…because he’s been here for years.
After parallel careers in the private sector – in telecommunications and investment banking, an early and lucrative role at eBay and now as a prominent venture capitalist – and Democratic politics – a congressional staffer, Carter Administration energy official, state Public Utilities Commission aide and state party officer before his four years as state controller and his defeat in a hotly contested gubernatorial primary – Steve Westly is preparing to emerge onto the public scene once more, but he’s never really gone away.
I had lunch with Westly today at the Menlo Park office of the Westly Group, the clean-technology-and-social-change-minded investment outfit he founded in 2008. His team had reached out to me last week saying he wanted to catch up, as he intends to step up his political activity in coming months.
His visible political activity, that is – he has been quite busy, mostly behind the scenes, in recent years as a top-level fundraiser for President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
In fact, Republicans last year made Westly a poster boy for their accusations of President Obama’s “crony capitalism,” noting that after he raised more than $500,000 for Obama’s 2008 campaign and began serving on a special advisory panel to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, several companies in which the Westly Group had investments received more than half a billion in government support. The bulk of that sum was a $465 million Energy Department loan to electric-car manufacturer Tesla Motors, based in Palo Alto; Tesla announced in May that it had repaid the entire loan plus interest, nine years earlier than required.
Westly today repeated what he’d said last year: That he never talked to anyone at the Energy Department about any of his investments; that the advisory board held only public, videotaped meetings and never discussed investments; and that he never spoke with Chu or was even in his office.
He’s clearly proud of Tesla, and believes the company will set a new standard for U.S. and world auto manufacturing as the price of the cars’ high-performance batteries (the biggest cost in producing the cars, which now sell for at least around $60,000) continues to decline.
But although we talked about that and many other things – including his coaching of his kids’ athletic teams; the 17th Congressional District race, in which he’s supporting Democratic upstart Ro Khanna over incumbent Rep. Mike Honda; Lady Gaga; and immigration reform – that’s not really what we’d met to discuss.
Westly – now a few weeks shy of his 57th birthday – said he anticipates Gov. Jerry Brown easily will win re-election next year, but he’s looking further down the road to 2016 – when U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s current term will be up – and 2018, when Brown will be term-limited out and U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein’s term will expire.
“There will be opportunities,” he said, soon after discussing Khanna in terms that he might also apply to himself. “I think people more than ever want to see new blood, new ideas, and get away from partisanship.”
There will be rivals for those opportunites, for sure – Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Kamala Harris are among the most prominent of a long list of names who undoubtedly are eyeing those races.
But Westly has national ties to the Obama fundraising network; close relationships with Silicon Valley’s most prominent business figures; experience in statewide office; and very, very deep pockets of his own – he put $35.2 million of his own money into his last campaign.
He also has an advantage that he lacked when the more liberal state Treasurer Phil Angelides beat him in that 2006 gubernatorial primary: California’s new top-two primary system. The socially liberal but relatively-fiscally-conservative Westly could have a leg up in attracting nonpartisans, who now make up almost 21 percent of the state’s registered voters.