By now, chances are you’ve heard of Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund manager turned avid climate activist. He’s thrown upwards of $50 million into the November elections via his super PAC, NextGen Climate, and has made plenty of headlines in the process.
Photo by Theresa Thompson
It’s easy to get excited about Steyer. He is a living, breathing model of self-transformation, a man who made his fortune investing in dirty industries, and then did a complete 180, divesting those funds and becoming an outspoken critic of the fossil fuel industry. He brings money (i.e., power) to the environmental movement, something that has long been in short supply. And though he may not be able to outspend the Koch brothers, he can at least give them a run for their money.
It is the magnitude of his wealth and power, however, that gives some climate activists pause. Steyer is, in many ways, a one-man show. He swooped onto the environmental scene, and with little environmental or political background to speak of, has been able to get meetings and make allies that most climate activists can only dream of. There is no question that Steyer is fighting the good fight, but he is fighting on a battlefield that excludes everyday Americans (and even most one-percenters).
Enter Climate Hawks Vote, a small-scale, donor-funded PAC that provides something of a counterpoint to Steyer’s NextGen. Although both groups share the aim of elevating climate change in politics and government, Climate Hawks Vote is exclusively a grassroots organization, with a budget in the tens of thousands of dollars. Founded by RL Miller and Hunter Cutting earlier this year, Climate Hawks Vote relies on grassroots activism, rather than deep pockets, to back climate hawk leaders, defined on the Climate Hawks Vote website as “those who prioritize and speak on the climate crisis.”
The idea for Climate Hawks Vote was born in 2013, when Miller got wind that Brian Schweitzer, former Governor of Montana, might be running for the US Senate. “I was deeply bothered by the idea of a Democrat who is good on many other aspects of Democratic [Party] values but who also is an open cheerleader for coal,” Miller said. “I had the idea that we need to do is make climate change more of a litmus test within the democratic party than it already is. There are a lot of Democrats who are what I call ‘climate ducks,’ as in, they duck the issue.” Miller wanted to make climate change a “top tier issue,” so that Democratic candidates with poor records on climate change wouldn’t be taken seriously.
Climate Hawks Vote uses two, and only two, tactics to achieve this goal. The first is grassroots organizing, engaging local canvassers in local races around the country. “What we do…is purely on the ground, knock on doors, call voters, phone bank, hold debate watch parties — the real nuts and bolts of grassroots, bottom-up, boots on the ground, field work,” says Miller. “That is one of the ways we are different from some of the other groups.”
Miller’s team keeps its distance from the in-your-face, costly tactics employed by other PACs, including TV ads and glossy mailers. She believes these strategies are ineffective — voters, constantly bombarded by flyers and advertisements, eventually just tune out. Climate Hawks Vote can’t afford these expensive campaigns anyway; the organization’s annual budget would hardly cover a single TV ad.
That’s alright with Miller, who notes that Climate Hawks Vote’s low budget and grassroots funding efforts are part of what makes the group unique. “Climate Hawks Vote is grassroots funded. We depend entirely on small donors,” she says. “We are both choosing to run a shoestring kind of operation, and almost forced to run a shoestring operation.” She also suspects that her grassroots operation has more individual donors — even if donations are for $5, $25, or $50 — than NextGen, which is largely funded from Steyer’s personal checkbook.
Despite the financial and ideological differences, Miller is careful not to criticize Steyer or NextGen Climate, noting that Steyer has made huge strides in getting candidates to talk about climate change. “There is an idea among some politicians that if you talk about climate change enough, Tom Steyer is the guy at the end of the lane with a huge bag of candy that he passes out,” she explains. “As far as I know of his operation, that is not exactly true, but that’s certainly the perception that has been created, that if you talk about climate change you many end up being rewarded. So in that way, his millions have been extremely beneficial.”
In addition to its grassroots advocacy, Climate Hawks Vote employs a scorecard, developed by Miller, which focuses on six metrics of climate activism. Unlike other scorecards that focus on the full spectrum of environmental issues, Miller’s focuses exclusively climate change. The scorecard also emphasizes climate action and leadership, rather than rhetoric or political positioning, filtering out candidates who talk about climate action, but don’t walk the walk. In doing this, the scorecard uses six metrics: public engagement, bills authored, bills cosponsored, websites, press releases, and working caucuses joined and led. Public engagement — including anything from writing an op-ed to showing up at a climate change rally — is the most heavily weighted metric.
“We are focused only on, Number One, electing good Democrats who get the climate crisis, and Number Two, holding them accountable through the scorecard,” Miller explains.
With only two races under its belt, the strategy seems to be working. Climate Hawks Vote has a winning record, claiming victories in primary races in Hawaii and Arizona. The group has set its sights on several November 4 races, providing field support to four candidates in Maine, Michigan, and California, and endorsing a number of additional candidates in New Hampshire, California, South Dakota, Oregon and New Mexico.
As green issues, and particularly climate change, become more prominent in elections, groups like Climate Hawks Vote will have a larger role to play in politics, serving not only as a source of information for voters, but as a valuable point of engagement for those who want to make a donation or hit the pavement.
But there is still a lot of work to be done, and Miller takes a whatever-works outlook when it comes to political activism. “One of the things I’ve learned is that democracy is a big tent, and there’s room for lots of people in that big tent,” she says.
“Some people may be more swayed by League of Conservation Voters… [They] have a very long track record. They’ve been around for 40 years. That may resonate with a particular activist. Another person may be persuaded by Tom Steyer’s deep pockets… Another person may be persuaded by the fact that we are this small, scrappy, underfunded, grassroots alternative to both of the bigger organizations.”
Still, one can’t help but wonder what Climate Hawks Vote could do with a budget even one one-hundredth the size of NextGen’s.