Call Him a Progressive, Tom Steyer Asks, but Don’t Call Him Rich

San Francisco — Tom Steyer is a former hedge fund investor and a billionaire. Those things could be a liability for a man running for president as a progressive. But Mr. Steyer, who this month joined a field of — what is it now? — 24 people, argued this was a selling point.

“Now you know, I know everybody always describes me as being rich.That is not how I see myself,” he told an audience at a bookstore here Wednesday night. “But I can tell you this, the one thing it does give me is the right to say nobody owns me. I mean I will do exactly what I think is right.”

Fighting inequality is one of his priorities, he said, and his wealth is a sign of his ability to finance that fight. He plans to spend $100 million of it on the race.

A little more than a week after officially announcing that he is running to be the Democratic presidential nominee, Mr. Steyer chose a progressive bookstore and event space for his first campaign stop in his hometown.

He sat in a blue velvet chair with his sleeves rolled up. Behind him was a portrait of local housing activists. The audience of about 150 was somewhat wary, young and many worked in tech.

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Mr. Steyer is a 62-year-old philanthropist who has spent the last seven years campaigning for progressive causes such as clean energy, youth voter turnout, and, more recently, impeaching President Trump. It was his effort there that made him a headache for the Democratic establishment, who were unsettled by a series of self-funded ads Mr. Steyer ran — starring Mr. Steyer — calling to impeach Mr. Trump.

“He’s a criminal,” Mr. Steyer said of the president on Wednesday. “He’s a threat to the Constitution, and he’s dangerous for the American people.”

But his background may get in the way of that progressive image. He made his fortune as the founder of Farallon Capital, a hedge fund invested in coal mines and coal-fired power plants, as well as private prisons, among other industries.

If Mr. Trump ran as the billionaire of the people, appealing to working-class Republicans and swing voters, Mr. Steyer is a very California billionaire: a denim shirt, a tan, and a hip activist wife.

And since he announced his run, his wealth has been the story, as he jockeys to be seen as a radical for change.

“Should we put a limit on what Beyoncé makes?” he asked a reporter for the Guardian.

Billionaire doesn’t appear to be a great brand among a Democratic base calling for single-payer health care. Former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg decided not to run when he figured that out, and the campaign for Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, fizzled.

Onstage, Mr. Steyer, a soft-spoken man with sandy blond hair, fielded questions.

“Why? Why have you decided to run for president, Tom,” the moderator and venue owner Manny Yekutiel, 29, asked, kicking the evening off.

Mr. Steyer said he believes he is the only person willing to fight Mr. Trump.

I am more than willing to take this fight on if no one else will,” Mr. Steyer said. “And I don’t see anyone else who sees it’s a very simple fight. It’s hard. But it’s not complicated.”

For locals, Mr. Steyer’s run for president is a curious quest. Even as he has worked to grow his image nationally, he is hardly a household name in San Francisco. No one was peering in the windows. It was a quiet evening in a cozy event space.

Asked how he could have empathy for people in less privileged positions, Mr. Steyer talked about the importance of eye contact.

If you see someone and have the conversation with them, they’re not a statistic anymore,” Mr. Steyer said. “That is something that you now own in your heart.

He pointed to his work with NextGen America, an environmental advocacy nonprofit and progressive political action committee, which has brought him into contact with people of different backgrounds, as well as his more recent pro-impeachment town halls and the start of his campaign.

I said to the woman next to me, probably a 20-year-old African-American woman going to UNC Greensboro or maybe to the historically black college next door, and I said, ‘What is the biggest issue for you?’”

This is how he has gotten to understand the needs of American voters, he said.

Many in the room wanted to know why an older white male should win the nomination over some of the female candidates or candidates of color.

“What are you saying to that question, that it’s time for someone that doesn’t look like Tom Steyer to be our president,” Mr. Yekutiel asked.

Mr. Steyer responded: “Look, I think the question here is about vision. The question for us is going to be what is the vision that Americans can support and rally around.”

Throughout the evening, he gave long, thoughtful, sometimes wandering answers to questions. It was warm, and the demure audience became more so as the night wore on. Many yawned. Someone looked to be asleep on the sofa.

Mr. Steyer said strongly progressive lines that ought to cause a stir, but somehow, in his delivery, the zingers did not always rouse. The ones that got the biggest applause were his digs at Mr. Trump. His announcement video is four minutes long and did not go viral.

Before Mr. Steyer began his run, his wife, Kat, maxed out on contributions to Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington.

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“We need to take the government back from big business,” Mr. Steyer said. “They’ve bought the democracy.”

The evening ended, and Mr. Steyer’s hometown audience stayed around at the bookshop, drinking wine.

“I had my concerns that he was just a distraction,” said Alexandra Ballato, 25, who works in farm relations and produce buying. “But he’s impressed me with his modesty.”

“He’s the most low-key billionaire ever,” said Daisy Pistey-Lyhne, 37, a climate and sustainability consultant.

Many in the audience were involved in environmental activism and appreciated his work in the field. They were curious and open minded about this new local candidate. The event had sold out several weeks before.

“I like what he’s done with climate action,” said Carol DiBenedetto, who works as a consultant on climate and water issues. “I just wonder why he’s getting involved when there are candidates who say similar things.”

Some wished he would spend his money boosting other candidates and causes.

“I would love to see him take the $100 million he’s spending on his campaign and plow that into progressive causes rather than running for president even though that might be more high-profile,” said Jonathan Lack, 27, a software engineer.

But the word that kept coming up was billionaire.

“I’d heard of him before just because he’s a random billionaire,” said Henry Grunzweig, a 26-year-old who works in education technology in San Francisco. “I guess I’m curious how an old white man billionaire is going to beat an old white man billionaire.”

As fighting inequality becomes the rallying cry of the left, many were confused what it might mean to have such a rich person running as a progressive.

“He said grass roots a lot, but I wonder how true that is when you can fund your own campaign,” said Evan Hynes, 28, who runs the eco-friendly job hunting site Climate.Careers. “Is there a person who can be a billionaire in politics and not be a bad guy?”

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