Steyer in South Carolina: He Came, He Spent, but Did He Conquer?

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Tom Steyer’s prolific spending in South Carolina has earned him a distinction shared most prominently by Google: His name has been turned into a verb.

“We’re literally calling it ‘Steyered’ here,” Colleen Condon, the chair of the Charleston County Democratic Party, said Thursday. “It means you can buy anything you want. You can afford the most ads and afford the most staffers.”

The term has become part of South Carolina’s contemporary political lexicon as the state’s Democrats debate the impact Mr. Steyer, a California billionaire, has had on the run-up to this year’s primary, which takes place on Saturday. His campaign has showered money across the state, especially among the African-American community, hiring black-owned vendors and minority staff members. But his lavish spending has led to accusations of vote-buying and soul-searching among Democrats worried that apparent conflicts of interest and unseemly financial arrangements are tarnishing the state party’s image.

There have also been allegations, both public and private, that the Steyer campaign crossed ethical lines in its use of money by placing state lawmakers who endorsed him, or their family members, on his payroll.

Former State Representative Fletcher N. Smith Jr., for example, said that he was offended when a staff member for Mr. Steyer came to his law office in Greenville several months ago and suggested that he become a consultant for the campaign, an overture he interpreted as an attempt to purchase his support. “I can’t be bought,” said Mr. Smith, who also formerly served on the Greenville City Council.

And some worry that a billionaire spending so much of his money delivers a distorted message to those who might seek office.

“It seems to be reinforcing the idea that only those who are wealthy should run for office,” said Brady Quirk-Garvan, the former Charleston County party chair. “I’m trying to find people to run for County Council seats and State House seats and people will say, ‘You know I don’t have money like Steyer does.’”

Lawmakers who have joined Mr. Steyer’s payroll deny there is anything inappropriate about the arrangement, saying their expertise is valuable. And in a statement issued by his campaign, Mr. Steyer said he was insulted by implications that lawmakers were for sale. As for the campaign’s decision to hire lawmakers as advisers, Jimmy Williams, a senior adviser to the campaign, said: “I can’t think of anybody better to hire than a sitting member of the House or Senate to advise us on what their constituents think.”

With polls showing Mr. Steyer in third in the state with 15 to 18 percent of the vote, he may win his first delegates of the race, but beyond that it is not clear exactly what he has accomplished other than increasing his name recognition. Still, he has definitely left South Carolinians a little more prosperous, even as some of his spending has prompted questions of impropriety.

While running for office, Mr. Steyer also has donated generously to sponsor Democratic Party activities, like get-out-the-vote drives.

Mr. Steyer quit his hedge fund nearly a decade ago and pledged to give away much of his money, becoming known as a climate change activist and a leader in the movement to impeach President Trump. He entered the presidential race in July in what was viewed as a surprising move. By October, he had become a formidable political and financial force in South Carolina, recalls Ms. Condon.

Everything Mr. Steyer’s campaign has done here seems super sized. He has saturated the market with an estimated $18 million in television spending alone, dwarfing every other candidate, and his mostly homegrown ground staff of more than 100 workers helps arrange catered meals unfailingly at his campaign events.

Ms. Condon said that when the Charleston County Democrats decided to hold a political event called Blue Jamboree last October and asked the presidential candidates to be paid sponsors, Mr. Steyer’s campaign was enthusiastic.

“Steyer not only sponsored, he asked what else he could sponsor,” Ms. Condon said. “Could he sponsor lunch for the press? He also hired the Benedict College marching band to come perform. We told him that, ‘You realize if you’re bringing people in, you have to buy tickets for them.’ So he gave us over $4,500 to bring in Benedict College.”

The band from the historically black college in Columbia — which Ms. Condon said was also compensated by Mr. Steyer’s campaign — came by bus (also supplied by Mr. Steyer) to Charleston and played at the event.

“Honestly, I’m not against Steyer’s message, but it’s an enviable position,” said Ms. Condon, who recently endorsed Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Ind. “Certainly Steyer’s campaign has what most candidates wish for — unlimited money.”

Mr. Quirk-Garvan has raised questions about whether Mr. Steyer has used financial inducements to grow the list of state officials endorsing him.

