Pro-impeachment billionaire Tom Steyer makes late entry into Democratic race

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By Alex Seitz-Wald  with NBC News Politics
Image: Tom Steyer
Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer arrives to speak during a news conference on Jan. 8, 2018 in Washington.   -   Copyright  Carolyn Kaster AP

WASHINGTON — Billionaire activist Tom Steyer declared his candidacy for the presidency on Tuesday in a video, reversing an earlier announcement several months ago that he intended to sit out the 2020 Democratic primary race.

"The other Democratic candidates for president have many great ideas that will absolutely move our country forward, but we won't be able to get any of those done until we end the hostile corporate takeover of our democracy," Steyer said in a statement released alongside his announcement video. "As an outsider, I've led grassroots efforts that have taken on big corporations and won results for people. That's not something you see a lot of from Washington these days. That's why I'm running for president."

While he is not well known and the candidate field is already overstuffed with two dozen candidates, Steyer's money could give him an edge, as could the extensive email list of 8.3 million names compiled by a group he founded to push for the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Steyer is a leading proponent of removing the president from office,which has led to a Twitter grudge match with fellow billionaire Trump, who has called him a "weirdo."

But as Trump did in 2016, Steyer is pitching himself as incorruptible by corporate interests thanks to his vast personal wealth, of which he has pledged to donate half to charity.

The Californian made a fortune through a hedge fund he founded, and has spent the past few years devoting that wealth to favorite political causes including impeachment, engaging young voters and fighting climate change.

He founded the "Need to Impeach" group and seeded it with tens of millions of dollars, which has gone toward TV ads that often feature Steyer as well as campaign-style events.

Steyer and his wife have contributed over $238 million to political campaigns and groups, making them the second biggest political donors of all time, behind only Republican casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Steyer had long eyed a run for public office and last year actively prepared for a 2020 presidential bid.

In January, he traveled to Iowa for an announcement, fueling speculation he intended launch a campaign — only to pull a U-turn at the last minute and say he wouldn't be running after all. Instead, Steyer said he would dedicate "100% of my time and effort" toward seeking Trump's impeachment.

In the months that followed, many Steyer staffers who had been expecting to work for a presidential campaign left his orbit to join other Democratic White House contenders, including those of former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who shares Steyer's focus on climate change.

But Steyer changed his mind again recently.

Heather Hargreaves, who currently runs NextGen, a group Steyer founded, is expected to serve as his campaign manager, while the billionaire also recently brought on board Doug Rubin, a former adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who has ruled out a 2020 run.

Steyer enters the 2020 race the day after Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., dropped out.

With 24 candidates and only 20 slots on stage at the second debate later this month, Steyer is unlikely to meet the qualifications in time, but can try for the third debate in September.

He is expected to head to New York City later this week for a round of media appearances, then will spend the rest of the month traveling to early presidential primary and caucus states.