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2020 candidate Tom Steyer talks HBCUs, presidential campaign in SC

Tom Steyer

Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer speaks at Allen University in Columbia on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer on Tuesday proposed investing $125 billion over 10 years in historically black colleges and universities as he works to gain ground in the early-voting primary state of South Carolina.

By spending millions of his own personal fortune on the campaign, the billionaire former hedge fund manager and longtime liberal activist has risen from a little-known outsider to become a credible contender in the polls and a fixture on the Democratic debate stages.

His HBCU proposal would also promote studies in innovation, foster community partnerships and establish a Board of Regents to oversee all 101 institutions nationwide — eight of which can be found in the Palmetto State.

Steyer sat down with The Post and Courier to talk more about his proposal and campaign. The following transcript has been edited and condensed.

Why do you believe it is important to spend this much money on HBCUs?

These are institutions that were designed specifically to combat historic racism and prejudice, that do fulfill those roles and that have been starved for capital. If you take a look, they have seen 42 percent of their federal funding disappear from 2003 to 2015. These are schools that have relied traditionally disproportionately on tuition. So we have the poorest people with institutions that don't have great state support or equivalent state support, don't have great federal support and don't have huge endowments. So they've really been struggling economically at the same time that they're at least as critical as they've ever been in terms of offering that opportunity to low-income African Americans. So it's really important that these institutions for a variety of reasons be supported and strengthened.

Where would the money come from?

Normally, the way the federal government works is you don't have dedicated sources of income for programs. But I've been talking about raising taxes on high-income Americans that have been cut in my mind disastrously, raising taxes on big corporations, many of whom are paying zero, and also I'm in favor of the wealth tax. Look, everything in a budget is about priorities. There's an assumption in Washington, D.C., that nothing ever gets cut, so therefore anything that you do has to be paid for entirely from new revenues, and that's honestly the implicit assumption of your question. That's a disastrous assumption.

So what do you see as potential areas for cutting?

Well, I'll tell you one thing, I don't think we should spend $7 trillion again on Middle Eastern wars, but that's just me.

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Many of the Democratic presidential candidates have already said they want to strengthen HBCUs. What makes you different?

This is a robust program. So what separates me? I guess how much money I think it's worth, how essential I think it is.

You have also spent a lot of your own money on your campaign. That's prompted some criticism from opponents like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who said here in South Carolina the other day that billionaires shouldn't be able to buy their way onto the debate stage while senators like Kamala Harris or Kirsten Gillibrand have to drop out because they don't have enough financial resources to sustain their campaigns. What's your response to that?

The challenge for every single person in this race is their message. What do you have to say that's important and different, and do people trust you? Look, I've spent 10 years trying to — as an outsider — address specific, major problems in my home state and in the United States, and I've always put in blood, sweat, tears and money. That's exactly what I'm doing here. But that won't work one bit if I don't have something to say that's important and different and people don't trust it.

In the Donald Trump era, some Democrats are wary about electing another billionaire who has never held elected office. Do you think that's a legitimate concern?

I take that point. I spent a decade working in politics as an outsider and getting things done successfully. The other thing that's true is there's a reason Trump got elected. The people voting for him thought the system was broken. The system is broken. So the idea that someone from the outside who's worked for 10 years fighting corporations successfully and pushing for grassroots power down to the people is an illegitimate candidate for president? Maybe in a democracy that's working, but not in one that's totally broken.

You and every other candidate in this race are trying to catch up to former Vice President Joe Biden, who holds a significant lead in South Carolina. A lot of his supporters say they know him from his decades in politics, they trust him, they view him as "the safe choice" and the most likely to beat Trump. What do you say to them?

What's safe about a broken system? That you know it? If you look at what we're talking about in terms of breaking a corporate stranglehold on our government — not doing that, is that safe? We're talking about climate as a number one priority, where we don't have a choice but to change course and declare a state of emergency on day one. So is not declaring a state of emergency the safe choice?

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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