James H. Hodges, a former governor who is now president of McGuireWoods Consulting, said the practice is not new.

“He’s not the first candidate nor will he be the last that puts people on the payroll,’’ Mr. Hodges said. “It’s an art form in Iowa and New Hampshire, so he’s not unique in that regard. But I think what’s drawn attention is just the amount.”

One addition to Mr. Steyer’s list of endorsers this week was Representative Michael Rivers of Beaufort County, who had previously supported Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, but decided to switch his allegiance five days before the primary.

Mr. Rivers, an ordained minister, introduced Mr. Steyer at an event in Hilton Head, where a mostly white group of about 200 retirees were treated to breakfast. “One thing we know, he’s not cheap,” Mr. Rivers quipped in making the introduction, prompting a tweeted response from Mr. Quirk-Garvan, who raised questions about Mr. Rivers’ sudden change of heart.

Mr. Rivers did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Mr. Rivers was the latest addition to Mr. Steyer’s camp, making him one of 13 current and former state legislators who have endorsed Mr. Steyer. Several of them have been named paid campaign advisers, including Representative Jerry N. Govan of Orangeburg County, the head of the state legislature’s Black Caucus.

Among the list of endorsers is Representative Leola Robinson-Simpson of Greenville, whose son and niece are on Mr. Steyer’s campaign payroll.

In a letter published in the Greenville News this week, Ms. Robinson-Simpson praised Mr. Steyer’s education platform.

“If anyone thinks Miss Leola can be bought, they’re wrong,” Mr. Williams said. “This is a woman who sat in jail for being black.”

Ms. Robinson-Simpson also did not respond to messages seeking comment.

When both Mr. Quirk-Garvan and State Senator Richard A. Harpootlian, who are both white, publicly criticized the practice of hiring lawmakers who endorse campaigns, their comments were criticized as racist, a charge repeated Friday by Mr. Williams of the Steyer campaign.

This week, two black current and former politicians in the state — Mr. Fletcher and Brandon P. Brown, who ran for Congress in 2018 — said in interviews with The New York Times that they also had misgivings about the practice.

“African-Americans are not for sale,” said Mr. Brown, of Greenville, who worked on former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s 2008 presidential campaign. “This is not plantation politics. It’s almost shameful if you go into a state and say, ‘I’ve got a check for you if you will support me.’ That’s exactly what politics has become in a billionaire’s club.”

Mr. Brown initially supported Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, but now he supports Mr. Biden, as does Mr. Fletcher.

Mr. Fletcher said of Mr. Steyer: “I’m not interested in your money. I’m interested in good government.”

Another issue that has drawn scrutiny is the pursuit of grants from the philanthropies operated by Mr. Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor.

A prominent minister ignited a social media outcry two weeks ago when he said his church was applying for a grant from one of the Steyer foundations — the same day Ms. Taylor was set to hold a campaign event at the church.

Kate Franch, chair of the Greenville County Democratic Party, said Steyer campaign staff members had approached her inquiring about community organizations that might be worthy of grants.

“My understanding is that there’s a process to apply for money,” Ms. Franch said. “The campaign knew about it. The staffers were to be on the lookout for community organizations.”

Mr. Williams, the campaign adviser, said: “I don’t think any campaign worker should bring up anything about the foundations.” He said that Mr. Steyer and Ms. Taylor had removed themselves from foundation activities during the campaign.

Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a professor of law at Notre Dame, said that donations to charity by political candidates could be legally problematic, but only if something is expected in return.

“If he donates money as a quid pro quo — that’s a problem,” Mr. Mayer said. “That would be bribery.”

“But if it’s basically, look, I went to South Carolina, I saw all these great charities, I reached into my pocket and gave them something, that’s not a problem,” said Mr. Mayer, an expert in election and nonprofit law.

As Ms. Condon pointed out, all of Mr. Steyer’s spending may not help his standing in Saturday’s primary, known here as “First in the South.”

After that, it’s on to Super Tuesday when he faces an even bigger money machine, the billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg, who is not on the South Carolina ballot.

“He’s Steyering it, but he’s going to be out-Steyered by Bloomberg,” Ms. Condon predicted.

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