I attended Tom Steyer’s town hall meeting held mid-December at the Falls Event Center in Fresno. Though I have been following Mr. Steyer for some time now, I had not seen him speak. I came away from the event struck by the many personal strengths he possesses: most notably his impressive intellect, his honest, principled approach to problem-solving, and (perhaps most refreshing) his apparent lack of ego, freeing him to really listen to the communities he aims to help.
These attributes should be basic job qualifications for those entering public life; yet, one doesn’t have to look far to see how we the people are not always picking such individuals to lead us. It’s easy to see how Mr. Steyer’s approach sets him apart from certain elected officials, but his strengths also distinguish him from a range of exceedingly wealthy people who have stepped forward and offered to help solve our country’s problems. Mr. Steyer brings something to the table that is qualitatively different that I think makes him worthy of our attention and respect.
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I first heard about Mr. Steyer through my son, who interviewed him for a podcast. Listening to the interview, I was stuck by Mr. Steyer’s intelligence and clearheaded vision, and it was this same sharp thinking on display at the town hall event. He is a natural educator, boiling down complicated issues to their most essential ingredients. He was asked a variety of questions by people in the town hall audience, and was able to respond in a manner that was easily understood and readily absorbed.
Out of a deep concern for the environment, Mr. Steyer founded NextGen Climate (now NextGen America) in 2013. According to its website, NextGen America acts politically to prevent climate disaster, promote prosperity and protect the fundamental rights of every American. So, through his actions as a private citizen, he has already dedicated substantial time and resources to environmental protection and social justice.
In addition to that work, Mr. Steyer’s efforts to call out Mr. Trump’s lack of fitness for duty further highlights his principled approach. When asked at the town hall meeting about his “Need to Impeach” initiative, Mr. Steyer made it clear he is not playing games. He believes it is imperative for a democracy to have an honest, trustworthy and patriotic head of state, and he cited evidence for how Mr. Trump does not meet these criteria. With his Need to Impeach movement in its second year, Mr. Steyer is looking prescient: Mounting evidence of wrongdoing suggests that impeachment of Mr. Trump is not out of the question. When asked at the town hall meeting if it wouldn’t be better to just wait until 2020 when Mr. Trump could simply be voted out of office, Mr. Steyer demurred. On this point, history is actually on his side: Allowing Richard M. Nixon to complete his presidential term would have had disastrous implications for our republic.
Mr. Steyer, however, is also visionary enough to see that simply getting rid of an unfit, dishonest president is not sufficient to put America on a healthy course. For this reason, he is traveling the country touting 5 Basic Rights for the 21st Century: the right to an equal vote; the right to clean air and clean water; the right to learn; the right to earn a living wage; and the right to health. Mr. Steyer maintains that these rights must be enjoyed by all citizens in order for our country to function at its most stable, creative and prosperous level, and I couldn’t agree more.
In his inclusive style, Mr. Steyer took feedback about his rights initiative from the audience. Dolores Huerta, an American labor leader and civil rights activist who, with Cesar Chavez, was a co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association (now United Farm Workers), was in attendance. Ms. Huerta suggested that the right to a living wage is not sufficiently broad and that people are concerned about their overall economic security. A living wage is an important part of economic security, but she outlined other stumbling blocks for her constituency. Mr. Steyer was clearly paying attention and welcomed the feedback. He seemed conscious of the dangers of a well-meaning “expert” stepping in with solutions that are untethered to the deep knowledge and resources that underserved communities bring to the table. Mr. Steyer has a track record of creating space in the conversation for groups who are traditionally underrepresented. This creates a higher likelihood that proposed solutions will have resonance with the desires of the communities targeted for help.
Tom Steyer may or may not run for political office, but, regardless, he is an impressive individual committed to fighting good fights. I am quite thankful he has chosen to bring his personal strengths and substantial resources to bear on some of the most urgent issues facing our country today. He is smart, principled, and inclusive — a stark contrast to what is playing out on the national stage.
E. Kirsten Honeyman is a newly retired clinical psychologist in Fresno. Her blog: LaDolceVitaCalifornia.com.