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California environmental advocate invests in Virginia governor's race

California billionaire Thomas Steyer is taking his fight against climate change to Virginia, helping to buy TV ads criticizing Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli.

August 07, 2013|By Neela Banerjee
  • California hedge-fund billionaire Thomas Steyer, a longtime donor to liberal causes and politicians.
California hedge-fund billionaire Thomas Steyer, a longtime donor to… (Karl Mondon / Contra Costa…)

WASHINGTON — California billionaire and clean energy philanthropist Thomas Steyer is spending $400,000 on television ads critical of Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, the latest effort by the former hedge-fund-manager-turned-environmental activist to inject climate change into statewide elections.

Steyer's donation through his political action fund, NextGen Climate Action, helped widen distribution of a League of Conservation Voters ad against Cuccinelli from northern Virginia to Norfolk, Richmond and Charlottesville, starting Wednesday night.

The ad slams Cuccinelli, Virginia's attorney general, as a "climate change denier" who allegedly wasted taxpayer money on litigation aimed at obtaining the personal emails of a leading climate scientist from the University of Virginia. Cuccinelli lost the case. He is running for governor against Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and close advisor to the Clintons.

Although Steyer is a longtime donor to liberal causes and politicians, he has changed his approach over the last year, retiring from San Francisco-based Farallon Capital Management in October to focus on direct activism. He has become one of the loudest voices in the nationwide movement to pressure President Obama to reject the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, largely because of what critics say is its potential to increase heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

In early 2013, Steyer launched NextGen Climate Action to make climate change a crucial issue in campaigns. His backing of the anti-Cuccinelli ad is the opening salvo of what spokesman Brian Mahar said would become a deeper involvement in the Virginia race, with more ads and a get-out-the-vote effort likely rolling out after Labor Day.

"It's really about making sure that climate is an issue that people are voting on," Mahar said. "And Tom is reaching out to voters who care and can be activated and then getting them to the polls."

The Republican Party of Virginia responded with a detailed critique of Farallon's investments, under the headline, "Meet Terry McAuliffe's environmental sugar daddy Tom Steyer. San Francisco liberal expected to spend millions promoting McAuliffe's job-killing agenda."

Republicans point to Farallon's lucrative investments in the fossil fuel industry during Steyer's tenure. Steyer, who was not available for comment, has said in the past that he decided to leave Farallon because those investments did not square with his realization that climate change was the "defining issue of our generation." In early July, he said his divestment from fossil fuel companies would be complete by the end of the year.

Steyer donated more than $1 million this spring to getting Democrat and climate change crusader Edward J. Markey elected senator from Massachusetts. That effort hit bumps early on as Steyer's aggressive intervention was initially rebuffed by Markey himself and the Boston Globe, which called the billionaire a bully.

But McAuliffe seems to be embracing Steyer.

Brennan Bilberry, a spokesman for McAuliffe, said Steyer's ad buy would be reported as an "in-kind" donation to the campaign.

"Cuccinelli's harassment of the University of Virginia showed he was willing to waste taxpayer money and embarrass Virginia simply because climate science offends his personal ideology," Bilberry said.

Unlike the Massachusetts race, in which Markey was the odds-on favorite, the Virginia governor's race is a tossup, analysts and polls say. Both candidates have been dogged by controversy: Cuccinelli for $18,000 in gifts from a Virginia businessman that, until recently, went undisclosed; and McAuliffe for having run an electric-car start-up that is facing two federal investigations.

Each man is abhorred by the other's base. But a lot of voters in the middle have yet to make up their minds and probably won't tune in until after Labor Day, said Geoffrey Skelley, an analyst with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Skelley said that running the anti-Cuccinelli ads in urban markets beyond the northern Virginia suburbs could begin to motivate the voters who need to turn out for a Democratic victory.

Moreover, although the economy is still an important issue, it is on solid enough footing in many parts of Virginia that "it creates an opportunity for other issues to be introduced into the race," Skelley said.

In a George Mason University survey last month of 2,000 Virginia adults, 74% of respondents said they considered climate change at least somewhat important, and a majority said they had personally felt its impact.

The survey suggests Steyer might be able to get some voters to consider a candidate's stance on climate change as a touchstone issue. But the barrage of negative news about both candidates could make it hard to be heard.

"The scandals could end up getting all the publicity," Skelley said.

neela.banerjee@latimes.com

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