California big money dreamin’ and the 2016 election

Three multimillionaires are staking a claim on this year’s ballot

From left to right, Tom Steyer, Charles Munger Jr. and Sean Parker are three of the state’s biggest donors this election season.

From left to right, Tom Steyer, Charles Munger Jr. and Sean Parker are three of the state’s biggest donors this election season.

Photos courtesy of Carl Costas/CALMatters, Brian Baer/APImages and Cyril Attias

This story was produced by CALMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media outlet covering California policies and politics. Learn more at

California has more billionaires than any other state, and an abundance of direct democracy. Those two facts intersect during election season, when spending by wealthy donors helps determine which initiatives make it on the ballot, and how many TV commercials and mailers campaigns can buy.

Here’s a look at three high-rollers influencing California’s statewide ballot this November.

Tom Steyer

The San Francisco billionaire—who exited the hedge-fund world a few years ago to devote himself to Democratic politics and environmental causes—is now the biggest individual super-PAC donor in the nation. He’s put $38 million into a committee running ads against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and working to register new voters in battleground states.

Even though deep-blue California isn’t a swing state, Steyer is digging deep here too. He’s spent $1.6 million so far on a major drive to register new voters, largely young adults and people of color, Steyer called their lack of participation a “threat to democracy.”

He appears prominently in TV ads urging people to vote—fueling speculation that he plans to run for governor in two years. Steyer said he’ll make that call after the election. Until then, he’s concentrating on the upcoming ballot.

“It is really important that California become more progressive,” he said.

In a state with a long list of liberal ballot measures, Steyer and his political organization, NextGen Climate group, are boosting some of the most progressive causes. So far, he has given $1 million to Proposition 56, which would hike cigarette taxes by $2 a pack to fund the Medi-Cal health plan for the poor, and $50,000 to Prop. 67, which would ban plastic shopping bags. He also recently endorsed Prop. 62 to repeal the death penalty; his aide said a financial contribution is forthcoming.

NextGen even gave $61,000 to a campaign opposing money in politics. Prop. 59 asks voters if they want elected officials to take steps to repeal Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed unions and corporations to spend unlimited sums on political campaigns.

Steyer said he looks for ballot measures that represent contests between ordinary Californians and major corporations trying to preserve their bottom line. Though health care interests have donated roughly $17 million to support the tobacco tax, cigarette companies have poured almost $56 million into opposing it, while plastic bag manufacturers have given $6.1 million to defeat the bag ban.

He frames his support for repealing Citizens United in similar terms, saying the Supreme Court’s ruling created a “David and Goliath situation” in American politics. Even as the nation’s largest super-PAC donor, Steyer identifies more with David. He calls his own political spending “a counterweight to what we see as an overwhelming amount of money representing corporate interests.”

Charles Munger Jr.

A physicist who lives in Palo Alto, Munger is California’s biggest Republican donor and the son of a corporate billionaire.

In addition to funding GOP candidates, Munger has a long history of supporting ballot measures that have gradually altered the state’s political landscape by chipping away at power held by Democrats and their allies in organized labor. He contributed to past measures that created a neutral body to redraw legislative and congressional districts, and paved the way for the state’s open primary system.

This year, Munger has poured $7.9 million into Prop. 54. It goes after the Legislature’s practice of writing and passing some bills at the last minute, without giving the public much chance to weigh in. The measure would require that all bills be published at least 72 hours before a vote.

“No one citizen benefits from transparency so much that they would take the Legislature on over this, but everyone will benefit considerably,” Munger said.

Prop. 54 is endorsed by several chambers of commerce and groups that promote open government.

“Our democracy is stronger the more we have more people participating,” said supporter Helen Hutchison, president of the League of Women Voters of California, adding that the measure is not partisan.

But Munger is the sole financial donor to Prop. 54, prompting critics to say that the measure is not about philanthropy but about evening the political playing field for Republicans and their business allies. With Democrats holding a solid majority in the Legislature, last-minute maneuvers typically pass despite Republican objections.

Munger says he’s “under no illusions” that his idea would face any less resistance if he were pushing a transparency measure in a Republican-dominated state.

“Whoever thinks they control the government never really wants a transparent government if they have an agenda that would best be moved by keeping the public ignorant.”

Sean Parker

One of California’s marquee tech moguls is dropping big money into two California ballot measures. Sean Parker, the billionaire founder of Napster and first president of Facebook, has contributed $400,000 to Prop. 63, a gun-control measure, and $3.8 million to support Prop. 64, which would legalize recreational marijuana.

Both initiatives are backed by Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was a guest at Parker’s 2013 wedding—a lavish Big Sur bash that infuriated environmentalists because it involved building a dance floor and other construction near an ancient redwood forest. Parker has given Newsom more than $56,000 for his 2018 run for governor.

Parker did not respond to an interview request. Prop. 64 spokesman Jason Kinney said in a statement that Parker supports making marijuana use legal for adults as “an important cause for social justice.”