By Christopher Cadelago
Published: Sunday, May. 25, 2014 – 12:00 am
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 25, 2014 – 7:43 am

Bill Bloomfield, a businessman and real estate developer from Manhattan Beach, spent more than $7 million of his own money two years ago in a losing attempt to win a seat in Congress.

This election, Bloomfield is using his considerable wealth in a different way. He’s contributed about $1.5 million to support candidates he believes are practical and smart – people he knows personally, or those who have been recommended by a friend.

“What I believe is wrong with Sacramento and D.C. is that groups that have economic skin in the game very often have too much sway in what happens,” said Bloomfield, 63, who ran as an independent in his unsuccessful challenge of Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman. “I am looking for people that are willing to risk a re-election, risk the end of a political career, in order to do the right thing for our state and our country.”

With his change in tack, Bloomfield joins a fraternity of deep-pocketed California benefactors screening candidates through their own ideological filters and spending large sums to influence the outcome of elections. Others in the elite club are Republican Charles T. Munger Jr., a Stanford physicist and a son of Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger; and Democrat Tom Steyer, a billionaire former hedge-fund executive and progressive environmental activist.

Just a week ahead of the state’s primary election, Munger and Bloomfield rank Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, on the list of donors operating independently of candidates’ campaigns, trailing only the powerful California Teachers Association. By law, such donors cannot coordinate with campaigns but can contribute unlimited amounts. Bloomfield gives under his own name, and Munger spends through his PAC, Spirit of Democracy California.

Bloomfield has mostly spent on behalf of independents and Democrats, while Munger has continued in his recent role as the state’s chief GOP booster. Both men have chipped in to help Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari overcome Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly to advance to the general election.

Steyer and his wife have become top contributors to outside groups nationwide, including Steyer’s super PAC, NextGen Climate. On Wednesday, the group said it planned to spend $100 million this year to sway U.S. Senate and governors’ races across the U.S. with a focus on the environment and climate change.

The patrons and their aides acknowledge their involvement often sparks criticism that they are using their sizable bank accounts to satisfy their personal interests. But friends and supporters maintain the contributors are looking out for what they believe is in the public interest.

Bloomfield focuses on improving education and electing non-ideological candidates. Munger wants a strong two-party system that reflects the state’s diversity. Steyer is seeking to bring the threat of climate change to the forefront of political discourse.

“If you are somebody that feels very strongly about various things, and you have the money to back it up, God be with you. And I think that describes Charlie Munger and Tom Steyer,” said former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, adding “I trust (them) to do anything.”

Riordan said he has enjoyed getting to know Bloomfield, whom he supported against Waxman.

“In the long run, they are all open-minded, brilliant, successful people,” he said. “The open-minded will come down on the correct sides, because it’s not all about one issue.”

Fighting ‘big-oil Goliath’

In California, Steyer has largely stayed out of the primary but is expected to have a presence in the general election when Democrats fight for supermajorities in the Senate and Assembly. Chris Lehane, Steyer’s political strategist, said it was important for “truth, justice, democracy, our children and the planet that there exist effective governing margins in both chambers.”

Four years ago, Steyer contributed about $5 million to oppose a ballot measure sponsored by oil companies that would have rolled back California’s greenhouse-gas emissions law. He spent more than $32 million in 2012 on a voter-approved initiative that changed the way multistate corporations are taxed in California and directed the proceeds toward energy-saving projects in schools and public buildings.

Steyer, 56, remains interested in a possible ballot measure for 2016 that would require a local vote before additional oil-extraction permits would be approved. He is widely considered a potential candidate for statewide office in 2018 or beyond.

Next week, Steyer is scheduled to host a Democratic fundraiser with Vice President Joe Biden at his home in San Francisco. An opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, Steyer has already given $5 million to the super PAC protecting imperiled U.S. Senate Democrats. As part of the national effort, he has pledged to donate $50 million and raise another $50 million.

His multistate blitz is designed to lay the groundwork for Democrats in the 2016 presidential election and includes full-scale campaigns in Senate races in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire and governors’ races in Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine.

In a statement, Brook Hougesen of the National Republican Senatorial Committee said it was no secret Steyer “bought off Democrats for $100 million” and that she doubted it would work.

“The problem, of course, is that Tom Steyer doesn’t vote in New Hampshire, Michigan, Colorado or Iowa,” she said.

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