CHARLESTON, S.C. — Presidential candidate Tom Steyer says he is hoping that when Democrats meet on a debate stage Tuesday, they focus less on arguing over nondisclosure agreements and personal wealth, and more on taking on President Donald Trump. The investor and activist qualified for the 10th Democratic debate after increasing his poll numbers in South Carolina, which holds its primary Saturday.
Steyer’s comment highlights the backlash faced by the other billionaire Democratic candidate in the race, Michael Bloomberg, over his history of having at least three former female employees sign nondisclosure agreements related to alleged offensive comments he made. During the last debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pointedly criticized Bloomberg for the agreements and accused him of buying his way onto the stage through a blitz of political advertising.
Steyer, who didn’t qualify for the last debate, told the PBS NewsHour that spending time discussing nondisclosure agreements are a distraction.
“The attitude you have towards women matters,” Steyer said. “If you could show that there was something really wrong, that really matters. But something that says, ‘There could have been something wrong,’ and they have a nondisclosure agreement– I don’t think that rises to the level of a presidential debate.”
Steyer said he felt that Trump “won” the last debate because “people spent their time talking about minor, irrelevant points to try and tear each other down, when in fact the real question is, what you are going to do for the American people that’s different and better?”
After Steyer poured millions of dollars of his own personal wealth into running ads and hiring campaign staff in South Carolina, he said he, too, expects to be attacked by some candidates over his affluence.
“I’m not going to apologize for being a success,” Steyer said. “If I were a person who is totally self-absorbed and selfish, then I’d have something to be embarrassed about. I’m not embarrassed about starting a business, succeeding in a business and using everything I can to try and work for the American people. That’s exactly what I’m doing.”
Early on in its history, his hedge fund invested in fossil fuels and private prisons– two sectors criticized by many Democrats. When asked if those investments were a mistake, Steyer affirmed that it was, and that he had corrected it on his own by disinvesting in those industries. “I really care about these issues,” he said, adding that attacks based on that history “are low political blows.”
A poll released Monday by NBC news and Marist shows former Vice President Joe Biden leading in South Carolina with 27 percent of support. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, currently seen as the Democratic front-runner, is just four points behind. Steyer is in third place with 15 percent.
To Steyer, criticism of his spending in South Carolina is offensive to the black voters who make up the majority of Democratic primary voters in the state — and with whom he has made inroads.
“We’re out here renting rooms and hiring people to work,” Steyer said of his campaign operation. “Every time somebody hires a black person and they go into a community, somehow that’s buying influence. No one ever says that when you go and hire white people.”
Steyer said that “the implication is that black people are there to be bought and that we’re trying to do it, that’s not true,” he said. “That’s what you do when you organize politically. You get people from the community, you hire staff in the community so you can work in the community.”