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Wall Street Superman to the Rescue

Hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer is succeeding where other richer-than-thous have failed: winning elections with an MBA mentality.

Steyer, whose net worth is estimated to be around $1.3 billion, bankrolled the passage of Proposition 39—and who knows what his next target will be?

"Can you give me a smirk?” the photographer asks. “A victorious smirk—like ‘Yeah, I won.’” You would think that a billionaire investor could flash a well-honed smirk on demand—don’t they teach that look at Stanford? But despite a reported net worth of $1.3 billion and a recent landslide political victory, Tom Steyer seems to lack the requisite smugness. Every attempt at miming arrogance dissolves into amused laughter. The photographer, getting nowhere with his subject, proposes another scenario: Steyer is to don a green T-shirt beneath his dress shirt and tie and then pretend to rip off his button-down like a “green Superman.” Steyer looks at the ground, considers the idea for a moment, and then—well, you can see the result right here.

Regardless of whether he’s capable of feigning smugness, Steyer has every right to feel good about himself after last November’s election. He is the person most responsible for the success of Proposition 39, which closed a corporate-tax loophole enjoyed by out-of-state companies—adding an estimated $1 billion to California’s coffers annually. Although that fact alone is enough to propel Steyer onto every progressive political blogger’s 2012 heroes list, the following one moves him right to the top: The proposition mandates that for the next five years, half of that new revenue (up to $550 million per year) must be used to fund “projects intended to improve energy efficiency and expand the use of alternative energy”—a provision that Steyer, green Superman that he is, ushered into existence.

That Prop. 39 won handily, passing with 61 percent of the vote, is a historic accomplishment. That it was the $30 million hobby-horse of a rich dude proposing a tax increase to create an enviro-bureaucracy makes its success downright astounding. “California’s political graveyard is littered with the bleached bones of wealthy men and women who have tried to buy initiative campaigns,” attests Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. Steve Bing’s oil tax, Boone Pickens’s alternative energy bonds, Peter Sperling’s renewable power mandates, and Molly Munger’s education reform are only a few recent examples. Again and again, California’s voters have shown their displeasure at being dragged into wealthy people’s crises of purpose.

But Steyer, whose long-standing idealism is combined with unquestionable business bona fides, may have less in common with Bing, Pickens, and Munger (or, for that matter, with Mr. Private Sector Problem Solver himself, Mitt Romney) than with another captain of industry turned political pragmatist: New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. In fact, Steyer lights up when I draw the Bloomberg comparison. “He’s the real deal,” he says. “Gave $50 million to the Sierra Club. What’s not to like?”

And, like Bloomberg, Steyer marches to the beat of his own drummer. In conversation, he is animated but deliberate, taking time to think before he speaks and demonstrating a modest old-school sensibility. He drives a 10-year-old Honda hybrid and always wears a red plaid tie (though he says that he may retire the look soon). While munching a snack of cashews and dried mango (and even offering to share), he proudly tells me that his Farallon Capital Management office at 1 Maritime Plaza in the Financial District saved a few bucks by buying a soda-making machine to replace canned sodas. He owns neither a private jet—he flies commercial—nor a sports team. He describes his ethnicity as “mutt.” He drinks Coors Light—or at least he did until he “had to give it up because of the gluten.” Essentially, he lives like an ordinary American—albeit one who happened to win the Powerball.