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Tom Steyer's campaign to impeach Trump strikes a chord with both sides

Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer has pulled off a rarity in this hyper-charged partisan age: He raised the ire of both President Donald Trump and the president's Democratic nemesis, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

That unlikely pairing is thanks to the $10 million worth of nationwide TV ads calling for Trump's impeachment that Steyer launched in late October.

The president lashed out at Steyer in a tweet, deriding him as "wacky & totally unhinged." Pelosi expressed her displeasure behind closed doors, reportedly telling party leaders that Steyer's campaign could distract from tangible Democratic efforts to stifle Trump's Washington agenda.

But the ad clearly resonated with Trump's detractors and supporters: 1.5 million people have signed Steyer's online petition supporting impeachment. Along with airing during the World Series, the spot ran on Fox News only to be pulled over negative reactions from viewers, according to the network.

The impeachment campaign has also again stirred speculation over whether Steyer might launch a bid for office in California. Steyer has been weighing a run for California governor for more than a year, long enough for some California Democrats to express fatigue over his continuous flirtations.

Steyer also hasn't ruled out a run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who already faces a challenge from fellow Democratic state Senate leader Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles and other members of her own party. Feinstein, not coincidentally, caught heat from California liberals in September when she refused to back the idea of impeaching of Trump.

That's on top of Steyer's other forays into politics and public policy. The former hedge fund manager from San Francisco has spent millions bankrolling Democratic candidates and progressive ballot measures, registering voters across the nation and offering legal protection to farmworkers and immigrants who entered the country illegally.

He helped launch campaigns to encourage immigrants to run for office, and he supports battles against seven vulnerable California Republicans in Congress. On Tuesday, Steyer will be in Virginia to rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, who's in a tight race against former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie. And there's the tens of millions Steyer's nonprofit, NextGen America, has spent on environmental and other causes.

"I think we're in an urgent crisis," Steyer said Thursday. "I'm willing to do anything, including run for office."

A governor's race poll released in March by the University of California, Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies put Steyer's support in the single digits when compared with the well-known Democrats in the race.

That's one reason his skeptics see the impeachment ads, which feature Steyer speaking directly into the camera, soberly laying out his case for "impeaching and removing a dangerous president," as a ploy to raise his profile and prospects, or at the very least compile a mega-database of potential supporters. Steyer faced similar scrutiny when he starred in ads for the successful 2016 California ballot initiative that raised tobacco taxes to help fund healthcare.

Steyer insists the impeachment campaign is not related to his political aspirations, and he dismissed the skepticism about his motives. He said the Democrats who are preaching caution are "going against the will of their constituents" and will have to explain themselves as midterm election day approaches in 2018.

"We feel like the American people are on our side," Steyer said. "This is an attempt to get around some of the convoluted parts of the Washington establishment and let people speak about how they feel. If that upsets people, they have to figure out why."

Steyer said he has not discussed his calls for impeachment with Pelosi. Pelosi told the Los Angeles Times in October that she was urging Democrats to be more measured, saying impeachment should only be about "facts and the law" -- not policy disagreements. According to a report in Politico, Pelosi also told Democratic leaders in Congress that she considers the impeachment campaign an unneeded distraction. The San Francisco congresswoman wants Democrats to focus on policy clashes with Trump and the Republican-led Congress. She sees that as the best strategy for Democrats to retake control of the House next year.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., drafted articles of impeachment against Trump last summer, but his effort hasn't made a modicum of headway in the Republican-controlled House and, when it was introduced, faced resistance from Pelosi and Democrats who considered it premature and believed Trump would "self-impeach." As House speaker, Pelosi fought the failed efforts to impeach President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney during their second terms.

California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman is carefully choosing his words. He praised Steyer for giving a voice to the "anger and the frustration of Democrats and progressives and independents all across the county."

But Bauman, channeling Pelosi, said Democrats might also benefit from staying on the sidelines. Trump is already facing heat over special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation of contacts between Russia and Trump's campaign, and because of the GOP's failure so far to pass any of its major policy priorities.

"Leader Pelosi's point is that sometimes when a train is coming ... barreling at your opponent, the best thing to do is stand out of the way," Bauman said. "Donald Trump will continue to undermine Donald Trump."

As part of his push for impeachment, Steyer also sent letters to Democratic members of Congress calling on them to "make public your positions on the impeachment of Donald Trump and call for his removal from office."

Steyer's letter sent a message from one of the party's most generous and active donors: He has no use for Democrats who preach patience or caution. The letter ended with a not-too-subtle warning that lawmakers' responses would "make it clear where we all stand for Democrats voting in 2018."

Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., who won re-election by less than 3 percentage points in 2016 and is expected to face another tough challenge next year, said he believes Trump has put the country in a "dangerous place." But Bera is also taking a careful approach when it comes to impeachment.

"It takes time to build the case for impeachment, and we're allowing the special counsel to have its investigation run its course," Bera said. "But I think he's tapping into the frustration a lot of people feel right now."

Other Democrats are shrugging off the idea that Steyer's effort could turn into any kind of litmus test for Democratic candidates next year as the party seeks to energize progressive voters to get them to the polls.

"I've been getting maybe a handful of calls to my office, but I don't think it's any change from the calls that I've been getting since Donald Trump has been elected," said Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif. "There hasn't been an uptick or any ground-swelling movement because of the commercials."

(Staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.)

(c)2017 Los Angeles Times

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