilience. Within those, there’s a “strong argument to be made” that Steyer, who has donated considerably over the years to tackle the issue of climate change, could likely fit into the last category.
Still, as a major force in party politics, Steyer has spent publicly in the recent past to meet the needs of the moment, including dropping $123 million to help Democrats flip the House in 2018, and millions the following year on television ads during the height of the impeachment trial against Trump. While the public health nature of the crisis has touched every corner of life, the response has been steeped in partisanship, leading from the Republican-controlled White House and Senate.
In the early hours on Wednesday morning, the White House and Senate leaders reached a deal on a proposed $2 trillion package to serve as relief to the suffering economy. The legislation could arrive on Trump’s desk as soon as Thursday evening.
While Steyer’s group NextGen America, one of the biggest grassroots organizations in the country, urged supporters to “send a message to Congress: Take emergency action on COVID-19,” through a new page on its website, there was no indication Steyer financially contributed. Instead, the website includes a list of action items for officials in Washington, including giving direct cash assistance and providing free health care to anyone impacted by the virus.
“I haven’t seen anything publicly yet from Steyer,” said Maria Di Mento, an expert in the area of billionaire donors who writes for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “Just because it’s not happening publicly doesn’t mean it's not happening. It just means we don’t know about it.”
If Steyer were to make a sizable public gift, however, some experts said it could encourage others to do so as well.
“Money draws money,” said Michael Thatcher, the president of Charity Navigator, the country’s largest independent evaluator of charities. “What I would love to see is more public giving right now because that would encourage others to do the same.”
Thatcher indicated that one of the ways Steyer could be useful is to be as specific as possible about what his money should be spent on.
“Is it a time to give? Absolutely. This is a huge time to give,” he said. “Doing nothing is worse than just picking one and sticking to it.”